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Teaching Arabic and Propaganda

By Joel B. Pollak
Saturday, July 5, 2008

At Harvard, the star of Arabic A is a girl named Maha. Maha Muhammed Abulaal, to be precise. She's the pouty protagonist in the melodrama that runs throughout "Al-Kitaab," the standard beginning text in Arabic classes at Harvard and other American universities.

We are taught to speak our first Arabic sentences by expressing Maha's incurable angst. We learn in Chapter 1 that Maha is desperately lonely. In later chapters, we are told that she hates New York, has no boyfriend and resents her mother.

Soon we encounter her equally depressing relatives in Egypt -- such as her first cousin Khalid, whose mother died in a car accident and who was forced to study business administration after his father told him literature "has no future."

Like Maha, Khalid is loveless; his only romantic prospect ran away with a rich engineer. The family eventually intervenes with plans to marry the cousins off to each other. This makes everyone equally unhappy.

Then the story ends.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, the number of Americans studying Arabic has more than doubled. Nearly 24,000 U.S. students enrolled in Arabic classes in the fall of 2006, the Modern Language Association reported in November. In 2002, 264 colleges offered Arabic; as of the 2006-07 academic year, 466 did.

Young, ambitious Americans are responding constructively to our country's new challenges by demanding Arabic classes. But there are not enough teachers to meet this demand, and the available textbooks are suffused with the stale prejudices and preoccupations of the pre-Sept. 11 Middle East.

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" 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. At several colleges and high schools, students have created Facebook profiles for Maha. The Harvard profile for Maha informs visitors in the "About Me" section: "I'm pretty lonely. I only have one friend. My parents are always busy."

We may laugh, but there 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. Learning Arabic should not include lessons in political propaganda.

The writer is a student at Harvard Law School.

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