With the media’s attention and career opportunities geared more than ever on the Middle East, enrollment in the University’s Arabic language classes has increased by 40 percent, while the number of introductory Arabic sections being taught has gone from two before 2001, to six last semester.
This pattern follows a national trend from at least the last seven years, which shows that the number of both undergraduate and graduate students taking Arabic courses more than doubled in the years between 1998 — when those students began their studies — and 2002, according to a Modern Language Association study. During this same time period, 76 institutions around the country added new Arabic language programs, bringing the total number in the United States to 233.
The 9/11 Commission Report found that most government translators are not proficient enough in Arabic to keep up with the language’s nuances; and it recommended increased hiring and training. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the Federal Bureau of Investigation has hired more than 700 new translators. Moreover, in 2002 the total number of Arabic undergraduate degrees granted by U.S. colleges and universities was six, according to the 9/11 Commission Report released in July 2004.
Many University students of Arabic said they view Arabic proficiency as a useful skill because of this recent demand for translators. LSA sophomore Leslie Gutierrez said she felt that knowledge of Arabic would set her apart and help her to achieve her goal of pursuing a career in the FBI. LSA sophomore Nick Link echoed Gutierrez’s statement, saying that the need for Arabic translators influenced his decision to study the language.
“I don’t know what I want to do, but I’m sure that Arabic will help me in anything I choose,” he added.
The University’s recent addition of a study abroad program in Cairo, Egypt also reflects interest in the region. The program, which was initiated during the Fall 2004, is a shared study program between the University and the American University in Cairo. Currently there are only one or two students from the University participating in the program, but Carol Dickerman, director of the Office of International Programs, said she is hopeful that others will take advantage of this opportunity in the coming years.
As interest in the region grows, the OIP is also working with the departments of Near Eastern Studies and Middle Eastern and North African Studies to consider other study-abroad options, Dickerman said.
The increase in media focus on the Middle East has also led many students of Arab or Muslim descent to enroll in Arabic classes in order to learn more about their own cultures or the language of the Quran, said Fawzia Bariun, a lecturer for Arabic 102.
However, media portrayals of Arabic culture have also had a negative effect on the participation of some Arab students in the community, said Mahmoud Fadlallah, LSA alum and international relations chair of the Arab Student Association.
Fadlallah said while many students of Arab or Muslim descent who may not have previously affiliated themselves with Arab culture have become interested in it, there are also many Arab students who have chosen to disassociate themselves with the Arab community because of the negative media portrayals of the culture, creating a polarization between those who are very involved in Arab life and those who are completely uninvolved.
“As much as (the media) served to help, it has served to hamper,” Fadlallah said.
In spite of the rise in popularity of Arabic, members of the Arab and Muslim communities say they must still deal with negative perceptions of their cultures on a daily basis.
While Amjad Tarsin, LSA junior and Islam Awareness chair for the Muslim Students’ Association, said he has not experienced any direct acts of prejudice, but added he has noticed that people on campus seem more wary of him when he wears a kufi — a traditional Muslim hat.
“Generally people are more friendly when I’m not wearing it,” Tarsin said.
The same media attention that has led to the rise in interest in Arabic language courses has also intensified stereotypical portrayals of Arabs, especially Muslim Arabs, Tarsin said.
A study by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission released last June indicates that Tarsin’s experiences are not isolated. The study found that incidents of racism, abuse and violence against Arabs and Muslims around the country have increased greatly since Sept. 2001.
Jory Hearst, an RC sophomore taking Arabic 102, said she believes that one reason negative stereotypes persist is the lack of interaction with people living in the Middle East. “We talk so much about the Middle East, but most people can’t communicate with people from there,” Hearst said. “It’s easy to make generalizations.”
Hearst said she hopes that through learning Arabic she will gain an understanding of Arab culture and politics, especially as it relates to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.