Howard Community College offers intensive course in Arabic

Students also learning about protests in the region

February 24, 2011|By Joe Burris, The Baltimore Sun

Sit in on an Arabic Express class at Howard Community College, and you'll learn much about the current protests in the Middle East and North Africa.

Tony Rahi, HCC Arabic Express professor, scribbled an Arabic word on the white board, which he later said would be spelled "jorthan" in English. The word means "rats."

"This is what [Moammar] Gadhafi called the protesters today," Rahi said during a recent class, referring to the Libyan leader whose 40-plus-year reign is being challenged by the types of political protests that have been seen this year in Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere in the region.

"If you are listening to the news, you are going to hear a lot about the state of Tagheya Hosni Mubarak," said Rahi, referring to the embattled Egyptian president who stepped down amid turbulent opposition to his 30-year rule this month. The word "Tagheya" means "dictator" in Arabic.

Launched last fall, Arabic Express is an intensive course during which students study Arabic language, culture and current events in a two-hour class that meets four days a week. Students earn eight credits per semester for the course and prepare for Arabic programs at area four-year colleges.

Rahi, who came to the U.S. from Lebanon more than 20 years ago, uses it as an opportunity to expand students' knowledge about the Arab world, pointing out that most who enter his class are unaware that the word "al-Jazeera," the international Arabic television network based in Qatar, is Arabic for "the island" and is meant to describe the Arabian Peninsula.

"In this class, they get the language, they get the grammar, they get the culture and they get the politics," said Rahi, who refers to his students by the Arabic equivalents of their names.

Rahi teaches his students to read Arabic and he has encouraged them to watch televised broadcasts of the demonstrations in the Arab world. He teaches them to read the words on signs and placards being carried by demonstrators.

The Arab words include those that in English are written as "al-Horeya" (meaning "freedom"), "ba Tel" ("illegitimate") and "Midan al-Tahrir," or Liberation Square, the public area in downtown Cairo where many of the Egyptian protests were staged.

Rahi said it has been great watching the transformation in the region.

"It's a change. Fear has left them, and they didn't need any other country to convince them of what they want," said Rahi. "All the regimes were suppressing their freedom. Democracy is spreading; I don't know what type of democracy it is. But it is from within now."

Rahi's students acknowledge that the program is intense, but they say Rahi makes it enjoyable. His students must do reports about the climate, religion and geography of each Arab nation. Last year, he said, a student dressed as Gadhafi to present a class report on Libya.

"It clears up so many stereotypes," said HCC student Alaa Razeq, who is from Buffalo, N.Y., and is majoring in Arabic and architecture. She hopes to transfer to Georgetown University and enroll in the school's department of Arabic and Islamic studies.

HCC student Jonathon Hess of Columbia said he is taking the course with hopes of transferring to the University of Maryland, College Park, for the school's government and political science program.

"I'm interested specifically in international relations," said Hess, "and I think that learning Arabic would be great for working for the government or running for office."

Some of Rahi's students were already familiar with the language. Razeq says she can speak it but is using the class to learn to write it. And others who entered Rahi's class knowing little or no Arabic said that after taking the class, they could lend their skills if an Arabic interpreter were needed.

Rahi said he plans to make the lessons even more applicable outside the classroom, launching an Arabic-speaking club that will meet before and after class. He added that the class will soon dine at a local Arab restaurant, where they will be prohibited from speaking any other language.

"Either they will die of hunger," he said jokingly, "or they will order completely in Arabic."

joseph.burris@baltsun.com

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