The US and Arabic Language Instruction: Serve the Empire or the Globe?

It is my firm conviction that anyone who wants to learn about the Middle East (or, for that matter, any part of the world) has to actually live in the region that interests them. Even better is to learn the language. Language offers a window on a world that you can approach but never really look through in translation.


A genealogical tree for one of the major northern Arabian tribes, the Annaza. From the website Arab Family Trees.

Keeping all the requisite caveats about stereotyping and over generalization in mind, Arab societies (including immigrant and exile communities) are very much kin-based. When teaching about early Arab and Islamic history one of the first lessons has to do with genealogy. How else to explain names like Ali ibn Abi Talib? In Arabic, unlike English, the words for maternal uncle and aunt, khaal and khaala, are different from the words for paternal uncle and aunt, ‘am  and ‘ama. Arabic speakers are by nature more precise than English speakers when it comes to delineating families and family history. Lots of other important social and cultural implications follow.

All this is to say that if you are interested in the Middle East, please learn one of the languages of the region as soon as you can.

The American Association of Teachers of Arabic is the best single source for Arabic language instruction in the US, during the summer, in the Arab world, and on-line.

When I started writing this post, I was hoping to alert my students to the many opportunities offered by the US government for language study, particularly Arabic. The US government offers opportunities for study of Arabic, among other “critical” languages. This means languages that US policy makers deem important for the maintenance of “national security” which, in turn, boils down to the requirements of US military and economic designs; in short, the needs of the American empire.

I don’t want to truck in imperial interests and I hate to see my students do the same. But, if the government (we taxpayers, that is) will foot the bill for broadening our linguistic and cultural horizons, can it be that bad?


Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta says, “I’m a big believer in language training and in getting our people equipped with the ability, not only to speak the language, but to understand the culture of the countries that we’re dealing with. And I say that not only because [it’s good] for each individual to be able to have that capability. But I have to tell you, it’s important to our national defense to have that capability.” Translation: yeah, language training is fine an’ all, but we really need spies. “Dealing with…” sounds benign but doubtless covers the most nefarious and bloody activities of US military and intelligence agencies.

On the one hand, the National Security Education Program (NSEP), which oversees a host of these programs, defines national security broadly as “including not only the traditional concerns of protecting and promoting American well-being, but also the challenges of global society, including sustainable development, environmental degradation, global disease and hunger, population growth and migration, and economic competitiveness.”

On the other hand, awardees for Boren Scholarships– one of the programs administered by the NSEP– are expected to serve for a year in the Defense, State, or Homeland Security Departments or in one of the intelligence agencies. Is it possible to serve the American empire as well as the challenges of global society?

The record of the US national security state in the Middle East and the death and destruction wrought by US military conquest suggests the contrary.

The Fulbright program is still, I think, not as tied to the militarist and intelligence objectives of the national security state as is the NSEP. There are modest short-term language programs for students interested in Arabic in Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco through the Fulbright Critical Language Enhancement Program.

At SIUE we are very fortunate to be able to offer first-year Arabic through the Fulbright Foreign Language Assistant Program. We are currently have our fourth teacher in this program and these teachers have done more to bring the Arab world to our campus than any one else.


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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