LSA Student Government voted on a resolution Wednesday evening to change the current textbook used in Arabic classes at the University of Michigan. The resolution passed unanimously, with 28 votes for and zero against or abstaining.
The book in question is called “al-Kitaab fii Ta’allum al-Arabiyya” — commonly referred to as “al-Kitaab” — which translates to “The Book in the Learning of Arabic.” The authors of the resolution are representatives LSA senior Ibtihal Makki and LSA juniors Nicholas Fadanelli and Ryan Gillerist, who also published a petition earlier this month on the issue.
According to the resolution, students take issue with the textbook because they believe it is highly politicized, which they think violates LSA’s promise to respect other cultures. When introducing the resolution, Gillerist outlined what he called the “problematic” nature of the textbook.
“The textbook that’s used in the Arabic program, as well as 96 percent of the Arabic programs around the country … it’s politically charged,” she said. “By the end of the first semester, you’re able to say, ‘My grandfather was a general in the army, my mother is a human rights lawyer who specialized in the Middle East’ but you can’t say, ‘My cat is orange.”
Makki, the main author of the resolution, is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. She believes the textbook needs to be replaced, and pointed out the seemingly backward order in which the book teaches Arabic vocabulary.
“The problem isn’t the words; the words are not bad in essence,” she said. “The problem is that you’re learning to say (United Nations and army general) before you learn how to say the colors, and the days of the week, and the months of the year; things that you would need if you were to go to an Arabic-speaking country and try to get around or try to communicate with people. You would need to know how to say these basic vocabulary words, which is how other languages at this university are taught. It’s making it seem like if you were to go to the Arabic world, you would probably talk about politics more than you would ask someone if they want to get lunch.”
Makki also takes issue with the website corresponding with the textbook, which she says portrays Arabs in a very stereotypical light.
“There’s an online component where you watch videos and the characters in it are represented in a very Orientalist way, where the women who are college-aged are not allowed to leave their house,” she said. “They only have aspirations to be stay-at-home moms.”
While Makki acknowledges many students take Arabic with intentions of using the skill for political purposes, she believes there should be a separate class for students wishing to expand their political vocabulary. This way, people like Makki who simply want to learn the language for the sake of learning the language don’t have to be subjected to the political “framework” that is being forced upon them with the current textbook.
Fadanelli also pointed to the form of the language that it teaches. It instructs students on the formal structure of the language that would only be used in official documents instead of teaching dialects that people actually speak in.
“We need to make sure there’s another textbook that actually uses dialect, because dialect is what people actually speak,” Fadanelli said.
In order to make any changes, LSA-SG representatives need to meet with the director of the Arabic program, but the current department head will be replaced at the end of the winter semester. For now, Makki and the other authors simply want to communicate that they take issue with this textbook.
“The resolution is saying that as representatives of LSA student body, we support any review and replacement of this textbook, and here are the reasons why,” Makki said.
Representatives also reviewed a resolution on declaring Indigenous Peoples’ Day a University-recognized holiday. Central Student Government passed a similar resolution two weeks ago. Makki said LSA-SG approved the resolution to display widespread support for the motion across the campus community.
Correction: The headline of this article has been changed to clarify that LSA Student Government cannot change the textbook used in Arabic courses, but rather expressed concern and encourages change in the department with the use of these materials.