Op-Ed: Depoliticize Arabic studies

Sunday, January 29, 2017 - 10:16am

The College of LSA language requirement asserts that, “informed respect for other cultures (and) tolerance … are the hallmarks of a liberal arts education, and the study of foreign languages fosters precisely these capacities.” In my experience, however, these capacities are not promoted equally by all language departments at the University of Michigan. Specifically, our Arabic program, which uses the problematic textbook, “al-Kitaab fii Ta'allum al-Arabiyya,” which translates to “The Book in the Learning of Arabic” (hereafter: “al-Kitaab,” “The Book”).

As a daughter of Lebanese immigrants, during my 18 years living in an Arabic-speaking household before college, I never heard either of my parents use the Arabic term for “United Nations.” Bearing this in mind, imagine my confusion as “al'umam almuttahida,” the UN, was introduced in Lesson One of “al-Kitaab.” Vocabulary terms in Lesson Two included translation, translator, specializing and admissions. Lesson Three included Army, officer (in an army) and political science.

Lesson 10 dedicates a section to learning about the non-Arab “Ayatollah,” or the supreme leader, of Iran. The terms for “to play,” “sports,” “running,” “life” and “hobby” are not introduced until Lesson Six. Additionally, the online companion regularly includes Orientalist depictions of Arabs, including young women marrying older male cousins with aspirations to be stay-at-home moms, college students not permitted to leave their homes and various arranged marriages.

The way in which languages are taught is a reflection of how they are perceived to be utilized and it is inaccurate to indicate that such terms are more important to Arabic communication than the colors, numbers greater than 10, days of the week and months of the year — taught in the second, third and fourth semesters of Arabic. Many of these terms may seem harmless as they stand alone. However, in considering the context of “The Book” as a whole, after completing 15 credits of Arabic, students can say "my uncle is an army general,” but not “my uncle has green eyes.”

Students can say, “I hope to major in political science, specialize in translation of Arabic news and work for the UN” but not, “I hope to write poetry.” As a University that is proactively promoting inclusivity and understanding through the plan for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, it should not be acceptable to use a book that teaches the word for “oil” before the verb “to think.”

Teaching Arabic through this blatantly politically charged lens has problematic educational and social implications, necessitating analysis and constructive criticism. If the University regards second language acquisition as providing “deep awareness of linguistic and cultural differences and a means to bridge them,” as is stated on the LSA website, then it is the responsibility of our language departments to uphold that vision. Utilizing a textbook that prioritizes politicized vocabulary only serves to perpetuate negative generalizations about Arab culture and does not portray an accurate representation of my culture, my family or myself. This concern is further exacerbated when considering that Arabic 101 may be many students’ first formal introduction to the language and culture and, as such, they may be less equipped to recognize these biases and divorce them from reality.  

The dominant traits inherent to Arab culture — which emphasizes hospitality and generosity, cherishes family and food and appreciates literature and music — should not be lost to the global discourses that have undoubtedly been restricted to conflicts, politics and security. I am not oblivious to the fact that many students enroll in Arabic classes in pursuit of relevant professions at the UN, Department of State and any other number of synonymous assemblies. The questions remain, however: Why does the Arabic program cater to these students, and why am I automatically subjected to this framework?

It would be more appropriate for the Department of Near Eastern Studies to adopt a different textbook and create a separate, advanced class for students proficient in Arabic who wish to expand their political vocabulary. I am aware that the majority of American universities use “al-Kitaab,” as the grammar lessons are effective. However, if this book is recognized as problematic and enabling harmful stereotypes, then the University should search for a better book — or write one.

Ibtihal Makki is an LSA senior.