After the last school bell rang yesterday at Roosevelt High School, students climbed the stairs to Room 221, where Saadia Al-Tahir waited for them with a cheery “marhaba.”
The students said hello back to their Arabic teacher, whose dark blue head scarf frames her warm eyes and encouraging smile.
For the past three weeks, students at Roosevelt and three other Seattle high schools have spent two days a week studying Arabic after school. The classes are put on by the local non-profit OneWorld Now!
Kristen Hayden, its founder, said she started the program to give students a broader view of the world.
“The obvious reason we do this is that it will give them job opportunities,” Hayden said. “The U.S. government is desperate for Arabic speakers. But it goes way beyond language.”
The 70 students who have signed up for the program spend Friday afternoons in leadership training workshops.
After they’ve taken a school year of classes, the students will get a chance to test their skills next summer when Hayden plans to send Arabic students to Morocco and 15 students of Chinese to China.
The trip to Morocco is what lured Alexis Powell, a 16-year-old junior. Now that she’s in the class, learning the language seems daunting. “I’m kind of scared of it,” she said.
“But with everything going on in the world, if I could speak Arabic, it would open up a lot of doors for me.”
On Friday, students in the program from Roosevelt, Ingraham, Cleveland and Garfield met for the first time in a conference room near Pioneer Square. It was the first leadership training session. To break the ice, Matt Kelley, who ran the workshop, asked where the students were born.
“Anyone not born in Seattle?” he asked.
The responses covered the globe. They called out Romania, Vietnam, Switzerland and Somalia. Bellingham was met with a chuckle.
Outside college classrooms, there are limited options for young people to study Arabic, said Felicia Hecker, the associate director of Middle East Center at the University of Washington’s Jackson School of International Studies. As a result, beginning Arabic classes are crowded and few students are able to master Arabic in four years.
Hecker, who sits on the non-profit’s board, hopes that the program gives students a jump-start in studying Arabic and kindles an interest in a foreign culture.
“There’s no way to thoroughly understand a foreign culture until you can master another language,” she said. “This is the avenue through which you make personal contact with people. You always remain an outsider if you can’t speak the language.”
Roosevelt offers the usual French, German and Spanish classes as well as Latin and Japanese. The Arabic class, however, isn’t for credit.
To start, Al-Tahir has focused on teaching the alphabet, writing script that starts on the right side of the white board and drifts to the left. Her students describe it as looking “cool.” Their first impression, Al-Tahir said, was, “Wow, this is so curly.”
Because Arabic adopts different words and accents wherever it’s used, Saadia Al-Tahir avoids vernacular and teaches classical Arabic, called fusha.
Her students go by their Arabic names in class. Adrienne became Leila, and Michael is now Mikhael. They can already handle the basics. “Marhaba” and “shukran” — hello and thank you — are exchanged freely.
Al-Tahir said she thought that learning Arabic would help her students see through blanket generalizations tying Arabs to terrorism, and counter the fear that comes from misunderstanding. They’ll be able to separate an individual from the millions of people that make up the Arab world.
“I think that when you say ‘Arabs’ or ‘Islam,’ people think of buildings being bombed,” she said. “People associate Arabs with terrorists. Maybe some people have a fear in their heart.
“By getting to know the language, they get to know the people and the culture. And that fear will disappear.”