KALONA, Iowa: Zahra Al-Attar drove down the two-lane highway from Iowa City to her morning classes here. As she entered Kalona, population 2,200 and change, she rolled past the harness shop and the veterinary clinic, those reminders of her dislocation. She noticed, too, a horse-drawn buggy on the shoulder, an unexpected cue for memory.
When she was growing up in Baghdad nearly 40 years ago, she had ridden a similar cart to school. On occasion, the driver would let her hold the reins. Here and now, the buggies belong to the Amish. And into their part of Iowa, she had come to teach Arabic.
While the Amish do not send their children to the public schools, considering them too worldly, Ms. Al-Attar's students at Kalona Elementary are the sons and daughters of Mennonite families who have been here for generations, or of Germans and Czechs who arrived in Iowa a century before the new teacher.
Yet when Ms. Al-Attar bounded into a kindergarten early last month, one Muslim in a roomful of Caitlins and Haileys, the walls decorated with paper candy canes for Christmas, she was greeted with the chirping chorus of an Arabic song. Over the next 30 minutes, until the first period ended, Ms. Al-Attar led the class through the Arabic numbers 13 through 19 and the Arabic words for "hand" and "pencil." Together, they sang an alphabet song, with the letters pegged to familiar objects like a duck, a lemon, the sun.
Two hours later, when Ms. Al-Attar took her first break, she said with a touch of rapture, "Every day, I'm like, whoa, how did this happen?"
This happened because in the early 1980s, a young woman named Susan Swartzendruber moved from the Kalona area to an Egyptian village to teach English as part of a Mennonite social service program. During three years in the Nile Delta, Ms. Swartzendruber learned a passable version of Arabic and acquired the habit of defying global divides.
Two years ago, while teaching in Kalona and studying at a local college for her certification to teach English as a second language, Ms. Swartzendruber heard from her professor about a new federal grant — the Foreign Language Acquisition Program — that would provide money for schools to teach languages of strategic importance. Ms. Swartzendruber persuaded her superiors in the Mid-Prairie School District here to apply, and in the summer of 2006, it received a $200,000 grant that covers three years of classes.
About the same time, a member of Ms. Al-Attar's mosque in Iowa City, 20 miles north of Kalona, called her attention to a flier on the bulletin board that was advertising for a native Arabic speaker to teach in a nearby town. Ms. Al-Attar's academic and professional background had mostly been in business, including several years as a personal banker in Atlanta. But having followed her husband, a professor of medicine, to the University of Iowa, and with two toddlers, she had worked most recently in an after-school activity program.
Her life had known stranger twists, some of them life-threatening. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein had expelled her family because of its strain of Persian ancestry. When President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles to be fired into Baghdad in 1998 to force Mr. Hussein to cooperate with arms inspectors, Ms. Al-Attar said, one intended for an intelligence services building killed a friend's parents in their home.
So last fall, in the second year of the federal grant, Ms. Al-Attar's peripatetic path delivered her to Kalona Elementary School. Each week, all 230 pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade receive two 30-minute lessons from Ms. Al-Attar. The children use, and will keep, three Arabic textbooks apiece, ordered from Jordan.
The books can barely compete with Ms. Al-Attar's energy and invention. She has taught Arabic through maps, glossaries, bingo games and pictures of imaginary islands. One of her favorite props is a small rubber model of a brain. She has made sure to introduce words with immediate resonance, like "thura" for "corn" and " baqara" for "cow," even if the students' transgressive favorite seems to be "hammam" for "bathroom."
But in a static, homogenous place, even such innocuous lessons carry risk. Some early foes of the Arabic program asked why Iowa children should be learning "the language of the enemy." Jim Cayton, the principal, heard complaints that Christians were being taught to be Muslims.
"Of course I was worried," Ms. Swartzendruber said. "There's almost no diversity here, and most people have been here forever. But I thought, all the more reason to do it here. What better way to break down the stereotype than to see the person, know the person."
In addressing local fears, it helped that school officials could say that the grant had been created by the Bush administration. It helped that the program avoids religion entirely. It helped, too, that Ms. Al-Attar does not wear the traditional hijab, or head scarf, and that she speaks fluent English, albeit with an Iraqi accent.
Besides teaching her classes, Ms. Al-Attar has established an Arabic culture club, which draws about 35 students, parents and staff members to meetings once a month. She has brought her family to Kalona for ice cream socials and bike-safety rallies. "When I first started, I thought, ‘Wow, Arabic in Kalona? What's this going to be like?'" Ms. Al-Attar said. "But everyone has been so welcoming."
One recent Tuesday, she was guest speaker at the Kalona Rotary Club luncheon, tucking into the Swiss steak before speaking about her curriculum and her family's life under Mr. Hussein. One man asked her to translate aloud part of the Rotary newsletter, The Kalonian, into Arabic. When Ms. Al-Attar finished, the audience applauded.
Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University. His e-mail is email@example.com.