- The Washington Times - Friday, November 9, 2001

Hiyam Afram, the Iraqi-born Arabic instructor for the Department of Agriculture's popular evening language classes, has noticed one major thing since the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Phone calls. Lots of them.
"I've had so many calls since September 11 to study Arabic," she says. "They want to know the Arabic culture, their way of thinking, what does Islam say. People are really interested."
Once an afterthought of college language departments and language schools, Arabic lessons has jumped in enrollment nationwide in the past two months. The FBI's call for Arabic translators also has spurred interest.
Enrollment in elementary Arabic has increased by 70 percent at the University of Chicago, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The terrorist attacks have made for overflowing classrooms in Near Eastern studies, ratcheting up enrollment in courses on Islam, Arabic and international relations.
Mohammed Sawaie, a Jordanian who teaches Arabic at the University of Virginia, says many people have inquired about the next Arabic 101 classes, which don't start until fall 2002. But interest in the language was growing even before the attacks.
"That's been mind-boggling to us," he says. "The first year, we had 25 or 30 students. Four years later, we have 57 first-year students. Many of them want to understand what's going on. And there's a new generation of sons and daughters of immigrants from Arabic or Muslim backgrounds who are college age and want to learn about their roots and religion."
Shukri Abed, who oversees the Arabic-language program at the University of Maryland, says interest has grown there, too. A history course for next spring, War and Peace in Islam, already is filled, he says.
At the Middle East Institute in the District, which he also directs, enrollment in its language school jumped from 90 to 140 students this semester.
"Some of them want jobs," he says, "but others were awakened by these tragic events and want to know what's going on in the Arabic world."
Arabic is not a language for the fainthearted. Instructors estimate it takes at least three years for the average Westerner to understand an Arabic newspaper. Like Hebrew, it reads backward and its graceful script bears no resemblance to the Latinized lettering of the Western world. Several letters have no counterpart in English, and the English letters "p" and "v" have no counterparts in classical Arabic.
Spoken by 100 million people and understood by many more, Arabic has an alphabet of 28 consonants. It descended from the same Canaanite script as Hebrew, and its written form was introduced into Mecca not long before the Koran was introduced.
Also like Hebrew, it operates on a system of vowel points, whereby the vowels are above or below the consonants instead of alongside them, as in English.
The language is filled with archetypes, symbols and hidden divine meanings, leading to the popular saying "Persian is the language of Paradise, but Arabic is the language of God." Another popular tradition says the angel Gabriel taught Adam the language and that only Arabic will be spoken in heaven.
At Georgetown University, which hosts a Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and a Center for Contemporary Arabic Studies offering doctorates in the language, interest in the centers that draw many Middle Eastern scholars is on the rise.
Brian McGrath, administrative assistant for Georgetown's Arabic-language department, says 50 percent of the students traditionally are "heritage learners" those from Muslim or Arab-American backgrounds. Others are interested in working for the government and want the language on their resumes.
"Students are thinking of changing their majors," says Amin Bonnah, an Egyptian who teaches Arabic at Georgetown. "In fact, one student today changed his major from government to Arabic.
"I think it's because of the emergence of this part of the world, a part that needs to be studied more. It's also the availability of jobs. Already some of our students are being interviewed for jobs in the government.
"I know of some high schools or elementary schools who are thinking of offering it. And I can see more enthusiasm in the classrooms. Students want to see programs from Al Jazeera or daily newspapers.
"To understand a culture, you have to know the language. Today, in my class, we were reading headlines from Arabic newspapers and the students were so interested in learning what are they are saying about us. Even if they are enemies, it is better to know your enemy."
Classical Arabic, as used in the Koran and Hadith (the traditions and anecdotal sayings of Muhammad), is used in book publishing, as well as in some forms of journalism and broadcasting. As a spoken language, it has been parsed into several dialects, which vary from country to country. Because of its film industry, central location and universities, the Egyptian dialect is the best known throughout the Arabic-speaking world.
"I've had lots of calls regarding Arabic," says Abdullah Mohammed, language chairman of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Sciences in the Merrifield section of Fairfax, which is affiliated with Imam University in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. "The world of Islam and Arabic is attracting people. Some people have no idea about it. And they are looking for jobs, working with the FBI and other organizations. Some of the students in our non-intensive course six hours a week are asking to be switched to the intensive course, which is 25 hours a week."
His school, which has an enrollment of 260 in its sex-segregated classes, offers the cheapest lessons in town: $50 a semester. Other language schools charge $200 to $400 per semester.
Berlitz, which charges $299 for a series of group lessons, says its language centers around the country have noticed a "notable" rise in inquiries.
"People are trying to make heads or tails of what has happened in this country, and they are looking for ways of learning more about the culture of the Middle East," says Mary Conti at Berlitz headquarters in Princeton, N.J. "Or people who do business in the Middle East want to learn how to interact in a culturally appropriate way. It's been a marked increase in calls."


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