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Translating the Arab World: Language, religion and culture are keys to understanding diverse region, scholars say

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The Arab world comprises more than 300 million people in 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It is a rich and diverse culture, but one few Americans are familiar with.

While more than one million Arabs live in the United States, the majority live in five states—California, New York, Michigan, Florida and New Jersey—so Arabic language and culture remain quite foreign for many Americans.

Mahmoud Al-Batal and Kristen Brustad
“Government agencies, universities and private companies are eager for fluent Arabic speakers,” says Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal, pictured with Dr. Kristen Brustad. “Not only will students learn about a rich culture and language, but they will open the door to numerous opportunities after graduation.”

Kristen Brustad, an Arabic studies associate professor at The University of Texas at Austin, recalls a lecture during the mid-1990s. She asked the College of William and Mary audience of roughly 75 to raise their hands if they knew anything about the Middle East, where the majority of Arabs live. Only two did. Then she asked who knew something about women in the Middle East, and nearly half raised their hands.

That response, Brustad says, is indicative of the assumptions and myths that many Westerners rely on. Cultural, religious and linguistic differences often serve as barriers, preventing an accurate picture of the Arab world from emerging. Even the phrase "Arab world," which refers to people who speak Arabic as their first language, is often misused, mistakenly viewed as synonymous with the Middle East or the Muslim world.

Once relegated to the periphery of American life, mostly in stereotypical film and television depictions, Arab culture was thrust into the spotlight after Sept. 11, 2001. During the following months, enrollment in Arabic language classes skyrocketed, the Qur’an became a bestseller, and Oprah Winfrey dedicated an episode of her talk show to understanding Islam, the predominant religion in most Arab-speaking countries.

The war in Iraq increased interest, as soldiers, government officials, journalists and private contractors, many with limited knowledge of the language or culture, adjusted to life in a foreign land.

The first step toward true understanding of Arab culture is gaining knowledge of Arabic language, Brustad says. Both ancient texts and modern-day marketplace negotiations hold valuable clues about the Arab world.

Sheila Weaver
Senior Sheila Weaver studied abroad in Damascus, Syria. She hopes to someday teach Arabic.

Although the U.S. government has identified Arabic as a language critical to national security, few Americans are proficient. Interest in the language has soared in recent years, but college enrollment is far below more popular languages. In 2002, 10,000 students enrolled in college-level Arabic courses, compared to more than 700,000 in Spanish.

Sheila Weaver, a senior in the university's Arabic Flagship Program (sidebar), encountered the language while working at an Arab restaurant. She began Arabic classes, and stayed at work after her shift to watch Arabic television and practice speaking with her coworkers. She is devoted to the language, planning to live in the Middle East after graduation and, eventually, teach Arabic.

During the summer, Weaver experienced her first taste of life abroad, studying Arabic in Damascus, Syria. Unaccustomed to foreign visitors from Western countries, residents were surprised to learn Weaver was American. But, her knowledge of the language helped smooth the transition to a culture vastly different from her own.

"Understanding the language, even a little bit, opened so many doors for me," Weaver says. "Arabs have many different customs. They value politeness and manners. I would have been lost and could have offended people if I didn't have the language to help recognize conversational nuances."

For instance, in the United States a person playfully trying to fool someone might jokingly be called a liar. But in Syria, to be called a liar under any context is extremely insulting.

"You should say 'You're a joker' or 'You're a kidder' instead," Weaver explains.

Arabic Flagship Program

Al-MutawakkilResponding to the critical need for advanced Arabic speakers, the university's Department of Middle Eastern Studies established a National Flagship Language Program in Arabic. The National Security Education Program awarded the university more than $700,000 to establish the program.

Attaining fluency in Arabic typically requires at least five years of study, including one year living abroad, interacting daily with native speakers. It can be a challenging language, and students sometimes drop out before reaching proficiency, either from frustration at the effort necessary to progress, or inadequate teaching and study abroad programs.

The university has one of the most prominent Arabic programs in the nation, including the largest group of tenured faculty devoted full-time to teaching Arabic language, literature and culture. It also is home to the Center for Arabic Study Abroad, the nation's premier study abroad program for Arabic students.

As part of the flagship program, undergraduate students from disciplines such as business, economics, psychology and film, will learn the language, participate in cultural activities and study abroad in an intensive yearlong program in an Arab-speaking country.

The flagship is one of the few U.S. programs designed to train students in both Modern Standard Arabic and colloquial dialects such as Egyptian and Levantine Arabic. Modern Standard Arabic is used for reading and writing. Colloquial forms are used in everyday life and are crucial to navigating day-to-day business in Arab-speaking countries.

Learn more about the Arabic Studies program at The University of Texas at Austin.

Often, it is the simple, sometimes mundane, moments such as telling a joke, ordering dinner or hailing a taxi that provide the most meaningful insight into a culture.

