BEIRUT: Despite Lebanon’s increasingly unstable political situation, students from around the globe seek its universities, eager to immerse themselves in Arab culture and the Arabic language.
The American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University are among the schools that offer intensive Arabic language programs throughout the summer. Upon acceptance, students take an entrance exam that places them into appropriate levels of fous-ha (written, formal Arabic) and ammiyya (colloquial, spoken Arabic).
AUB offers its seven-week summer intensive program through its Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies. Since its establishment in 1999, the CAMES summer intensive has evolved substantially.
According to Dr. Bilal Orfali, associate professor of Arabic Studies and director of the program, ammiyya courses were not initially part of the curriculumstudents could opt out of them completely.
“Arabic is a living language. You can’t just read it from books. You have to go and talk to your barber, you have to go and order your food, and you have to speak to real people. It’s unacceptable to study Arabic for four or five years, be able to read classical texts and still not be able to have a simple conversation,” he said.
Another emerging program in the field of critical language is the LAU SINARC program.
“In the summer, students earn a total of eight credits, which is equivalent to 20 hours of instruction per week. The program continues in the fall and spring, but it’s more intensive in the summer,” said Dr. Mimi Milki Jiha, director of the program.
Jiha explained that the program is not only centered on language teaching, but it also introduces Lebanese culture to its students. “We talk about falafel to our students, and they get to see it and taste it. So it is more of an experience than a program for learning the language,” she said.
It is no secret that the Arab world has been the subject of many recent news headlines. The value of knowing Arabic is perpetually growing, for both political and cultural reasons.
“There’s a great deal of misunderstanding between the Western world and the Arab world. The more students that are studying the Arabic language, the smaller the gap will become between the two,” said Dr. David Wilmsen, professor of Arabic and Chair of the Department of Arabic and Middle Eastern Languages at AUB.
Many universities are hesitant to send their students abroad to study in the Middle East because of growing sectarian conflict and political instability. Lebanon’s reputation as a proxy war zone and its geographical proximity to the Syrian conflict both raise legitimate security concerns.
“This year, we’re witnessing a decline,” said Jiha of LAU. “We were expecting 60 students and all we’ve got is 20. The situation in Lebanon that is accompanied by all the advisories have affected us in a negative way,” she said.
Orfali of AUB echoed similar sentiments. “There has been both an increase and decrease in student enrollment over the years. Before the war in 2006, I had around 300 applications and only 70 spots to give. At one point, our program reached 100 students,” he said.
Currently, the AUB CAMES intensive summer program hosts approximately 60 students. Orfali observed a decrease in student enrolment during and after the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and the summer war with Israel in 2006. Still, he insisted that Lebanon is best place to study in the region.
“Beirut is less intimidating than other cities in terms of openness. People speak other languages like English and French, and there’s less harassment. People come to Beirut for the cultural scene as well, for the festivals that we have, for the arts scene,” he said.
Sill Ricotta, a master’s student in Arab Studies at Georgetown University and an LAU SINARC student, is visiting Lebanon for research purposes, with the intention of directly witnessing the inner workings of the country.
“Lebanon is one of the countries that people have strong opinions about in the U.S. and in the Arab world ... but it’s a lot calmer here than what we hear, which is something you cannot realize until you witness it,” she said.
Throughout the seven-week CAMES program at AUB – the equivalent of nine course credits or a year in Arabic – students attend classes every day from 8:30 to 3:30, with optional tutoring that runs until 5:30.
“It’s a lot of work, but that’s exactly what I signed up for. I’m not going to learn a language any other way,” said Andrew Hashim, a CAMES summer intensive 2014 student.
“Language learning is always intimidating and it is always frustrating. If you’re not frustrated, then it means you’re not learning – it’s as simple as that,” said Orfali.
The AUB CAMES program boasts many immersion activities, including social work with organizations like Nasma Learning and Resource Center, which works with underprivileged children, and cultural outings to areas in Lebanon like Jbeil, Byblos, and Harissa. Its counterpart, the SINARC program at LAU, provides students with Lebanese cooking demonstrations and trips to other places in Lebanon as well.
“You should find the language interesting in its cultural setting, and you should love it. Some people act like learning a second language is a chore, but they should see it as the most important chore they could possibly have,” said Wilmsen of AUB.
As the field of Arabic studies continues to grow, so does Lebanon’s reputation as a place for language-learning. Regardless of its paralyzed political situation, the country remains attractive to students of many nationalities.