Monday, October 8, 2007

The Popularity of Arabic

I arranged to meet Emily by the big Ummayad mosque, the main mosque across from the 3rd century Western Temple gate, Rome's offering to Jupiter. To here Jesus is understood at some time in the future to return before he converts all Christians to Islam. So much for the much anticipated drama of the Mount of Olives, then.

Emily brought along her Australian friend, Sarah, and an American called Kevin, who only arrived in Damascus the previous day. Like Emily they're here to improve their Arabic. Apparently, so I've been reading, interest in studying Arabic has risen noticeably since 9/11. I wonder what the motivations behind this might be. I can think of three reasons, all interrelated, in no special order of importance.

Firstly, on 9/11 the world suddenly became an 'interesting place' again, in a way it had stopped being when the Berlin Wall collapsed and nothing acted any longer as a defining, chiselling force to give shape to America's sense of identity and importance. Unrivalled hegemony was all well and good, but a bit vacuous and tended to mean the President's sexual proclivities became front page news. Nothing else had the power to fascinate in a more serious way. The nineties were years of global innocence, but trivial and inane. At last with 9/11, America had a proper enemy again and the West could get down to the serious business of being frightened and martial, just like in the good old, cold war days days when we could believe, like we can now, that our whole lives are being lived inside a second rate Hollywood blockbuster. On the principle 'Know your Enemy', therefore, Arabic became important as the language of the 'enemy', despite the fact that most Muslims don't speak Arabic as their first language.

Secondly, some people in the west felt guilty for the ways they perceived the West had treated the Arabic sphere in previous decades, to a degree sensing that New York had deserved being attacked by Al-Qaeda, despite the fact that lots of non-westerners died in these attacks and that much of the the Islamic world immediately condemned them. So again, on the principle, 'Know your enemy' but for the opposite reason - to be reconciled to it - Arabic became more attractive as a field of study.

Thirdly, I imagine Arabic has become more popular simply because more people are now aware of the Middle East than they were before. No other geo-political region of the world receives as much interest and attention, because of 9/11 centrally, but also because of the worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian situation after the failed Camp David summit and the invasion of Iraq.

I definitely got the impression, which was nice, that the people I met in Damascus were only learning Arabic for the second of the two reasons, for peaceable and genuinely educative ones, which is obviously a good thing.

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