Web Exclusives: Raising Kate
a PAW web exclusive column by Kate
Swearengen '04 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
|Illustration by Henry Martin 48
September 11, 2002:
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
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 email@example.com