I had a wonderful experience starting to learn Arabic yesterday at the Islamic Center in Washington DC. Most of the Arabic courses I found would cost between 300 and 1000 dollars for the summer, and the times do not fit my schedule. After a great deal of searching, I found this Saturday Arabic class and this Sunday class. I decided on the Saturday class. Looking over the Islamic Center’s website, I got a little nervous. I didn’t want to wear a suit jacket (my conservative dress solution when I was in Qatar) on a Saturday, but did not have other conservative clothing to wear.
My roommate was a little appalled that I was willing to change how I looked just to go to an Arabic class. I tried to explain that the point of me going to the class was not to be shocking, it was to learn Arabic. And if people in the class felt uncomfortable because I was wearing a sleeve-less shirt and shorts, that would get in the way of my studying Arabic. She saw it as a weird attempt to fit in with people whose opinions I didn’t even know. I have had a lot of friends think this.
I am pretty sure I would have been bothered more in the past by feeling compelled to dress a certain way. But last summer, I spent 2 days a week wearing a suit, hose and leather pumps to fit the expectations of an internship–and I will go on the record saying that I would rather wear a shirt with 3/4 length sleeves and even a head scarf than wear a full suit and pumps on a Saturday. Especially since the Islamic Center is about a mile away from the nearest Metro, it is is hot and humid in DC. At least conservative Islamic dress is comfortable.
I finally decided to wear CMU-Q shirt, sort of a baby-doll t with the phrase “Carnegie Mellon Qatar” in both Arabic and English, and one of my scarves from Qatar to cover my bare arms if necessary. The walk up Massachusetts Ave near DuPont (also known as Embassy Row) was a little hot, but mostly it was fascinating. I saw the Zimbabwe Embassy, the Chinese Embassy, the Argentinian Embassy, and tons of smaller embassies at which I did not take time to look. The architecture varied from row-houses to Victorian mansions with carriage drives, to ugly, utilitarian block buildings (I think that was the Chinese Embassy). If you use Google Street View you should be able to see what I’m talking about.
I had been walking for about 20 minutes and was getting worried I had mixed up the numbers of the street address when I looked up and saw a soaring minaret. Aha! I thought, and felt a little nostalgic for Fanar, the Islamic Cultural Center in Doha, Qatar. It feels weird to miss a place so suddenly when I only visited it for a week. I saw a tub of Tabbouleh at Whole Foods, and teared up a little. I totally went into a Middle Eastern coffee shop in downtown Palo Alto just for the smell. On the news, every time I see men in dishdashes or see a minaret, I feel a little tug under my ribs.
Through a gate in the tall black-iron fence around the Islamic Center, I walked purposefully around was looked to be the remnants of a wedding party. Finding a door marked “Administration”, I poked my head in and asked where the Arabic class was. Passing a door with rules for the Mosque–“4. Women Will Please Cover Their Heads Inside the Mosque”–I went down some external stairs into the basement of the mosque, jerking my scarf over my head. I nervously looked in and, without actually entering the mosque, asked the first woman I saw (a white woman with a Alice Blue head-scarf) if I needed to cover. She said “No, you’re fine”. I put my scarf back on my shoulders and went inside.
The basement was an open floor plan, with space for a classroom divided off with a white-board and a partial wall. There were two columns of old-style wooden school chairs (ones where the desk portion is fixed). There was one woman in the left column and about five men in the right. I sat with the woman, and waited to see what was going on. She looked Indonesian, with that country’s signature white head-scarf and small pattered loose, long-sleeved, ankle-length dress. There was a large man in a dishdash at the front of the classroom. The woman next to me asked him if he had married the couple up stairs, and he said he had. I guessed he was an Imam, though I don’t know for sure.
As the class wandered in and began, it turned out it was in its final weeks, having started in January. The majority of the free beginners Arabic class had been coming fairly regularly, and had brought sentences in Arabic to read aloud to the class. Thankfully, there were quite a few people, men and women, who were here for the first time
The room was purposefully gender divided–men on the right, women on the left. The teacher seemed to know most of the students, and called on women as often as men, making sure the quieter ones (women) participated and the louder (men) waited their turn. All of the women were covered, except for me. There were three women who chatted in French and looked African, one woman (the first I had sat next to) who looked Indonesian or Malaysian and spoke English with no accent, and a few other women who sat behind me who I didn’t get a chance to look at. None of the men covered their heads, except for one man who looked African and spoke with what I think was an East African accent. There were several white men there who seemed to be taking this for either school or work.
Realizing that I would not be able to follow most of the lessons (which involved word choice) the teacher assigned the other newcomers and I to work on copying down the alphabet. Since there are 3 forms for each letter (one for when it is at the beginning of a word, one for the middle and one for the end of a word). Copying from a chart on the board, working right to left in the notebook in columns, I copied a letter and its forms about 15 times each. By the end of class I had just finished Sin, about 2/3 of the way through the Arabic alphabet.
At the end of the lesson, I went up stairs and bought the textbook. Flipping through it on the Metro out of DuPont, I found it was focused on teaching Arabic as part of teaching Islam. Most of the advanced exercises involve copying prayers or verses from the Koran. However, the earliest stuff is what I need to worry about, and all of that is how to form letters, basic words, stuff like that.
I very much look forward to going to class next week, hopefully with two of the legal interns from work who want to work on their Arabic (they should probably be in the Advanced section which meets at a different time, but I think we will all go together to the beginning session) and some other Friedman Fellows.
When I next go, I will probably try to find a long-sleeved shirt, though I don’t think I will cover my head. I find it weird that Muslim men in the US don’t cover when the women do. In Qatar, the vast majority of the Qatari men I saw had their heads covered, since it was out of respect for God rather than a gendered thing. In the US, most of the men dress in t-shirts and jeans, while the women are wear loose-fitting clothes and scarves. I think I would have been ok covering if the men were covering, but since they’re not, I won’t.
Oddly, I am not bothered by the gendered seating in the classroom. I think if the teacher had refused to call on women, or had been harder on them than the men, I would have minded. But he seemed just as fair, interested and engaged with the women as he did with the men. Perhaps it is that I spent the last week reading about women who are sold in marriage by their fathers to older men in exchange for furniture, or women whose mothers subject them to FGM and other tortures for the future sexual please of their husbands. Right now I don’t feel outrage that my in beginning Arabic class women have to sit on one side of the room and men on the other, as long as we are treated the same. There are so many bigger fights to pick.
I will be going back–anyone want to join me?
Acts of injustice done
between the setting and the rising sun
In history lie like bones,
each one.– W. H. Auden, “The Ascent of F6”