By Susie Allen
Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

“You are not in the library.”

It might seem like an easy sentence, but not for the students in Rasheed Hosein’s “Continuing Arabic” class.

The students hesitate as they try to translate the sentence from English to Arabic. A few call out tentative suggestions. Hosein tries to help the class, but concedes, “It’s a simple sentence in English, but it poses some problems for us in Arabic.”

Finally, Regina Mamou sidles up to the board. She writes the sentence in careful Arabic script. Hosein guides his students through each grammatical component, pausing to answer questions as he goes.

“So, if you took out that preposition, you’d be saying, ‘I am not a library,” one student asks. Everyone laughs.

Hosein’s Arabic sequence is one of many uncommon language classes that the Graham School of General Studies offers at the Gleacher Center. Although it has offered Yiddish, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Arabic, as well as more commonly taught languages, the Graham School is one of a few institutions to offer a course in colloquial Egyptian Arabic.

The mixture of widely available and more obscure languages reflects the broader mission of the Graham School, says Marissa Love, Assistant Director of Humanities at the Graham School and coordinator of the language program. “[We want to] stay true to the spirit of the University but also offer courses that are relevant to people’s lives,” Love explains.

Surge of Interest Since 9/11

For Sue Geshwender, one of Hosein’s students, the availability of Arabic was a draw. She lives in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, but no other schools near her offered Arabic. She says the long commute downtown is worth it. “If the University of Chicago offers it, I’d rather take it there, because the caliber of the instruction is so high.”

The motivation for each student is different. Some already know Arabic from studying the Quran. Another student says he wrote about the medieval philosopher Maimonides in his dissertation and wants to read Maimonides’ work in the original Arabic.

Geshwender’s interest in Arabic is mostly recreational, though she hopes to visit Egypt someday. Mostly she enjoys learning new languages, especially those with different alphabets.

Arabic isn’t the first language Geshwender has taken through the University—she also knows some ancient Greek and Akkadian. “I just love learning about ancient civilizations,” she explains.

Mamou’s desire to learn Arabic was “part research, part heritage.” She is applying for a Fulbright fellowship, and hopes to put her Arabic to good use while studying in Jordan.

Her father is a native Arabic speaker, and Mamou admits she has called her father for help. “He went out and bought a copy of our textbook to follow along.”

Hosein says it isn’t unusual to see such a broad range of interests in the class. A PhD candidate in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, he studies power and authority in seventh-century Arabia.

In the five years he has taught Arabic at the Graham School, he noticed a surge of interest in the program. After 9/11, students flocked to the classes, hoping it might give them an edge in applying for government jobs. He taught several journalists who went on to report from Arabic-speaking countries.

“Because the Graham School offers such a diverse mixture of classes, it attracts students from ‘a wide geographical area,’ says Love. Most students live in Chicago or the suburbs, though some commute from as far away as Wisconsin. The range of ages and interests is equally wide. Some students are retirees, while others hope the classes will advance their careers."

‘To Be’ or No ‘To Be’

No matter their motivations, the students find Arabic challenging. During a break, they talk about the difficulties of learning a language with radically different grammar. “There’s no ‘to be’ verb,” Geshwender explains. Others say it can be difficult to get used to the Arabic vowel system.

Things won’t get easier, Hosein says. Next week, he will introduce them to noun annexation, one of the trickiest concepts for English speakers to grasp. “It’s going to be fun to see how they handle it,” he says with a laugh.

Hosein laments that because the class meets only once a week, he has less time to interact with each student. That can make it difficult to diagnose problems, he says.

Still, morale is high. “The class is driven by their interest,” Hosein says. Love adds, “Nobody’s there because they have to be.”

That’s certainly true for Geshwender. Although she finds Arabic more difficult than any language she has taken, she enjoys the experience. “This class goes at just the right pace. I feel like I’ve found my home at the Graham School.”

Originally published on May 11, 2009.