Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Arabic Classes In America

[Image source]

Since 9/11, we have heard of the importance of more of us learning to speak Arabic. Indeed, more and more people today are studying the Arabic language, many of these students enrolled in community colleges and prestigious universities as well as uncounted others studying by using software such as Rosetta Stone. I personally know a few young people who have attempted such classes, only to abandon their study of Arabic; the reasons they gave me, their former teacher, were vague but typically included a level of discomfort with the material or the instructor.

A July 5, 2008 Washington Post commentary, written by a student at Harvard Law School, provides disturbing information about the material offered in such classes:
To study Arabic in America today is to be inducted into a world of longing, abandonment and regret. And that's before you even touch the political issues.

Most maps of the Middle East in "Al-Kitaab" [the curriculum used] do not include Israel, though a substantial minority of Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, are native Arabic speakers. Alongside simple Arabic poems, students read about anti-Western heroes such as Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The DVD that comes with "Al-Kitaab" includes footage of Nasser's mass rallies in Cairo -- including slogans in Arabic and French such as "Brother Nations in Struggle, We Are By Your Side." These scenes of totalitarian rage are fondly described by the narrator as "dreams of his youth."

The accompanying lesson describes the highlights of Nasser's career, including the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the formation of the United Arab Republic. No mention is made of Egypt's defeat in the Six-Day War or of Nasser's brutal, repressive rule. In my class, we were asked to recite a passage about Nasser to practice our vocalization. (I refused.)

The last lesson in the book -- which we skipped -- features Maha's mother speaking wistfully of her childhood in Palestine: "My childhood was taken from me!" Over mournful music on the DVD, she talks about returning to Jerusalem, as if she were a refugee, but the images suggest that she left voluntarily after the Six-Day War, when Israel offered citizenship to the Arab residents of East Jerusalem. The fact that Israel also claims Jerusalem as its capital is ignored.

My class watched three movies this semester, all with political themes. One was "West Beirut," which cast Christians as the prime bad guys in Lebanon's civil war (though, to be fair, there was plenty of hatred all around). Another was "The Tale of Three Jewels," an allegorical film about Palestinian nationalism that portrayed Israeli soldiers as bloodthirsty child-killers.

The third movie, "Destiny," told the story of the great medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes and his struggles against Islamic religious fundamentalism. It was a bit more nuanced than the first two. But the film omitted the fact that it was only through the Hebrew transcription of Averroes's writings by Jewish scholars in Egypt that his works were preserved for posterity.

Friends and relatives who have used "Al-Kitaab" at other American universities report similarly morose experiences.

[...]

...[T]here is something fundamentally wrong with this indoctrination into misery. Most introductory language classes avoid controversial political subjects. In fact, they often highlight the brighter side of different cultures. Particularly with the growing importance of Arabic, can't we do better?

The U.S. government has funded studies on anti-Semitism in Palestinian textbooks. Fairfax county officials have asked the State Department to investigate the teaching materials at a Saudi-funded school. "Al-Kitaab" is published by Georgetown University Press, with some assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Perhaps we should also be looking into the content of the federally funded materials used in Arabic programs at our own universities.
According a friend of mine who studied Arabic as a second language in Saudi Arabia, lessons in The Kingdom included material much unlike primer readers to which most of us are accustomed. Specifically, beginning lessons used phrases such as "The sword is on the table," "The sword is under the table," and "The sword is behind the curtain." Certainly those phrases and their message are quite different from the early readers I encountered as a child, those primers including phrases such as "The cat is on the mat" and "See Spot run"!

Via a Google search of how language shapes thinking, I found the following essay entitled "Semanticide," by William Murchison at Human Life Review 1999:

George Orwell's stress on the distortive possibilities available in language remains fresh because of his descriptive and prophetic powers. Nineteen Eighty-Four sears the recollection, notwithstanding that when the title-year in question actually got here, the distorters-the Soviets-were stumbling toward ruin. Orwell's lesson is clear: Language shapes thinking; thinking shapes action. When language means other than it must, for a particular possibility to reach fruition, somebody is going to propose a new way of talking, and of understanding.
As the West rightly pursues the study of Arabic, precautions must be taken that the classes are not those of indoctrination and propagandizing. Instead, we have institutions such as the Islamic Saudi Academy instructing our military in Arabic. What else is being taught in those Arabic-language classes?

1 comment:

Anna said...

Discover the artistic sophistication and visual splendor of South Arabian art- largely unknown in the west and never on view to the general public before. The Walters Art Museum presents Faces of Ancient Arabia coming July 20-September 7, 2008. If you are coming for a visit, take advantage of the limited time book a two night stay in one of Baltimore’s fabulous hotels, bed and breakfasts or inns and receive the third night FREE, between July 1 and September 1, 2008. Visit www.baltimore.org for details.