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Lost in translation: Connecting youths with Arabic

Group photo of international students in the Between the Lines creative writing program at the University of Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Between the Lines)

BEIRUT: Teens from Lebanon and the Arab world exposed the fragility of a deteriorating Arabic language in the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Between the Lines, with students favoring writing in English instead of their native Arabic.

“The Arabic tongue is deteriorating, not only because of globalization and the mainstream English language, but because the educational system in the Arab World is connecting the language to social values that are no longer convenient for the youth,” said Lebanese novelist and writing instructor Iman Humaydan.

Humaydan has presided over students from at least nine different Arabic countries -- with different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds -- in an attempt to reintroduce the Arabic language to the classroom.

Many of her students were initially resistant to the Arabic tongue, with students refusing to participate at first because they believed that they were entering an purely English writing program.

“What really was a serious issue was to make these students believe that their mother tongue is capable of reflecting their inner selves,” said Humaydan.

The novelist and writer expressed her view that orthodox educational methods have associated the Arabic language with religious values, and other conventional norms derived from old Arabic literature.

According to Humaydan, by eliminating contemporary Arab writers from the school curriculum and simply exposing youths to the same conventional references and teaching methods have, in turn, contributed to the death of the Arabic tongue.

“If you see what is going on in the Arab world and who is teaching the Arabic language you will understand censorship, you will see that they mix between morals and writing,” she added.

Humaydan believed that her students harbored resentment toward what was happening in the Arab world, saying that “they feel there is no hope and they want to find a way out for their future.”

In the last session on July 5, students talked about their dreams and what they’re planning to do and “very few of them said they would stay in their countries,” she added.

“I live in Burj Hammoud. I would like to study abroad and perhaps even live there,” said Megry Tchangoulian, the only Lebanese participant in the program.

Between the Lines coordinator, Kelly Morse, said that one of the struggles of the program has been that students were not writing about their own countries or cultures.

According to the coordinator, students wrote on the basis of what has been presented to them as “neutral literature, so the literature of the west,” adding that the program tried to promote global literature and not just the western conception of it.

“With the Arab kids there is a push back because they want to speak English, and write in English, and they are very distant from movements in Arabic literature. They perceive a freedom in English that they don’t feel in Arabic. What we feel our job is, is to provide a space for all languages, to show that they all have the same power, that they are all equal,” she added.

Morse lauded Humaydan’s efforts to reunite the kids with the Arabic language, saying that when the students arrived in the U.S. they realized that there are some things they can only say in their native Arab tongue.

The program's Lebanese student, Tchangoulian, expressed her own difficulty with the Arabic language -- pointing out that she “used to write only in English; however, once I joined this program I was encouraged to write in Arabic as well.”

Tchangoulian said that once she began writing in Arabic, she realized the true beauty of the language and understood how to be creative with it.

“All of the teachers inspired me but Iman Humaydan inspired me the most. I enjoyed the Arabic writing workshops with her; she explained everything in an interesting way and encouraged us to express our opinions. She advised us to find our voice and always express ourselves freely. In addition, she told us to read and read and read,” she added.

Applications for Between the Lines, a program that brings young writers, aged 16-19, to the University of Iowa for creative writing study and cultural interaction, take place via American embassies in students' home countries -- or for Americans, direct applications via the program website.

The participants come from within the U.S., Russia and the Middle East, and are evaluated according to their writing proficiency in both the English language and their native tongue.

Workshops are divided in to two daily sessions: a morning English-language literature seminar and a creative writing workshop in the students’ native languages during the afternoon.

 

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Summary

Teens from Lebanon and the Arab world exposed the fragility of a deteriorating Arabic language in the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, Between the Lines, with students favoring writing in English instead of their native Arabic.

Humaydan has presided over students from at least nine different Arabic countries -- with different cultural, linguistic and religious backgrounds -- in an attempt to reintroduce the Arabic language to the classroom.

According to Humaydan, by eliminating contemporary Arab writers from the school curriculum and simply exposing youths to the same conventional references and teaching methods have, in turn, contributed to the death of the Arabic tongue.

According to the coordinator, students wrote on the basis of what has been presented to them as "neutral literature, so the literature of the west," adding that the program tried to promote global literature and not just the western conception of it.

Tchangoulian said that once she began writing in Arabic, she realized the true beauty of the language and understood how to be creative with it.


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