What I Learned in Arabic Class · 22 May 2005

By John Williamson--FrontPageMag.com--05/23/05

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 America.

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 war."

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 these developments.

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 democracy?"

"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, etc.

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."

Oh, obviously!

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 them.

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 one's countrymen.

I also learned a little Arabic. But that seems almost beside the point.

John Williamson is a contributor to The Anti-Chomsky Reader.