The Columns

W&L Offers Arabic On Campus for First Time

— by on October 28th, 2015

Anthony (Antoine) Edwards has reassured students learning Arabic at Washington and Lee University that his own first encounter with the language was as a first-year student. “My first words, my first class, were as a freshman and I didn’t know any Arabic or even a Semitic language. But it’s not difficult if you put enough time into it,” he said.

This is W&L’s first year of Arabic language courses on campus; previously, students wishing to study Arabic attended classes at Virginia Military Institute. The new Arabic classes are part of W&L’s comprehensive plan to infuse global learning into students’ experiences across curricula, disciplines and schools.

In addition to Edwards, visiting assistant professor of Arabic, who will teach for three years, W&L also recruited Ismail Slitine Alaoui, from Morocco, who is a one-year Student Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant.

Suzanne Keen, dean of the college and the Thomas Broadus Professor of English, called the reaction of students to the new classes “very positive.” The initial offering of one course section on Arabic for 18 students filled up immediately, so W&L added a second section which accommodated an additional 12 students.

Edwards recently completed his doctorate in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures at The University of Texas at Austin, and has lived in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Jordan, and has taught Arabic in Morocco. “I think it’s important to learn to speak Arabic and learn about the cultures and people of the region because it enlarges your perspective on the diversity of the world,” he said. “Also, there’s a lot of economic, political and cultural awareness that needs to happen regarding the Middle East.”

Edwards will teach both Modern Standard Arabic (the written, formal language that is not used on a daily basis for communication) and the Syrian dialect. He explained that there are several different Arabic dialects and that linguists group these according to the major capital cities in the region. The Syrian dialect is based on the language in the capital, Damascus. While most of these dialects are mutually understandable, differences emerge the farther you move from the capital. “I’m from California, so when I listen to someone from Boston I may take an extra 10 seconds to hone my ear in to what they are saying, and it’s the same with the Arabic dialects,” he explained.

To help students gain more experience in speaking Arabic, Edwards is already encouraging them to apply in 2016 to the Critical Language Scholarship Program, a fully funded overseas language and cultural immersion program for American undergraduate and graduate students. He also has plans for a 2017 Spring Term course on Arabic language and culture in Jordan that will examine what makes the language and place uniquely Jordanian.

“I am very excited that with our teaching assistant, Ismail, we have a native speaker of the language and someone who brings the Arabic culture here to W&L,” said Edwards. “Since Ismail is from Morocco, he nicely complements my expertise, which is more of Egypt and Syria; i.e. the Levant. So culturally, linguistically, cuisine-wise, he’s going to bring a lot of insight that I am unable to bring except from a theoretical perspective.”

Alaoui said that he sees himself as a cultural ambassador and is looking forward to helping students with the language, as well as hosting cultural events to introduce them to Arabic culture. “I will do that by sharing with the students, preparing dishes and telling them about the ceremonies and celebrations in the region,” he said. Alaoui is a graduate of Moulay Ismail University in Morocco and is also a calligrapher.

Edwards also studies literature and has a syllabus for a course on Arabic literature (read in English translation) that he will offer in winter 2016. In the meantime, he plans to organize an open-literature night since “poetry readings and the orality of language performance are very important in Arabic culture. I would like to introduce that to the student body and to the W&L community,” he said. Other cultural events will include an Arabic conversation table in W&L’s dining facility, movie nights in Arabic and a cooking night.

The impetus to include Arabic classes at W&L came from the Middle Eastern/South Asia (MESA) cohort — a group of W&L faculty from different departments dedicated to the development of interdisciplinary learning about the region and sponsored by the office of the dean of the College. “MESA was very interested in Arabic language classes and advocated for it as a complement to the things they were already teaching,” said Keen.

MESA members from the college include Joel Blecher, assistant professor of religion, who teaches the religion and history of Islam; Tim Lubin, professor of religion and an expert on India and areas of South Asia; and Melissa Kerin, assistant professor of art history who researches in India and Tibet. Members from the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics are Seth Cantey, assistant professor of politics, who teaches Middle Eastern politics; Shikha Silwal, assistant professor of economics; and Mark Rush, director of W&L’s Center for International Education and the Waxburg Professor of Politics, who recently served as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the American University of Sharjah in the Middle East.

“We were very lucky to recruit Antoine Edwards since he was our first choice, and we were very fortunate to successfully apply for a native language speaker in a competitive situation,” said Rush. “Arabic really is one of the most important global languages right now, and this is a region where our graduates will certainly be working. It is our mission to provide students with a complete global education. It is exciting to see the new energy of the younger faculty who are really coalescing around a region and new areas of study and teaching.”