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Saturday, July 05, 2008

Teaching Arabic with propaganda

In Saturday's Washington Post, Harvard law student Joel Pollak reports that more Americans studying at elite universities like Harvard are learning Arabic. One would hope that means that the CIA and other US intelligence agencies will have a pool of loyal, Arabic-speaking Americans from which it can draw agents, thus correcting a problem that existed on 9/11. Unfortunately, that may not be the case. That's because the beginner's Arabic textbook that is used on most US college campuses today is full of anti-American and anti-Israeli propaganda.
Most maps of the Middle East in "Al-Kitaab" do not include Israel, though a substantial minority of Israelis, both Jews and Arabs, are native Arabic speakers. Alongside simple Arabic poems, students read about anti-Western heroes such as Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The DVD that comes with "Al-Kitaab" includes footage of Nasser's mass rallies in Cairo -- including slogans in Arabic and French such as "Brother Nations in Struggle, We Are By Your Side." These scenes of totalitarian rage are fondly described by the narrator as "dreams of his youth."

The accompanying lesson describes the highlights of Nasser's career, including the nationalization of the Suez Canal and the formation of the United Arab Republic. No mention is made of Egypt's defeat in the Six-Day War or of Nasser's brutal, repressive rule. In my class, we were asked to recite a passage about Nasser to practice our vocalization. (I refused.)

The last lesson in the book -- which we skipped -- features Maha's mother speaking wistfully of her childhood in Palestine: "My childhood was taken from me!" Over mournful music on the DVD, she talks about returning to Jerusalem, as if she were a refugee, but the images suggest that she left voluntarily after the Six-Day War, when Israel offered citizenship to the Arab residents of East Jerusalem. The fact that Israel also claims Jerusalem as its capital is ignored.

My class watched three movies this semester, all with political themes. One was "West Beirut," which cast Christians as the prime bad guys in Lebanon's civil war (though, to be fair, there was plenty of hatred all around). Another was "The Tale of Three Jewels," an allegorical film about Palestinian nationalism that portrayed Israeli soldiers as bloodthirsty child-killers.

The third movie, "Destiny," told the story of the great medieval Islamic philosopher Averroes and his struggles against Islamic religious fundamentalism. It was a bit more nuanced than the first two. But the film omitted the fact that it was only through the Hebrew transcription of Averroes's writings by Jewish scholars in Egypt that his works were preserved for posterity.
I'm sure that most of you won't be surprised to hear that Al-Kitaab, the Arabic textbook is published by Georgetown University Press. In December 2005, Georgetown accepted a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Alsaud to expand its Islamic studies department. I'm sure Prince Alwaleed is pleased with how his donation is being used to indoctrinate another generation of Americans.

Read the whole thing.


At 8:18 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Its disturbing to hear Saudi values being disseminated in America. I just wonder how Americans would react if they knew such a medieval view of Jews and the West is very much current in the 21st Century.

At 8:56 AM, Blogger anonwag said...

Perhaps those of you nattering on about supposed anti-Western propaganda would like to read a pretty thorough dismantling of Pollak's prattle? (Probably not, but I'll assume some modicum of intellectual honesty.)


At 7:16 PM, Blogger semi-expert said...

Mr Pollak must not have been paying close attention in class, because the first map of the Arab world in al-Kitaab’s introductory volume Alif Baa, which teaches the alphabet, appears on page 138. Students are asked to find the names of all of the countries in the Arab Middle East (except Djibouti, Somalia, and the Comoros Islands), and they are prompted to label number 4 on the map as “Israel and Palestine”. I think this would not suit Mr Pollack, however, given the carping tone of his argument. In book I of the series, a map of the Arab world appears on page 13, in which none of the States are labeled, but students are asked to give the nationalities of some of the Arab caricatures appearing in association of some countries. They have to learn how to form adjectives describing nationalities. There are no Palestinians and no Israelis (after all it is a textbook about Arabic not Hebrew, even though some Arab Jews still retain their language and some non-Arab Israeli Jews speak the language well), and the other comes on page 389 (in chapter 20 which Mr Pollak by his own admission skipped). The map is derived from an article in the London paper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and depicts the the Eastern Mediterranean holdings of the Ottoman Empire before and immediately after WWI. There was no country called Israel at that time which could be placed on an accurate map.


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