Mealtime rituals reveal Arabs' pride in hospitality. If a guest eats all the food on his or her plate, the host will continue to serve additional portions, no matter how much the guest may protest. The host only will stop serving after the guest proclaims, "Al-hamdu lillah," ("Thank God") signifying satisfaction with the meal.

A Focus on Faith

The word Allah ("God") is used in many Arabic expressions, reflecting God's place in everyday Arab life. When discussing future plans, Arabic speakers follow a statement with In shaa' allah (literally "If God wills," or "hopefully").

"Westerners taught not to speak God's name in vain are sometimes shocked to hear the word 'Allah' spoken so often in regular speech," Brustad says. "But for Arabic speakers, it is reverential."

Misconceptions about religion in the Arab world are common, says Martha Newman, acting chair of the Department of Religious Studies. Stereotypical notions of religious homogeneity, veiled women and violent jihads distort reality.

Most Arabs are Muslim (followers of Islam), but the majority of the world's Muslims live in South Asia, not the Middle East. Middle Eastern countries such as Lebanon and Syria are religiously diverse and are home to Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Christians and Roman Catholics, as well as Druze and Alawite communities, which are offshoots of Islam.

Lebanon has a large Christian population that includes Maronite and Melkite Catholics, and Greek and Armenian Orthodox communities. The country recognizes 18 different religions.

Perhaps as much as one tenth of Egyptians are Coptic Christians, a denomination founded in the early orthodox Christian church.

"If you think about the Arab world monolithically, you lose the complexities of the religious, cultural and ethnic landscape of the region," Newman says. "What people call 'religious conflicts' are complex. They're about politics, natural resources and power, as well."

Despite the Arab world's enormous religious diversity, the region's linguistic history connects it most intimately to Islam.

Muslims believe God revealed the Qur’an, Islam's holy book, directly to the prophet Mohammed in Arabic. Because Muslims believe the Qur’an is the manifestation of God, they consider Arabic the language of God. Many devout Muslims learn Arabic for this reason and believe that translations of the Qur’an are inadequate, Newman says.

Martha Newman
Dr. Martha Newman says the Arab world has a complex religious, cultural and ethnic landscape.

Arabic did not have a formal writing system until the Qur’an, at which point one quickly developed. Because of this connection, the written language has changed little, despite the evolution of spoken dialects through the years, says Mahmoud Al-Batal, associate professor of Arabic studies and director of the university's Arabic Flagship Program.

Many Arabs feel they do not know classical Arabic, the language of the Qur’an, as well as they should, because of the gap between that language and contemporary everyday speech. While there are more than 300 million people living in Arabic-speaking countries, there are nearly 1.5 billion Muslims who use Arabic for prayers and religious rituals. Throughout the world, scholars, linguists and religious leaders debate whether or not to modernize classical Arabic and how that would affect people's grasp of the Qur’an.

Arabs in America

The need for deeper understanding of Arab culture in terms of foreign relations and global communication is quite clear. As record numbers of Arabs settle in the United States, it also is increasingly important on the domestic front.

Islam is the fastest growing religion in the United States and the Arab population increased by 40 percent during the 1990s, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

Arabs arrived in the United States during the late 19th century, with a second wave following World War II that continues today, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. The largest Arab American populations have roots in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

Arab culture and civilization have long affected American life. Arabs were instrumental in early mathematics, science and linguistics, inventing or developing systems commonly used today. Modern influential Arab Americans include political activist Ralph Nader, author Kahlil Gibran, Indy 500 champion Bobby Rahal, menswear designer Joseph Abboud and longtime White House correspondent Helen Thomas.

LISTEN to an ad for an Arabic television show about international figures such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa (0:56).

Aswaat Arabiyya Listen to more Arabic with Aswaat Arabiyya (Arabic Voices), a listening comprehension program.

Understanding the Arab world requires an updated exploration of American culture, as the two regions continue to develop a closer relationship. Despite vast geographical, linguistic and sometimes cultural separation, many who have traversed the divide insist there are as many commonalities as differences.

Brustad has spent many years traveling between the United States and the Arab region, and each journey reveals new truths about both cultures, she says.

After graduating from college, Brustad lived in Egypt. She felt a deep sense of pride and affection for her home away from home. Working for the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad and later the American University in Cairo, her time in Egypt cultivated a lifelong fascination and love for the region and the language.

"Diving in and learning a different language or culture is an incredibly rewarding and exciting adventure," says Brustad, who is now among the leading Arabic scholars in the country. "When one discovers and embraces differences while enjoying shared experiences, the two worlds somehow seem a bit less far apart."

Interested in learning more about the Arab world? Check out the Did You Know? section, as well as a list of books and films recommended by professors Al-Batal and Brustad.

By Tracy Mueller

Inside photos: Christina Murrey

Banner photo: Arabic Qur’an, circa 1150, Harry Ransom Center

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  Updated 18 December 2007
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