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Arab Culture is the hot topic at summer school

Published August 3, 2005 at 2:34 p.m.

Middlebury College is quintessential New England, so wandering into its Arabic School on a summer morning presents a shock. The tables in the Hepburn Hall lounge are covered with copies of Lebanese newspaper Al Hayat. The TV is tuned to Qatar-based al Jazeera. Labels in sinuous Arabic calligraphy have been taped over the men's and women's signs on the bathroom doors. No one is speaking English. Upon arrival, students take a pledge promising to communicate only in Arabic 24/7, for the duration of their stay.

Arabic is one of nine languages -- including Russian, French and Chinese -- taught in Middlebury's Summer Language Schools. These nine-week courses attract English-speaking applicants from all over the world. While some students receive financial aid, most are willing to pay nearly $7500 for the privilege of learning a language through the Intensive Immersion method. Not surprisingly, since 9/11, applications to the Arabic School are way up.

At a time when the U.S. military is fighting wars in two Middle Eastern countries -- as well as struggling to decipher intelligence regarding terrorist threats here at home -- government workers, translators and instructors fluent in Arabic are in dangerously short supply. Arabic School Director Mahmoud Abdalla says his specialty is definitely hot. "The demand for Arabic is really great," he says, "and it's increasing rapidly."

Abdalla points out that students don't come to Middlebury just to learn the language -- they're here to immerse themselves in the culture as well. They eat Middle Eastern food, listen to Middle Eastern music, and watch Middle Eastern movies. It's likely they'll have seen at least one film starring reknowned Egyptian actor Nour El-Sherif, who will deliver the Language School commencement address on August 12.

Middlebury's Arabic School students also discuss the history of the East-West conflicts that are tearing at the fabric of 21st-century society. And though Abdalla appears relaxed in his jeans and button-down shirt, there's an intensity in his wide brown eyes that seems appropriate for someone facilitating this task. He says he sees in his students "a sense of responsibility, a commitment, the need to know about 'the other.'" Sounds like a kind of educated patriotism, though he doesn't call it that. "They feel that they're really doing something great for the country," he says.

The director doesn't mind sharing that insight in English, as long as none of the students is within earshot; there's a prohibition against disturbing their all-Arabic aural environment. "We're not supposed to speak English here," he whispers as he checks to see if the coast is clear.

Abdalla, a native of Egypt, has been the head of Middlebury's Arabic summer school since 1995. During the academic year, he's an assistant professor of Arabic at Wayne State University in Detroit, a city with the highest concentration of Arabic speakers outside of the Middle East. He has also taught at Washington University in St. Louis, and at universities in Denmark and in London. Many of his fellow instructors also hail from overseas, from countries such as Lebanon, Morocco, Syria and Iraq. "I know how special this program is," Abdalla says of his post at Middlebury.

Since its inception in 1982, the Arabic School has earned a reputation as a Mecca -- so to speak -- for those eager to cram a wealth of knowledge about Arabic and Middle-Eastern culture into a short period of time. Though applications have increased in the past few years, Abdalla doesn't want to sacrifice the program's quality, so instead of ballooning, it's simply become more selective. This year, 121 students enrolled in the program, 90 percent of them graduate or undergraduate students pursuing degrees in Arabic-related studies.

Abdalla acknowledges a handful of government employees sprinkled throughout the 11 classes. And he suspects that some of the others will seek government-related careers. But he dismisses the rumor that half the school works for the CIA. "We are not a government school," he says. When pressed, he admits that it's possible the CIA is enrolling covert operatives. "Officially, we have a student coming from Harvard," he notes. "How can you know?"

The breadth of the immersion experience is on display in the corridors of Hepburn Hall. Abdalla quietly narrates a short tour of the building, translating some of the hand-written Arabic signs that decorate the walls. "This one says, 'Life is sweet in Middlebury,'" he murmurs.

