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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.