Every year more and more Duke students are learning to say sabaah al-khayr—"good morning" in Arabic.
Since 2001, enrollment in Arabic classes has drastically grown, and the department is struggling to keep up with the demand. Next year it will add an instructor to the three it already has and make more classes available.
"I think most people attribute the increase to post-9/11 events, but it is over-simplifying the situation," said Ellen McLarney, assistant professor of the practice of Asian and African languages and literature. "People want to link it to hostile tensions, but they have existed for centuries."
Twenty-three students took elementary Arabic in Fall 2000, 33 in 2001, 34 in 2002, 45 in 2003 and a high of 58 in 2004. With the recruitment of a new professor, the number is expected to rise since the department has had to turn away a lot of students who wanted to take Arabic.
"Summer after the Sept. 11 events, parents were calling me and students were e-mailing me saying ‘I really, really want to do Arabic,'" said Miriam Cooke, professor of Asian and African languages and literature.
Students enrolled in Elementary Arabic had various reasons behind their desire to learn the Middle Eastern language. Some take it because of religious reasons, some in order to learn more about the culture and some because they think Arabic's influence has grown since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It definitely has to do with the geopolitical situation in the Middle East," said Leo Ching, chair of the Asian and African languages and literature department. "The Department of Education also pushed for more teaching in Arabic," he added.
Another reason is the mobilization to increase awareness of the culture. Since 1965, there has been constant immigration to the United States from non-European countries, and the number of Muslims in the United States is drastically increasing. "There is also a great deal of conversion to Islam," McLarney said.
At the beginning of each semester, McLarney goes around the room and asks students why they chose the course. "For some people it's just fascination, some take it because of religious reasons and some just because of their ambition," she said.
When freshman Zoe Baer came to Duke, she knew she wanted to major in African languages. She wanted to take Swahili, but that was not offered. Baer said she wanted to go to Africa and speak a language when she went there. She took French in high school, where she was first exposed to Arabic script. "I thought it was beautiful," Baer said. She also felt she did not know enough about Islamic culture.
She then decided to learn Arabic and go to Morocco. "I want to become fluent," she said.
She is not the only one who wants to study in an Arabic-speaking country. Sophomore Mary Maher, who also takes Elementary Arabic, wants to spend a semester at American University in Cairo, Egypt. She said many people speak English in Europe and Asia. "That isn't always the case in the Middle East," she noted.
Junior Yousef Mian, however, wanted to explore the language of his religion. "Arabic has a central role in Islam," he said. "The U.S. foreign policy is much involved with the Arab world and knowing it would help me," Mian added.
McLarney pointed out that students embark on a process of discovery of a "culture very hidden to them, since it is not a part of the American culture."
She added that some students have difficulty with the language, but the challenge stimulates them, and they perform at the highest levels.
McLarney highlighted the current miscommunication and misunderstanding between America and the Middle East. "There is a lot of potential to nurture a growing field," she said. "It would be a serious failure on Duke's part if it loses the opportunity [to help create] a new generation of people who are able to communicate."