He points to a bulletin board plastered with photos of students participating in co-curricular cultural activities. These include clubs for cooking, learning calligraphy and studying the Koran. Abdalla says it's a measure of the students' devotion that they don't actually have to participate in many of the extra activities, but most do. "We just announce it, and everybody's there," he says.

Several photos depict athletic matches; the school encourages students to learn sports vocabulary. A cheat sheet of English-Arabic translations accompanies the photos, listing Arabic words for "referee," "net" and "forbidden." One shot shows students cheering at a soccer game -- in Arabic, naturally. Another captures a participant in a volleyball match. According to Abdalla, the caption reads, "a very dangerous serve."

These lighthearted images hang beside schedules for Jewish and Christian worship services, and near the current events section of the board. The instructors post news stories there in Arabic, to help students keep up with what's going on in the world. Abdalla doesn't translate the top story, but he doesn't need to. The photos say it all. They show two bloodied, blindfolded men -- Algerian diplomats kidnapped and killed last week by al-Qaida operatives in Iraq. The contrast between these images and the volleyball shots couldn't be more striking.

Abdalla's tour concludes in a classroom in another building, where the novices in Levels 1, 1.5 and 2 question a guest lecturer from the University of Michigan-Flint. Each Wednesday, a different speaker addresses topics such as Islam in America and the role of women. On Thursday, the classes divide into two groups -- novices and more advanced speakers -- for a chance to ask follow-up questions.

The large seminar room is packed with mostly twentysomething men and women in polo shirts, T-shirts, khaki shorts and flip-flops. A couple students with crew cuts stand out, as do the three women wearing hejabs. But for the most part, this group looks no different from the Midd kids who sit here during the school year.

The professor introduces himself and says a few words before opening the floor. You can tell he's speaking Arabic from the elongated vowels and throaty consonants, but without a translation, it's impossible to know what he's saying. He clearly says the words "computer," "Internet" and "imam," though. It's difficult to imagine that novices can follow him, but most of them laugh at his jokes, and a few raise their hands to ask questions. If beginners can keep up with his conversational style, the immersion method must be pretty successful.

Swarthmore College sophomore Hunter Bandy, who enrolled in the program to prepare for his upcoming semester in Syria, says it's definitely helpful. In an email -- apparently the language pledge doesn't extend to electronic communication -- Bandy writes, "immersion forces you to learn." Bandy has studied Arabic before, and tested into Level 2. "You start the program being humbled by your infantile linguistic capacities," he writes, "so you force yourself to say things other than 'I like Arab history and live with two brothers and both parents in a beautiful part of town.'"

Bandy explains that when he doesn't know the Arabic word he needs, he just gives as much context as he can and hopes his listener will figure it out. Once, instead of saying, "I studied in the cemetery," he said, "I studied in 'the outside place where all the Vermonters have died and been put in the ground behind the college.'"

Bandy reports he's also enjoyed practicing different Arabic dialects with the teachers and their families during mealtimes -- the instructors often mingle with their students outside of class. Abdalla touts these interactions among the things that make Middlebury special. Teachers routinely sacrifice their alone time to help students. "They do it consciously, because they love it," he says. "This is amazing."

Michelle Forman, named the country's 2001 Teacher of the Year, attended summer school at Middlebury three years in a row, 1997, 1998 and 1999. She teaches an extracurricular Arabic class at Middlebury Union High School, and spoke recently on an alumni panel at the Arabic School. She believes language skills are essential in trying to make sense of why people in other countries act the way they do. "You really can't understand someone else's culture without understanding something about the language," she says. "If we understand someone's language, it's much more difficult for us to walk away from people and say, 'That's just the way they are.'"

The award-winning instructor started studying Arabic 10 years ago, after her high school students expressed an interest in it. She's pleased to see this increased interest in learning the language. "It helps us understand the complexities of the culture," she says. "We understand how much they're like us." At Middlebury, they're doing everything they can to keep that lesson from getting lost in translation.

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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