الأمم المتحدة and bananas

Despite the growing number of people in the United States and across the planet studying Arabic, it still remains a fairly small world. It is possible to study Arabic at hundreds of universities across the United States and internationally, but there are about ten elite schools (list included below) which maintain a reputation for being the top institutions of training in the Arabic language. The farther you continue in your Arabic education and the more advanced you become, the fewer students remain among you as linguistic peers. Training options decrease until students begin to matriculate into a small number of schools which offer courses designed to obtain near fluency. Additionally, for the most part, everyone in the US and abroad use the same book, a series called al-Kitaab published by Georgetown University Press. The universality of this book provides a practical guarantee that any two students of Arabic could sit down and compare their progress in the language and, accounting for their experiences with local dialects, understand exactly how much farther one is than the other in their linguistic education, and what one would have to do to catch up with the other.

When I first arrived at Qasid Institute, I was both intimated at how talented all of the other students here were and surprised to learn how much I had in common with a majority of the them outside of our linguistic education. I call us “passport addicted”- determined to acquire as many stamps and absorb as much culture as possible. Unattached to the concept of long-term consistency, instead valuing daily variation in experience. Back at UPS, there are only a few Arabic students remaining at my level, and so there isn’t much to compare in terms of career ambitions. But the ubiquity of our similarly lofty goals can be a uniting factor or a divisive one, and the lack of clarity in these social relationships can lead to an underlying tension which permeates the new friendships we attempt to build.

To further explain, there are approximately 450 students studying Modern Standard, Classical and Ammiya Arabic at Qasid this summer. We come from universities across the United States, Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We all have different backgrounds in Arabic, but we are receiving reputably valued training from the same educational institute, a method of leveling the playing field to some extent. Most of us want to work for a government agency, non-governmental organization or reputable news source. Despite the multitude of existent potential future employers, the prestigious positions we seek are limited and highly competitive. Even if we value each other’s company currently, in just a few years, we will be seeing each other again, perhaps in this city, elsewhere in the Middle East, or in D.C. It has been nearly impossible for me to not view my peers in this program as, to some extent, my competition.

Here at Qasid have twenty to thirty hours of class per week. Even on our most poor performing days, when we stumble into the classroom at five-past-eight, quietly mumble “assalam alaykum” in greeting, and proceed to down three cups of coffee before becoming remotely coherent, this program is not a joke to anyone. Depending on how well we wield the skills and contacts obtained while we are here, this program can be a flying leap in our careers, a reality which no one is willing to overlook. Many of the students here have received scholarships in the thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars to be here from renowned institutions such as Boren or the State Department.

Sometimes our classes feel relatively normal. We play memory games, like Hangman and Hot Seat, to help us remember vast amounts of vocabulary, do grammar drills, and give presentations on history and culture. Frequently we watch short video clips, such as the montage from Up, and write different endings to the stories (in which Ellie lives). But occasionally, class feels like more than simply that. When we have debates about current events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, or discuss complex political struggles, such as the search for solutions to the Isreali/Palestinian conflict, I feel like we are doing more than just attending class. We are actively learning how to craft our personal arguments in order to be able to more fluently add to the ongoing dialogue about the Middle East.

When our professors instruct us to focus on using new vocabulary and not articulating events or facts accurately, it is even more clear when an opinion is being expressed within a class discussion. It is obvious when someone feels strongly enough about a particular subject to take the time to say with correct grammar. You can feel the tension in the room when we attempt to debate issues that are currently affecting the lives of people are the globe. We are, in reality, training for careers in diplomacy or journalism. Sometimes even learning the correct pronunciation of a single word feels like a tangible step toward creating our paths in the worlds of politics, economics, or media in the Middle East. Within a single given hour, you can witness our futures taking shape in front of us.

With all the stress of the multitude of hours of daily class, and the consistent questioning of new friendships, it is vitally important to find something to bring joy into the day, especially in middle of our four hour blocks. Given our near universal use of al-Kitaab, Arabic students (yes, in general around the globe) have a running joke that even professors are in on. Due to the political background (professors at SFS at Georgetown) of the authors of the al-Kitaab series, when choosing a phrase to use to teach us an important grammatical concept that must be learned early in the first year of Arabic, they selected ‘United Nations’. Now almost every Arabic student finds it amusing to point out that he or she knows the phrase for United Nations and still doesn’t know how to say ‘banana’. Even though we are continuing with the al-Kitaab series here at Qasid (through the end of Level 3), our administrators promised that in addition to words like ‘discrimination’ and ‘protest’, we would learn finally learn how to say banana.



A Selection of the Best/Most Well-Known Arabic Schools in the World

School of Foreign Service at Georgetown (D.C., United States)

University of Texas at Austin (Austin, Texas)

Middlebury College (Middlebury, Vermont)

Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (Monterey, California)

Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (Monterey, California)

School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London (London, England)

American University of Cairo (Cairo, Egypt)

Qasid Institute (Amman, Jordan)

Sultan Qaboos College (Muscat, Oman)

Salam wa Lawh Center for Arabic Studies (Rabat, Morocco)


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