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The American Face of Arabic

Western culture abounds inside a Shahan Hall classroom on a warm late-August morning. Nike sneakers tap the floor; cell phones deck tabletops; and wristbands of red, yellow or green adorn bare wrists, the latest trend in American social campaigns.

But at the whiteboard at the front of the room, East decidedly meets West, with one man as the cultural gatekeeper.

“Can anyone read this for me?” Semitics instructor Shawqi Talia asks the class. A fatherly figure, his crown of grey hair contrasts with his startlingly black eyebrows. Turning back toward the board, Talia picks up a marker. A series of loops, curves, dashes and dots appears across the board in a sweeping, easy motion.

To an outsider, it’s Greek. To these students, it’s the beginnings of Arabic.

Talia puts down his chalk and a mischievous smile creeps across his face as he scans the room for a volunteer to translate.

A sophomore in the back squints his eyes, as if the deeper stare might reveal some hidden clue. “Ad…ductoor?” he hesitantly offers.

“Very good,” Talia says grinning as he turns to write “Ph.D.” — one meaning of the word — in English beside the Arabic script. “Hopefully someday all of you will have this title,” he adds wryly.

Talia’s forecast are already partly fulfilled — two of his 12 fall-semester students are sitting CUA professors, a fact that speaks to the buzz that Introduction to Classical Arabic has generated since the graduate-level course opened to undergraduates last year. Now a hodgepodge of underclassmen, graduate students and faculty fill the seats of Shahan 209, where students will begin to learn the tenets of Arabic — and the cultural history that shaped it.

In fact, the interest in learning Arabic and understanding Islam has prompted CUA to recently approve a new minor in Arabic and Islamic studies.

“A language is not taught in a vacuum,” Talia tells his students on their first day. The words “Arab” and “Muslim” certainly are not interchangeable, but learning Arabic, Talia says, can provide greater understanding of a religion that is often misunderstood.

“Islam is not just a religion,” Talia explains. “It is the civilization of a people, manifested in history, literature and religion. I want you to have a picture of an entire culture, not just one corner of a picture.”

Talia is certainly another vibrant corner of the larger Arabic canvas. Born in Iraq, he isn’t Muslim, but rather an Aramaic-speaking Chaldean Catholic. After coming to the United States he enrolled at CUA in 1972 to earn his Ph.D. in Semitics, the study of the languages, history, religions and cultures of the Semitic peoples. While a student, he began working for the U.S. State Department as a an English-Arabic interpreter, a job he held for the next three decades. He returned to CUA six years ago to teach Arabic and Islamic studies.

The undergraduates seated before Talia have signed up for this hefty six-credit, five-day-a-week course for a variety of reasons: A sophomore says he plans to join the Foreign Service, a freshman offers that she’d like to learn the native tongue of her Egyptian-born mother, another sophomore in the front row admits she simply thought the language “sounded cool.” But as Talia makes his way around the class, asking what drew them here, a pattern begins to unfold: military intelligence, government, the Foreign Service, foreign diplomacy.

“The current world situation makes it imperative that we do a much better job of learning to understand and communicate with other cultures,” says Stephen Wright, a CUA professor of English who audited the first five weeks of the course.

The “current world situation” that Wright refers to is what many have dubbed a “post-9/11 world.” The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq have put Middle East affairs at the top of the headlines and the front of American consciousness, fueling a soaring interest in learning Arabic and a critical need for Arabic speakers in government.

A Modern Language Association survey found that the number of students enrolled in Arabic language courses at U.S. colleges nearly doubled from fall 1998 to fall 2002 — the largest growth rate for any foreign language during that period. This has occurred despite an uphill learning curve: The State Department ranks Arabic as one of the most difficult tongues for Americans to learn.

CUA’s Department of Semitic and Egyptian Languages and Literatures, with its Institute of Christian Oriental Research, is located in a cavernous basement suite of the John K. Mullen of Denver Memorial Library, and it resembles an archive more than an office. Ancient artifacts and a world-renowned collection of rare Near Eastern texts share space in these rooms with the latest research publications and electronic media.

It is within these book-lined walls that students taking Introduction to Arabic meet twice a week for small-group language drills. Seated around a wooden table, three of those students are greeted by Sirine Mabrouk, a visiting Junior Fulbright scholar from North Africa with a strong but soft Tunisian accent. She will act as Talia’s teaching assistant for the year.

The drills serve to clarify and hammer in grammatical rules, proper pronunciation and vocabulary learned during previous class sessions. The students take out last night’s homework — exercises on translating short sentences from Arabic to English and vice versa — to correct together.

“Rajul — Rajula….” one student meekly stumbles over the script before her.

“Rajulun,” Mabrouk gently assists.

They continue on for the hour-long session, trepidation and uncertainty accenting every syllable. And if learning to correctly pronounce the words proves difficult, writing and understanding the script presents an equal challenge. Arabic is written from right to left. Its words may or may not have vowels, which means different words may look the same (as an analogy, think of “like” and “look” both being written as “lk”). This makes understanding the context a critical translation tool.

These hurdles have prompted sophomore Joe Loeffler to create more than 200 flashcards, in addition to doing his daily Arabic homework. “The world keeps getting smaller and more connected,” says the determined student, who hopes to use Arabic after college, ideally in a government job in the Middle East. “We really should not have to rely on a few people to translate everything.”

Loeffler, a mechanical engineering major who is taking five other courses in addition to Arabic, says being constantly exposed to the language — in class, drills, hours of homework and additional flashcard self-quizzing — is the best way to learn it.

Keeping up with the demands of the course, combined with the adjustment to college life, is what freshman Christina Strain finds particularly challenging. Hoping to learn her Egyptian mother’s native language, she signed up for the course without realizing it had until recently been exclusively for graduate students.

Still, her investment of effort has begun paying some dividends.

“The other night I was in my dorm and there was this girl talking on the phone in Arabic,” says Strain. “I could understand what she was saying. That was cool.”

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Revised: March 2007

All contents copyright © 2007.
The Catholic University of America,
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