Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Fulfilling the mission of the Critical Language Scholarship: commitment and intent to continue language study after the CLS Program

This past Christmas 2009, I decided to stay in Rabat, where I am studying Arabic and conducting research for my dissertation on illiterate women’s political participation thanks to a National Security Education Program Boren Fellowship. Fortunately my friend Alaina, who is currently working as an English teacher a few hours north in Tetouan, was delighted to join me for a Moroccan Christmas in the capital. I met Alaina while studying beginning Arabic in 2007, and reconnecting with her after more than two years inspired me to reflect on the friends I’ve made while studying Arabic abroad on the Critical Language Scholarship.

The email informing me that I had been selected as a recipient of a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship for participation in the beginning Arabic program in Amman , Jordan arrived in my inbox in April 2007. In addition to being a tremendous honor and amazing opportunity, it was the realization of a seven year long dream to study Arabic. Throughout that time, I had made several attempts to begin Arabic language study, and each time some circumstance interfered. When I returned from studying at the Language Center at the University of Jordan, I enrolled at the nearest university to mine that offered intermediate Arabic (20 minutes away from my home university). The pace, intensity and content of my intermediate Arabic class in the US was a huge disappointment compared to the incredible, learning-packed summer I had spent. The decision to reapply for CLS was obvious, and I was thrilled to receive a 2nd CL Scholarship for intermediate Arabic in Tangier, Morocco. Although that summer was very different from the previous one, the learning was no less intense and profound. Again I came back to my home university, enrolled in the nearest advanced Arabic class (a different school, 45 minutes away), and again experienced the same let-down after the high-paced summer of learning. Fortunately the CLS program wasn’t finished with me. I won a third CL Scholarship for advanced Arabic in Cairo, Egypt.

The U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship Program was launched in 2006, and I was among the fortunate few to be chosen during the 2nd year of the program. During the summers of 2007, 2008, and 2009, I studied at 3 different CLS Arabic sites in 3 different countries. As a full time PhD student in my real life, the intervening summers were the only time available to me to dedicate myself to mastering Arabic, and the CLS Program was the ideal conduit. During those CLS summers, I made many friends and have been able to reconnect with several of them, despite hectic schedules and lots of traveling. The major reason that we’ve been able to maintain contact is because of the mutual dedication to the fulfillment of the mission of Critical Language Scholarship—the commitment to continue language study after the program. From my beginning Arabic days in Jordan in 2007, I met up this year with Nazneen who was researching in Cairo, Rachel in Rabat when she visited as a part of her present work in Lebanon, and of course Alaina in Tetouan where she currently works. From intermediate Arabic in Morocco in 2008, I continued Arabic study with Lauren when we returned home, and I celebrated US Independence Day with Alex W. in Cairo this year. And as for advanced Arabic in Cairo, there are countless plans to welcome my former classmates in Morocco—Zach already has his tickets to visit at the end of this month, and others are planning trips. While I have enjoyed seeing many other fellow CLSers, I mention these specifically because they all occurred as a result of continued Arabic study—essentially the fulfillment of the ethos of CLS and the National Security Education Program initiatives.

Although my time in Morocco hasn’t even reached a half-way point, I am relentlessly diligent in pursuing additional opportunities to study Arabic in the Middle East, and meanwhile encouraging my fellow Arabophiles to do the same.

A(n extremely unscientific) comparative study of 3 Arab capitals.

After 11 weeks in Amman in the summer of 2007 and 9 weeks in Cairo in the summer of 2009, I was completely in love with Rabat after less than a week. Below are 3 among many reasons…

1. Rabat is completely walkable. Although it’s a bit unfair to compare Rabat (pop. 2 million, 5321/km2 (13781.3/sq mi)) to Cairo (pop. 17 million, 31582/km2 (81797/sq mi)), it beats Amman (pop. 2.5 million, 1680 km2 (648.7 sq mi)) despite its smaller size because it is flat and paved. Amman started on 7 hills and now includes 19 hills, and few of the neighborhoods have serviceable pedestrian paths. Even in a hurry, transportation in Rabat is a dream.

2. Taxi drivers in Rabat not only turn on the meter without prompting (almost always), they give change without bitching! In Cairo, meters, when not broken, are based on gas prices at 1960s values. Thus negotiating is standard, and there is no guarantee that a wily driver won’t spit on a savvy, insistent foreign passenger when it comes to paying the appropriate fare. Amman taxi rides often require a request for the meter and require the passenger to know which hill or circle or major hotel is in the vicinity of the desired destination.

3. The Rabat bus system was very practical (before the strike in October 2009 leading up to the French company takeover—it is less so now, all in the name of progress) and the bus numbers are large and intelligible. Amman buses are nightmarishly complicated for foreigners (there are no route maps). Cairo buses do have the bus numbers posted, but in Eastern Arabic numerals. For all cities, bus routes are available only in guidebooks and by word-of-mouth.

To be continued…