Arabic lessons

During the Cold War, universities across the country experienced a spike in student demand for Russian language programs to fill government agencies’ needs for fluent linguists and professionals. Today, success of U.S. relations in the Middle East demands increased awareness and training of Americans in Middle Eastern culture and the Arabic language.

Twice a week, nine Arabic III students at USF try to read, write and speak “foqat Arabiya” (Arabic only) for two hours.

According to the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, Arabic is a “super-hard” language, alongside Chinese, Korean and Japanese. The CIA recently revamped its recruitment program to increase their two percent of Arabic-speaking recruits. According to Middle Eastern specialist and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, an increasing number of students study Arabic at universities across the country to expand their career and travel opportunities because of increased interest in the Middle East since Sept. 11.

“I know we’re supposed to be able to understand this,” Rick Bodnar said in English to the Egyptian instructor’s fluent MSA (Modern Standard Arabic).

An Air Force retiree, Bodnar provided intelligence for special operations and ran interrogation facilities in Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War, where he first became familiar with Arabic. Now he takes MSA III at night after his full-time day job with the Inspector General of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

“We were really kind of shocked; the capability within the military of having Arabic speakers was very dismal, very poor,” said Bodnar.

Although he did not pursue other languages past level two, Bodnar said, “(Arabic) left me with this feeling that one day I want to go back and master the language.”

He returned to college specifically to learn Arabic in anticipation of future travels through the Middle East to tour relics of Alexander the Great’s rule. For now, he is trying to conquer pronunciation of the language’s throaty, guttural consonants and varying vowel lengths.

Bodnar said understanding the culture comes with learning the language. His classmates hail from all over the Middle East: Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kuwait and Lebanon as well as Palestinian areas.

In Arabic, they debated the 2004 presidential elections, gay marriages, dating customs, foreign policy and talked about Muslim holidays, including Ramadan, which ended on Sunday with the festival of Eid al-Fitr.

Although MSA is the universally understood textbook Arabic used by news media, diplomats, academia, literature and the Quran, Islam’s holy book, native speakers compare its formality to that of Old English — no one speaks that way any more.

Arabs hold their everyday conversations in their own regional dialects. Variations in accent, pronunciation or word choice are sometimes so different that an Egyptian and a Tunisian have trouble communicating, so they use MSA.

Joumana Saad, another MSA III student and a sophomore in mass communications, agreed that learning MSA poses many difficulties.

“There’s a huge difference between the two,” Saad said. “It’s the grammar, the way the words are pronounced.

“If you went downtown where all the businessmen are, they’d be able to understand you. Anyone on the street wouldn’t.”

While speaking colloquial Arabic allows her to communicate casually, Saad said her dream job is to travel the Middle East as a TV correspondent.

But speaking colloquial Arabic doesn’t mean one can read or write it. Students must memorize, then learn to read and write the complicated, non-Latin-based alphabet of squiggly letters from left to right.

Saad’s father is Lebanese and her mother is Colombian. Saad is also Muslim and grew up speaking the Lebanese dialect. She became familiar with MSA through reading the Quran and watching Arabic language news stations like Al-Jazeera. Saad said she pursued Arabic because she identifies with being an Arab.

While Arabic culture and the Islamic religion share a historical origin, people identifying themselves as Arabs hail from a Middle Eastern country, which includes the area from the eastern Mediterranean between Turkey and North Africa to Iran, or those who speak Arabic as their native tongue.

In contrast to being an Arab, “being a Muslim” means one believes or practices the religion of Islam.

Beeshara Saleh, another student, said his father tried to teach him Arabic when Saleh was five years old by speaking in his own native Palestinian dialect. Now a senior in college, Saleh said mastering Arabic will allow him to expand his family’s Israel-based wine and olive grove business internationally.

“It has a lot to do with my family,” Saleh said. “Mainly, I want to market olive oil.”

Even if he only gets a solid command of the grammar, Saleh said his efforts to speak their native language will garner respect.

Becoming fluent in a language can take several years of training. MSA instructor Nader Morkus said that 40 percent of his 70 level-one students saw a need to learn Arabic for careers in the State Department, FBI or CIA and more than 10 percent signed up because of general interest in the Middle East or the language.

Despite the increasing career opportunities for those fluent in Arabic language and culture in U.S. government, military and international humanitarian organizations, USF opportunities to study advanced Arabic are limited. USF offers neither a Middle Eastern studies program nor Arabic language classes after MSA IV, but that doesn’t discourage Morkus.

“My students in level three, they are amazing,” said Morkus. “Their proficiency level has increased dramatically from day one.”

“It’s very important to practice what you learn,” he said. “There is no magic strategy … you need to work on it at least two hours every day in order to learn it and make progress.”

In addition to MSA, Morkus said students who pick up at least one Arabic dialect through studies abroad or full-immersion language programs where they are surrounded by the language and culture at all times must learn to effectively communicate in the real world, making them more marketable in the professional world.

He said that academic training becomes useless if students cannot communicate in basic, day-to-day conversation, like asking for directions to the nearest bathroom or even which restaurant serves the best pigeon.

Bodnar learned the results of ineffective communication first hand. During his Gulf War tour in the Middle East, he often wondered why he could never get native speakers to show him to a bathroom.

“Arabic words for pigeon and bathroom are very similar.

“Pigeon is actually a delicacy in the Middle East,” he explained. “Really, I was just asking for a bathroom.”

One Army specialist who Bodnar worked with was in his mid-twenties, spoke Arabic fluently and processed Iraqi POWs at the military’s holding facility.

“Blond-haired surfer kid from somewhere in California,” Bodnar said. “There (in Iraq) he was in his prime. Otherwise, the Army looks at him (junior enlisted)… he could paint rocks as far as they were concerned.

“It takes several years,” Bodnar said. “If you’re looking at going into the international field, start now.”

Bodnar, like other students, is willing to take the time for something he believes is a priceless skill to have in today’s world.

“It’s almost like a love/hate relationship,” he said. “I wake up some days trying to say things in Arabic. It scares me.”