Web Exclusives: Raising Kate

a PAW web exclusive column by Kate Swearengen '04 (kswearen@princeton.edu)

Illustration by Henry Martin ’48

September 11, 2002:

My Arabic summer
Heading for Egypt now requires more than just guts

Middlebury, Vermont, is an hour's drive south on Route 7 from Burlington. A little more than 100 years ago, Middlebury gained national prominence when educational reformer Emma Willard founded the Middlebury Female Seminary on its Main Street; nowadays, the town is more famous for its intensive summer language programs. Middlebury College offers French, German, Italian, and Spanish programs that require their students to communicate in the designated language and only in the designated language for a period of seven weeks, as well as programs in Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian, in which one communicates in the designated language and only in the designated language for nine weeks. I was in the Arabic program, and let me tell you, nine weeks is a long time.

Class met four-and-a-half hours a day, five days a week. We studied Classical Arabic, or FusHa — the Arabic of al Jazeera and the dailies. Three hours a week were spent studying the colloquial dialect of our choice — Egyptian, Levantine, Moroccan, or Palestinian. I chose the Egyptian dialect, reasoning that tongue would be the most conducive to my survival when I spend this fall semester in Cairo.

Middlebury was rigorous, but the monotony was what really got to us. French toast alternated with pancakes every morning at breakfast; there were between five and six hours of homework every night, and on Saturday we watched Arabic movies in the air-conditioned auditorium. The monotony was such that "hatha al bernamij mithla sijin" — this program is like a prison — became the catchphrase of the Arabic school. Interestingly enough, Mustafa Balel, a former Moroccan national and a professor of history at the University of Chicago, told his class that Middlebury really is like prison. He should know. A member of a Marxist student group during his college days in Morocco, Dr. Balel was imprisoned for 10 years for attempting to overthrow the government.

In past years, enrollment in the Arabic school has been modest — generally somewhere between 60 and 70 students — but 2002 was a special summer, and the program filled up by mid-April. The 120 students in the Arabic program were an eclectic bunch. There were the State Department types who, in the short term, are aiming to pass the foreign service examination. In the long term, they want ambassadorships and houses in Georgetown. There were the academics — anthropology and comparative literature doctorate students who want to learn Arabic to conduct independent research. Rounding out the group were the military people, fresh out of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey and service duty in Bahrain, who stoically awaited the arrival of the dormitory's elevator so they could descend the two floors to the lobby en masse.

There was a Princeton contingent of respectable size studying Arabic at Middlebury. Karen and Zaki, graduate students in the Near Eastern Studies department, and Hilary, an undergraduate in the same department, elected to eat, breathe, and sleep Arabic for the fair months of July and August. Karen is known around Princeton for her activism on behalf of Palestinian nationhood and for her bicycle, which sports a wicker basket, a silver bell, and white streamers that erupt from the handlebars. I don't know much about Zaki other than that he's from California and reputedly has a remarkable aptitude for karoake. Hilary, who had toyed around with operations research and financial engineering before shifting her allegiance to the Near Eastern Studies department, had not studied Arabic prior to Middlebury, but soon became an Arabic maven.

The CIA recruiters were also at Middlebury, in full force. They courted the Chinese and Russian school students, but the students in the Arabic program were the big game. Arabic specialists get $30,000 a year for the privilege of sitting behind a desk and translating foreign newspapers. Because, you know, Osama bin Laden publishes all his top-secret plans on the front page of al Watan.

After a few weeks at Middlebury, you find that you can speak in Arabic about a wide range of subjects with a modest range of depth. In my third-year class we talked about Third World debt-relief, Pakistan and India's nuclear brinkmanship, and the diminished role of the UN in the face of American hegemony. All of these topics were of interest to my professor, who had styled himself as something of a Syrian Bolshevik, but none fascinated him so much as the sex scandal in the Catholic Church. From this topic, Mahmoud went on to the issue of gay rights in the Middle East (nonexistent), and told us that there are 55 homosexuals in all of Syria. Fifty-five seemed like a small number, considering that there are 164 people who identify themselves as such in my state House district in Columbia, Missouri. The rest of the class was skeptical, too. Only 55? we asked Mahmoud. He responded affirmatively. Only 55, and they all live together in a big building in Damascus, where the government can keep an eye on them.

I joke about incidents such as these, and I complain about the difficulty and the monotony of Arabic bootcamp. The bottom line, though, is that I left Vermont having crammed a year's worth of Arabic study into nine weeks. I figure if I can haggle for souvenirs when I get to Cairo, it's money well spent.


You can reach Kate at kswearen@princeton.edu