So then why do I feel constantly corralled into working in politics or with the US government? Why don’t those who study French or Spanish receive the same line of questioning? The short and easy answer is because the relationship between the US and most Arabic-speaking countries is highly political.
My experience learning Arabic has been a beautiful, yet highly politicized one.
The vocabulary found in the first chapter of Al-Kitaab, one of the most widely used Arabic textbooks; the terms “Palestinian” and “The United Nations” are nestled amongst the verbs to “study” and to “work.” In the second chapter , we encounter the words for “army,” “officer,” “international relations,” and “religion.” Chapter three includes how to say “The Rightly-Guided Caliphs” among other vocabulary words. If I had to guess, no Italian, French, or Spanish textbooks would consider it appropriate to confront students with the word “The United Nations” in the first lesson. While “Palestinian” is not an outwardly political term, it does feel that way considering the chapter does not cover how to say Jordanian, Lebanese, or Algerian.
I do not think that learning these words early on is a bad thing , but it is unusual because other languages are not taught this way. Show me a textbook in which such politically charged terms are introduced so early on. If Jane Doe decides Arabic is too difficult after the first semester, at least she can still discuss military strategy and international intervention policies. Contrastingly, Jon Doe who dropped French after a semester can only discuss what he wants to do over the weekend.
I was not made aware of the political undertones of my textbooks and my experience with the Arabic language until I was studying abroad in Amman, Jordan. My host mother often put on a news channel that displayed what appeared to be a newspaper page with several articles. Every few moments the page would “flip” and show a new grouping of articles. Considering the political climate surrounding Jordan at the time (Fall, 2015) it is unsurprising that the majority of the news stories were politically related. And the fantastic thing was that I could understand a fair amount of what the articles were saying. Moments later, when my host sister would make a joke in Arabic and I would awkwardly laugh just because I didn’t want to be left out of a joke, she would nod at me to say “you understood that?” To which I would admit that I had no idea what they were talking about. More often than not it was not a political joke. It was just small talk. But it was lost on me.
Several months into my time in Amman, a fellow Arabic major from my university was telling me about the course she was taking called “Arabic in the Media.” She told me she was learning a lot of vocabulary such as “suicide belt” and “bomb.” I distinctly remember how useful those words must be. But why? I found myself interested in seeking out vocabulary that would elevate my language when discussing politics or foreign affairs, but would do little to help me connect with the members of my host family. I was becoming increasingly comfortable interacting with the Jordanian media, but increasingly nervous about interacting with Jordanians themselves.
This was not a total loss, however, because if you have been to Jordan, you will know that Jordanians love to talk politics. And so that’s precisely what I did. In taxis I would announce that I was indeed from America (it was usually the topic of discussion) and wait to see if the taxi driver was in the mood to discuss American intervention into the Middle East. One of the reasons I loved these discussions was because Jordanians never saw me as my government. I was never an object of their anger or hurt or betrayal. And so that’s how I interacted with Jordanians. It was rarely through conversations about my favorite Jordanian dishes or where I had travelled, but rather about the war in Syria or how Donald Trump could never possibly become president.
But reflecting upon my time in Jordan, I truly regret not pushing myself. I regret staying in what, at that moment in time, felt like a comfort zone. I could discuss food, religion, and politics. And that’s mostly what I discussed for four months. But I found that these discussions left me on the outskirts of Jordanian culture.
The politicization of Arabic in higher education is not surprising considering the political atmosphere of the times. The vast majority of people who are enrolled in Arabic courses intend to pursue a career in politics. This is evident in the sharp spike in enrollment in Arabic courses following the 9/11 attacks. A report done by the Modern Language Association found that American student enrollment in Arabic language courses grew by 126.5% from 2002 to 2006. Chances are, the spike in students studying Arabic was not caused because there was a sudden interest in the study of Arab culture.
As I am writing this I can’t help but feel hypocritical because the chances of me using Arabic in political settings or with political motives in the future is not unlikely. But, at the same time, my intention in writing this article is not to condemn the politicization of the language but rather ask: What are we losing in doing so?
Arabic is a rich language that allows those who learn the language to communicate with people in the Arabic-speaking world. But if the only motive for learning the language is to go into politics, I believe that is a disservice to ourselves and a disservice to the Arab world.
More than all of the political debates I immersed myself in, more than the news blurbs I was able to read, what I miss most about speaking Arabic in Jordan is the small yet beautiful details of the language. I miss greeting my program managers with a common phrase that roughly translates to “morning of roses” and receiving in response a hope for a “morning of light”.