Learning Arabic, Looking for Roots

Last March, Gordon Gray Jr. ’65 bestowed a $1.5 million endowment to encourage the study of Arabic language at Harvard, especially among undergraduates, after Sept. 11.

Gray, an alumnus of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department, could not have found a more opportune time to support the program—enrollment in Arabic A, the introductory course, has nearly tripled from this time last year and the department has added a second teacher for the course.

“The money is basically covering the cost of the second preceptor,” says William E. Granara, Professor of the Practice of Arabic on the Gordon Gray Endowment. “It’s a wonderful, very generous support and desperately needed.”

Though enrollment figures from the Registrar’s Office indicate the class has 74 students, 50 of whom are undergraduates, Granara estimates total enrollment is between 90 and 95.

Some students, including post-graduate fellows, are merely auditing, so the Registrar’s Office enrollment figures underestimate the growing interest in the subject.

The high enrollment also includes graduate students from the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard Law School, Divinity School and the Graduate School of Design, in addition to graduate students in comparative literature and faculty, according to Granara.

“We go by how many homework [assignments] we need to correct,” says Granara, who is also the director of undergraduate studies of NELC. “It’s just my policy to allow any member of the University to audit Arabic. We try to be as inclusive as we can.”

Although Granara says enrollment has been steadily increasing over the nine years he has been here, last fall the figures temporarily dipped.

Only 26 undergraduates, out of a total of 36 students, registered for Arabic A in the fall of 2001. The year before, 41 students were enrolled.

“Last year, we had a slight decrease and I’m guessing that was affected by 9/11. The horrific events might have put people off a bit,” Granara says. “[But] this year we have not only sprung back to life, but sprung back to life with a vengeance.”

From Family to Religion

When Karoun A. Demirjian ’03 entered her Arabic A class this fall, she says she was surprised to see so many people interested in the language.

“[I thought], ‘Oh god, this is going to be the weird pseudo-patriotic trendy thing to do,’” she says.

But Demirjian says she realized that many students were interested in Arabic for reasons besides the current Middle East conflict and the events of Sept. 11.

Some, like her, wanted to learn their family’s language, while others wanted to study Arabic for religious reasons.

Demirjian became interested in studying Arabic not only because she is considering a career in foreign service, but because her parents grew up in Lebanon and Syria.

“I am a senior in college and I wanted to learn the language at some point,” she says. “It seemed to be the right time because it’s becoming so much more of an important language to know in this day and age, and the course was there.”

But she also says that Sept. 11 was a catalyst in her decision to take the course.

“I really think [the increased enrollment] has to do with Sept. 11 and all the turmoil in the Middle East,” she says. “That definitely kicked me over the edge.”

Maria-Helene van Wagenberg ’04, a Crimson editor, is also taking Arabic because of a family connection.

“It wasn’t a decision I made in reaction to recent political instability in the Middle East,” she says. “It’s just because my mom is from Lebanon and I want to travel there after I graduate.”

For Wasim W. Quadir ’03, who is Muslim, the decision to study Arabic stemmed from his belief that some of the beauty of the Quran is lost in translation. Many scholarly Islamic texts that he wants to read remain untranslated, Quadir says.

Quadir also says he saw this year as his last opportunity to study Arabic.

“I sort of regret not taking it as a freshman. I think I would have got more out of it if I had,” he says.

Quadir, who is also president of the Harvard Islamic Society (HIS), says he recognized some of the people in his Arabic A section as members of HIS.

“I’m not surprised that there are a lot of Muslims in the class. I think they are taking it for the same reason that I am—to increase their own understanding of the religion,” he says.

Many of his Muslim classmates, Quadir says, are first-years who are just more on the ball than he was.

Granara says the first-year Arabic language text offers insight into the Arabic family structure, the system of education and food.

“The cultural component is a strong subtext to the language. We find that the excitement of language study is in the culture,” he says.

Challenges Ahead

These diverse interests—from exploring family roots to understanding religious texts—translate into higher enrollment in Arabic.

To accommodate the increase, Granara says the department offers four sections of 20 people and a fifth section with 10 students. Besides himself, two preceptors and one graduate student are teaching the classes.

With the second preceptor funded by the Gordon Gray endowment, the department is able to cover teaching their classes with the help of advanced graduate students, Granara says.

Granara says intermediate Arabic classes are also experiencing an increase in numbers this semester—putting an additional strain on instructors who take on extra teaching loads and grade daily homework.

“Without abandoning upper levels, I try to put as much resources into first-year [instruction],” he says.

While he says University Hall has been responsive to the department’s needs, Granara says in the future the department will have to have another preceptor.

“I understand the University’s position—you can’t fault them,” he says. But “our enrollment is going to stay like this for the next five to 10 years. There is no way out of getting a third preceptor.”

Granara says he hopes to search for a third preceptor when this semester’s classes are up and running. He expects a tough market for qualified instructors, he says, especially considering recruiting from overseas is no longer an option.

“There are more jobs [open] in Arabic language teaching than ever,” Granara says. “So we’ve got our challenges ahead.”

—Staff writer Nalina Sombuntham can be reached at sombunth@fas.harvard.edu.