Asani Uses Diverse Background as Tool in Teaching Indo-Muslim Language, Culture

Professor of the Practice of Indo-Muslim Languages and Culture Ali S. Asani '77, who serves on the Faculty board of the Harvard Foundation for Race and Intercultural Relations, says he remembers when the schools around him ceased to be segregated, and even when the patriotic songs in class changed.

"I remember going to school, not having to sing 'God Save the Queen' but singing another anthem, and all the British flags coming down, to be replaced by Kenyan ones," says Asani, who grew up in Africa. "Also, after independence, the school curriculum changed to stress Africa. Before, we studied Britain and Europe, and next to nothing about Africa."

"In Africa I didn't have a single white friend," says Asani, who is of South Asian decent. "It was a class issue. Whites generally kept to themselves."

Now a professor of Indo-Muslim languages and culture, Asani strives to break ethnic and religious stereotypes both in his teaching and in his support of students.

"I grew up with a triple heritage. I grew up speaking Indian languages at home--Gujurati [mother's language] and Sindhi [father's language], at school we spoke English and to communicate with other Africans, we spoke Swahili...being Muslim also added another measure to my identity," Asani says.

Asani says he had a comfortable middle-class upbringing in Nairobi, which was racially stratified under British rule. His father was an accountant, and his mother worked for East African, later Kenyan Airways.

"East Africa at that point of time--the British were creating a society that was very racially segregated, a colony very similar in structure to South Africa. Africans, Indians, whites--we all had separate schools, separate facilities. My early childhood was still under British rule, which was a time of social segregation," he says.

Asani says he personally did not experience many problems with the black Africans, mainly because his school had already started to desegregate by the time of independence in 1963. "I had lots of black friends." he says.

"Since Indians were used as a buffer by the British from Africans, and also because of their long history of trade, Indians tended to be better off. Also because of this, there was some resentment from Africans toward Indians as a minority," Asani says. "[However] there was no segregation between Muslims and Hindus within the South Asian community in Kenya, unlike the subcontinent. There was a great deal of religious tolerance."

Asani came to Harvard as an undergraduate in 1973, when the University was "just beginning to diversify racially" and went through enormous culture shock.

"It was the first time I left Africa. I think my big shock was that I again found myself as a racial minority, only this time the majority was white instead of black."

The bewilderment was mutual.

"Everyone was shocked." Asani says, recalling the many times when he had to introduce himself. "They asked me, 'How can you be African? You look Indian. You can't be African.' I would respond, 'What's an African supposed to look like?' I was really shocked at the extent of ignorance among the students. They would ask me if we lived in huts. One person even asked me if there were lions roaming the streets."

Eventually, Asani says that he was able to adjust, though he still had to deal with a sense of ethnic isolation.

"I made friends with black, South Asian and white students. There was just a handful of South Asian people...scattered in all the different houses," he says.

His experience at Harvard, where he has been for almost 25 years, convinced him to develop a specialty in Islamic studies.

"I was, and still am, shocked by the stereotypes and prejudices in American society against Muslims and Islamic culture," Asani says. "There were people who, when you tell them you're a Muslim, think you're a fanatic or a terrorist. This is based on ignorance. I thought I wanted to dispel stereotypes through my teaching."

"I think stereotypes have very dangerous implications for society. You know, when the Oklahoma bombing took place, everyone thought it was the Muslims. There was a great sense of paranoia. There were individual families who were attacked, mosques defaced by graffiti. I even had a student ask me once, 'How can a rational and intelligent person like you be a Muslim?' It tells you a lot."

Asani says that growing up removed from the events in the subcontinent gave him a more unbiased perspective on South-Asian affairs, which is reflected in his teaching of Urdu-Hindi.

"I teach them together; this [combined language] is what Gandhi called Hindustani. It's a very unusual language situation--the spoken language is almost identical," he says. "But once you get to classical literature, Hindi becomes Sanscritized and Urdu becomes Arabized or Persianized, so the languages become mutually incomprehensible.

"Hindi uses Indian script, Devanagari, and Urdu uses a form of the Arabic. In my intro courses, I teach people both script systems, an unusual technique. Most schools teach them as separate languages. But I don't think that language instruction should become politicized."

Asani also remarks that his teaching methods have changed to accommodate the recent increase in Americans of South Asian descent.

"When I first came to Harvard, the people of South Asian descent were international students directly from the subcontinent, and very few. Now, predominantly people born in the U.S., first generation, second generation," Asani says.

"That, interestingly, also affects how you teach. When I first started teaching students taking Urdu-Hindi, there were only a few undergraduates, about ten a year, and they were mostly white. Now, 70 percent are of South Asian descent, and they're familiar with a little bit of South Asian culture. Teaching them is a bit different from teaching non-South Asians. So now I have to balance the needs of two different groups. This year, the intro class has 55 students, ironically as resources to teach have shrunk," he adds.

Asani says he wants to increase course offerings in introductory Islam to combat the ignorance many students have.

"I think there is a dire need in this university for more courses on Islam for the non-specialist who doesn't have knowledge of languages or prior study." Asani says.

In his attempt to help the American Muslim community, Asani helped found a summer program, Al-Ummah--Arabic for "the community"--aimed at giving immigrant Muslim youth a positive identity, both as Americans and as Muslims.

When he gained his citizenship in 1991, Asani's own identity became even more complex.

"I think that now it's even more complicated to answer the question, 'where are you from?' because now I'm an American." Asani says. "So now I have this weird identity: African-Asian-American. The categories have so broken down that I wonder if it's at all meaningful to use these labels."