Learning Arabic and Being Taught to Fear the MENA

MENA region

“War,” “United Nations,” “Death,” “God rest their soul.” These were only a few of the words that comprised my first textbook for Arabic, Al-Kitaab. Where other language learners in French, German, and other non “critical languages” begin their first semesters in those courses building vocabularies of food, greetings, colors, and the like, our Arabic textbook–indeed, the general Arabic curriculum in the U.S.–had other, far more nefarious
pedagogies and ethics.

It would take me to the end of my second year in Arabic to learn more than eight colors and more foods than just chicken, bread, rice, and varied beverages. Now, this is not to say we didn’t learn useful and expressive things in the course like one would in a romance language, for instance.

The reality was that for all of the time reading and studying these words, my textbooks painted the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) as a region prone to violence, intervention, and displacement.

Before even beginning my first Arabic course during my freshman year of undergrad, my interest in working with forced migrant populations from the MENA had been cemented. I had spent my middle and high school years working with Iraqi refugees in Knoxville. These experiences inspired my work and activism for forced migrants, and allowed me an opportunity to commune with people from the region, while learning from and with them.

ghadeer-ahmed-482003These continue to be some of my fondest memories. However, the disconnect between those past experiences, the vocabulary and interpretation I gleaned from the University of Tennessee, and the general Arabic textbook of Al-Kitaab could not have been farther from reality.

Al-Kitaab, the standard Arabic instruction materials for English speakers in the United States, was created by Georgetown University. The textbook program has been utilized as the primary source for the State Department’s language instruction for officers, for study abroad programs such as the Critical Language Scholarship and the School for International Training, and for classrooms in universities across the nation.

Georgetown, a major academic and theoretical player in the world of foreign policy and international relations, has churned out thinkers and leaders of our nation, including the likes of former President Bill Clinton. However, given the interventionist policies and subjugation of the MENA to U.S. occupation and neocolonial endeavors in Iraq, Kuwait, and Syria, it is abundantly clear that the utilization of this textbook series and its presentation is meant to create and instill ideas of brutality, danger, and fear in those U.S. citizens seeking to learn Arabic.

When one fears a community, the Other, it becomes easier to maim, torture, neglect, rape, and subjugate those same peoples. This has and is the work being done via Al-Kitaab and the systems that support it.

These moments of reflexivity continue to offer points of growth and reflection, though it does raise grave concerns with lived consequences for many people–indeed, racialized and marginalized peoples–around the globe. Are these the same materials that U.S. State Department officials use to learn the language and thus craft policy?

How do these presentations of the language impact those same officers’ views and choices in their official capacities? When academics pursue area studies and language studies explicitly supported by these kinds of texts, how does this change their ability to engage with and learn from populations that share that language? These questions, and a host of others, are but some of the primary questions one must reflexively dive into.

Knowing that my education in Arabic was part of a greater system aiming to reproduce orientalist ideas of the MENA, it is now my responsibility–and all those who come from the dominant group–to share the experiences, fieldwork, and stories that refute the brutal image painted by Al-Kitaab and the broader system of domination it represents.

Where the vast majority of the U.S. will never attempt to learn Arabic, it is the responsibility of the privileged few who study it academically to use their place in various communities (i.e. gender groups, religious groups, living communities, etc.) to dispel these atrocious and unfounded perceptions.

Where it is easy to consume another marginalized group’s language, history, and culture from the dominant group, reciprocity must be the primary motivator for addressing injustices like these within the United States.

 

 

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Hera Brown

Hera Brown

Hera Brown is a current fourth year at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville with the Baker, College, and Haslam Scholars programs. Her degree program, Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Migration Studies, has centered on understanding the global refugee regime and how varying nations throughout Europe and the Middle East support and/or integrate forced migrants into their respective societies. Hera hopes to continue research and professional development via a PhD and hopes to one day serve as the first openly trans Assistant High Commissioner for Protection with the United Nation's High Commissioner for Refugees.

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