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New York Times: Arabic Class Becomes a Popular Choice


Luke Smith-Stevens was 9 when he heard a roar and looked up to see one of the two planes that would hit the twin towers flying directly over his classroom’s skylight. In the subsequent months, he tried to make sense of the conversations he overheard and half-understood, the ubiquitous feelings of rage.

“If you tell your average 9-year-old that all people from this part of the world are bad, chances are they’re not going to buy it,” said Mr. Smith-Stevens, now 18. But it wasn’t until he was in high school at Friends Seminary in the East Village that he felt he had the chance to go back and “re-examine that feeling that what I was being told wasn’t true.”

In his junior year, Mr. Smith-Stevens jumped at the chance to study Arabic culture, not as an outsider looking in, but as an outsider inviting himself in, through the portal of language. The school had just started offering Arabic, and he was among 30 students who signed up. This fall, the school plans to offer Arabic III, and 42 students are scheduled to study the language.

French and Spanish are still more popular at Friends, but Arabic has come to have a certain cachet. Hayes Peebles, a senior who is also a singer-songwriter and something of a local celebrity, has taken it for two years. His friend Konstantine Adamopoulos, a senior of Greek and Puerto Rican descent, also is in the class, and has been known to walk down the street rapping in Arabic.

“The other teachers tell me that that some of my students joke around to each other in their classes using Arabic phrases, or write their names on their papers in Arabic,” said Anna Swank, the Arabic teacher.

Take the unexpected choice, put it in the hands of the right confident teenagers, and watch how quickly it can become the obvious next step for students a few years younger. Ms. Swank said there was a complicated fascination with Arab culture, and some of its associations for New Yorkers, that undoubtedly attracted the teenage mind.

“I don’t think it matters where you’re starting from,” she said.

Where they’re ending up is another thing. Last summer, two of Ms. Swank’s students traveled to Jordan to study the language, and two did the same in Morocco. This summer, a female student is going to Tunisia, and a young man is studying at a Greek Orthodox monastery in Syria.

Of the nine graduating seniors who studied Arabic, all plan to continue — most applied only to colleges that offer the language; several say Ms. Swank’s classes influenced their thoughts about their futures. For Mr. Adamopoulos, that might mean practicing medicine in an Arabic-speaking country. Mr. Smith-Stevens, who starts Middlebury College in the fall, intends to major in international relations, with a focus on the Middle East. Even Mr. Peebles, who hopes to keep performing, plans to continue his Arabic studies at Tufts University. “Inshallah,” he added — God willing.

When Friends first decided to offer Arabic two years ago, as I wrote in a column at the time, the decision was surprisingly unusual. Only a few New York schools teach the language, most of them places with large Arab-American populations (SAR Academy in Riverdale, an Orthodox Jewish day school, is one exception). At the time, the decision by Friends inspired anxious queries from parents concerned that just offering the language was something of a political statement, and possibly an anti-Israeli one. Many of the students said they found their choice to study the language interpreted the same way. When a friend’s grandmother learned that Mr. Smith-Stevens, who is half Jewish, was studying Arabic, she asked him whether he was ashamed of his heritage.

Ms. Swank said she had been scrupulous about avoiding politics, though she does not shy away from exposing the students to pop culture that might have a political message. “What does it say about the class if they’ve never heard of DAM?” she said, referring to a Palestinian hip-hop band that is part of a new musical movement.

On the last day of Arabic II last week, the class had that joyful end-of-the-year feel, and something else — the closeness of a group of student who have sailed through something previously untested. Ms. Swank had them up and dancing to a popular Arabic song playing on her computer, even waving their hands in the air. “Haraam!” one half of the group crooned. (Translation: For Shame!) “Tinsooni,” the other half sang. (Translation: Don’t forget me.)

Source: New York Times

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Muslim American born in Brooklyn, NY with Guyanese parents currently living in Virginia working full-time as a web developer.

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