What I Learned in Arabic Class (FrontPageMagazine.com) By John Williamson 05/23/05)
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Apropos of nothing in particular, I thought I would share with a few
readers some observations about a recently-completed course in Arabic
which I took over the past year at the University of Richmond. This
course was provided free to the public under the auspices of the U.S.
State Department. They provide these programs as a public service so
that foreign teachers of English from certain countries which are of
strategic interest to America can get to know us and we them. Last
year they offered Turkish and next year it will be Chinese.
As I enjoyed the Turkish course, I signed up for the Arabic this
time. There were about sixty students in the class at the beginning
of the year, but by the end only the hard-core remained – about a
dozen of us.
Our teacher was a beautiful and vivacious young woman from Syria –
here on a temporary visa. She was extremely well liked and brought a
very dynamic approach to teaching what is for Americans a difficult
language. From what we learned of her, she came from a prosperous
family in Damascus. She was the top student in her high school and
her brother was the top student in the whole city.
She was Muslim, but she dressed like a Westerner except for a scarf
which she usually wore. Although she did not have a car here, she
managed to do quite a bit of traveling – to New York City, to D.C.
and to Miami. From what we gathered, she had a great time everywhere
she went – made a lot of friends, went to a lot of parties. She
hosted a party for the students around Christmas time and she brought
out numerous Middle Eastern dishes.
Interestingly, she chose to make a side-trip to Germany in the
spring, and she said that she found the Germans to be unfriendly. She
disliked Germany and said that after she had been there only a couple
of days she couldn’t wait to get back home. By ‘home’ she meant
We also had, on an informal basis, an assistant instructor. He was
from Lebanon and was an undergraduate studying at one of the other
local colleges. During one of the drill sessions which he conducted,
he was trying to use the Arabic word for "against" in the sense
of "opposed to" and he illustrated it this way: "I am against the
At that, a couple of the students found it necessary to chime in
with "I’m against the war, too."
Not long afterwards we saw the events in Lebanon, where the people
rallied for freedom from Syrian occupation. Obviously this would not
have been possible if it were not for the 150,000 U.S. troops parked
next door in Iraq. As these events unfolded, I approached the
Lebanese-born instructor after class and asked him what he thought of
His response: Well, it’s what Bush wants. Bush wants democracy.
“But don’t you think it’s a good thing for Lebanon?” I pressed.
“Well, it’s what the U.S. wants,” he replied.
I spelled it out for him: “But don’t you think it would be good for
your country to be free of Syrian occupation so you can have
“I suppose so,” he said.
In April, we decided to throw a farewell banquet for our Syrian
teacher. This took place at a local restaurant and was very well
attended. There was a great deal of exchanging of mementos, pictures,
At the banquet table, I was seated across from one of the other
students, an adjunct professor of English at the University of
Richmond. She was a somewhat introverted individual who had a master
of fine arts degree with a specialty in poetry.
We were chatting about various things, including the work of David
Horowitz and Company and their efforts to try to bring some
ideological balance to the college campus. Now keep in mind that the
University of Richmond is a well-funded, conservative college –
founded by the Baptists – in the most conservative city in a very
conservative state. Last place in the world you would expect to find
a professor with Leftist views, correct?
As she was unfamiliar with FrontPageMag, I asked her what she liked
to read for political edification. She cited the Nation. No surprise
there, I suppose. What about televised news? I asked innocently.
Al Jazeera, she replied.
My jaw dropped. Al-Jazeera? The same Al-Jazeera that televises the
beheading of captured Americans?
Oh, yes, she said, “They’re quite objective.”
So here’s what I learned in Arabic class:
1. Foreigners who are achievement-oriented and optimistic seem to
think the U.S. is the best thing going. This is true even of those
who are living under repressive regimes; perhaps especially true of
2. Some people will always look a gift horse in the mouth, even if
the gift is an opportunity for self-determination.
3. A fine arts degree in poetry will not bring to life the deadened
sensibilities of someone who is unmoved by the public decapitation of
I also learned a little Arabic. But that seems almost beside the
point. (©2005 FrontPageMagazine.com 05/23/05)
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