Many enroll in Arabic classes in attempt to understand region

The Associated Press
Monday October 22, 2001

SAN FRANCISCO – Schools offering classes in Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages are being inundated with students who believe that education is the key to understanding the state of today’s world. 

Schools nationwide have reported waiting lists for classes that once had lackluster enrollment from Los Angeles to Stanford to Washington, D.C. 

“The telephone is ringing off the hook every day,” said Shukri Abed, chairman of the languages department at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. “It is unbelievable. Scores of students are coming. I’ve never seen anything like this.” 

Abed said he’s taking 40 to 50 calls a day from interested students. He typically has 90 students a quarter in his beginning Arabic class, but this year he has 130. 

There is a waiting list for Arabic at the University of California, Los Angeles Extension, where many adults take classes. Administrators there have decided to add another class for winter quarter. At the University of California, Berkeley Extension, an Arabic class was unexpectedly full starting Sept. 12. 

Many Americans say they feel helpless, and the only real difference they can make is by gaining knowledge. And some say they’re willing to dedicate years to learn a language that’s very difficult for native English speakers. 

“It looks as if there will be a lot of U.S. involvement, and people who can speak and read Arabic will be needed,” said Cari Sietstra, 26, a third-year law student at Stanford University. “Our policies in that region certainly will have to be reformulated.” 

Sietstra signed up for a class in Arabic after the Sept. 11 attacks and wants to work in the Middle East after graduation. 

“I knew I would feel better if I was doing something,” Sietstra said. “I can’t donate hundreds of thousands of dollars, and I can’t help fix what happened in New York and Washington, but I can do one small thing that may be useful.” 

The interest was partly spurred by a plea after the attacks from FBI Director Robert Mueller. He called for help from Americans who speak Arabic, Farsi or Pashto. More than 15,000 applications have since flooded the bureau to fill its 200 linguist positions. 

Stockbrokers, lawyers and Vietnam War veterans have signed up for language classes at the Monterey Institute of International Studies to try to help. 

But language experts warn students to not expect to start translating anytime soon. It takes an average of about 63 weeks to get a basic understanding of Arabic, compared to about 25 weeks for Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese. 

“I thought they were speaking some other language,” said Rick Francona, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who served as Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf’s translator during the Persian Gulf War. “So you have to become conversant in the dialect.” 

And while teachers admire the flurry of interest, they say it’s sad it took a tragedy for people to become interested in the world. 

“It is insane for people like me who have been yelling at empty halls for 25 years,” said Khalil Barhoum, coordinator of Stanford’s program for African and Middle Eastern languages and literature. “Once you know people’s culture, they are not scary. And once you know their language, it is the key to the heart.”