I decided to take Arabic when I entered grad school at Harvard last fall, convinced that I could learn more about the Middle East through close attention to the narrative of a first-year language class than in a reading seminar.
Knowing that learning to speak and read would take a few years, I set myself to the more immediate task of pigeon-holing my classmates, which became much easier with the advent of thefacebook.com in the spring semester.
After years of taking Chinese, I was thrilled at the complexity of the class demographic. Students of Mandarin generally fall into two camps, Looneys and Chings. These -- the actual surnames of my roommates during a Fulbright year in Beijing -- were the archetypes: eager (white) foreigners and the sons and daughters of the Chinese diaspora.
In "Arabic A," no such reduction was possible. There were Arab-American "heritage learners" of various national stripes, African-American Muslims, American Jews, Eritrean Christians, Los Angeles Persians, New York Turks, secular Israelis, Lebanese-Mexicans, Pakistani Singaporeans, and sons and daughters of Midwestern theology professors. I felt demographically justified only by the quirk of sharing roots with Professor William Granara, the second-generation Sicilian at the helm of Harvard's Arabic instruction.
Likewise, where Chinese instructors come in only two flavors -- mainland and Taiwanese -- Arabic instructors are more scattered. There was Mostafa Atamnia, the Algerian recently poached from Georgetown; Ahmed al-Rahim, the Iraqi featured regularly on WBUR; and Hikmet Yaman, the beloved Turkish graduate student who had been granted his own small section. I chose the elegant and erudite May Farhat, of Beirut and Somerville, Mass., whose Harvard doctorate is in Islamic art history.
The textbook in widespread use these days is Al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-'Arabiyya, literally "The Book in Introduction of Arabic," cooked up at Emory and published by Georgetown University Press. Its central drama revolves around Maha and Khalid abu-'ilaa, fictional college-age Arabs and distant cousins living in New York and Cairo respectively. Maha's father is a translator at the United Nations with a Ph.D. in comparative literature from University of California at Los Angeles, and her mother an admissions secretary at New York University. Khalid, recently left motherless by an auto accident, is a graduate student in the College of Trade at the University of Cairo, a concentration he chose when his father convinced him, in Arabic, that "literature has not to it a future."
With each new verbal mood and tense, Maha and Khalid meditate predictably on things Arab. Khalid complains that he can't go out when the extended family comes over for the Friday feast; Maha, in a rousing monologue entitled "I Am Neither American Nor Egyptian," explores her hybridity like any good doubly conscious po-co.
Along the way, particularly in the grainy videos that accompany each unit (Al-Kitaab dates from the early multimedia moment), we got veiled lessons in regional politics. Newscasters showed how Egyptian technology was good, as weather forecasters demarcated the boundaries of the Arab world. Leila, Maha's better-adjusted best friend, is the daughter of a Tunisian trader and an American beauty. Leila showed us, through her complexion, that Arab men were good enough for white women.
Harvard deems Al-Kitaab's final unit, in which the authors cast aside the reunited (and romantically involved) Khalid and Maha for a manifesto on the Arab claim to Jerusalem, too politically racy for its students. Still, it was impossible to keep the politics of either the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Iraq war out of the classroom. In March The New Yorker ran a "Coalition Provisional Authority Phrase Book" as its "Shouts & Murmurs" feature. That Friday May had us go to the blackboard and parse sentences like "I tried to build democracy in the Middle East and all I got was this lousy T-shirt."
In fact, identity politics made for unintended melodrama; one remained conscious of, even paranoid about, the fault lines. Our section leader, Ben Smith, remarked one day that of all his students, Assaf, an Israeli, had the easiest name to write. "I wonder what 'Assaf' means in Arabic," he mused aloud. Paging through the dictionary he brought to every class, he looked up in regret. "Here it is. 'Oppressor.'"
On the last day of class, as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld testified before Congress about the Iraqi prisoner-abuse scandal, we had ourselves a talent show. A Canadian rowing star strummed his Arabic version of Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Freebird." The first female president of Harvard Hillel recited original doggerel as her proud visiting mother watched on. The Turkish-American Crimson editorialist brought his PowerBook to the front of the classroom, drew a star and crescent on the blackboard, and cued an MP3 music file of the Algerian national anthem. Over the computer speakers, he sang:
We are soldiers in revolt for truth...May Farhat sat at a student desk, teary, marveling at how much we had learned.
When we spoke, nobody listened to us,
So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm
And the sound of machine guns as our melody.
Philip Anthony Tinari is a graduate student in East Asian studies at Harvard University.