Outside the Box by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last fall at the annual welcome bash at the president’s house, I met Allegheny’s new professor of Arabic, Reem Hilal, and her mother.

Ahlan wa sahlan, I said. Welcome.

I chatted with Hilal in my rusty Egyptian dialect and I told her I’d love to study Arabic.

Ahlan wa sahlan, she said.

I next met Reem Abou Elenain, the Fulbright foreign language teaching assistant, who hails from Alexandria, Egypt. Both Reems—Hilal and Abou Elenain—insisted my Arabic was too advanced for the beginning course and advised me to join the intermediate class. I knew better.

I have lived in Saudi Arabia and Egypt and I worked for a significant stretch of my career in the Middle East and Africa. I have no formal training in Arabic. I learned by ear—and by necessity.

I speak street. I knew enough Arabic to scream at the man who called me a sharmota, whoreas I passed near Tahrir Square when I was a young journalist in Cairo. I had enough vocabulary and moxie—yes, moxie is part of the language—to talk riot police into letting me pass through their phalanx during Gulf War protests.

Yet, I don’t know classical Arabic, the gorgeous language of the Quran, Islam’s holy book, with its lyrical script that I can barely read and a grammar I have never tackled.

I held my own in the early weeks of intermediate Arabic. As the semester passed, I attended fewer classes. As a professor, I discovered that teaching class, grading assignments and attending meetings often sidelined my attempts at being a student.

And, as a professor, I am keenly aware that I set an example whether I am in front of a class or in it. By midterm, I realized I couldn’t keep up—and worse, I wasn’t setting a good example. I was embarrassed when I didn’t have the right answers to write on the white board. The students were gracious and patient with me. I eventually beat a retreat.

This semester Reem Hilal is on maternity leave and Reem Abou Elenain is back in Egypt. I spoke with Bilal Humeidan, the professor teaching Arabic this fall, and Salah Algabli, the new Fulbright assistant.

Déjà vu.

After chatting with me, Salah insisted I take intermediate Arabic. I insisted I needed the beginning class.

Three times each week, I join a group of intrepid Allegheny students in a tiny classroom in Ruter Hall where we stumble and sparkle through our Arabic lessons. It’s fun to be a student. I join others at the board for dictation exercises. We play games to improve our vocabulary.

Last week Humeidan led an impromptu Arabic version of Pictionary, a game I’ve never played in English. The word was shebaab, people. As I stood at the board with my dry erase marker poised, I decided it would take too long to draw a crowd of faces, so I wrote the word in Arabic. I felt clever. Problem solved. My team guessed correctly—though I was disqualified. Not so clever. I learned a player can only draw images—no words allowed.

Who knew? I know I’m still competitive, just as I was as an undergrad. I still strive for an A in class.

I took the first quiz. I wasn’t sure how I’d done. I would like to have studied more. I would prefer if my memory and retention were as sharp as when I studied French and Russian years ago at Oregon State University.

When the professor returned my quiz, I didn’t dare look at it. I hesitated. Then I opened it slowly and peaked at the score. An A. A smile busted out across my face and I busted into a happy dance.

I couldn’t help myself. I posted on Facebook. “I got an A on my Arabic quiz. As a student, I’ve still got game.” My friends around the world gave me thumbs up.

I enjoy learning. I don’t mind looking silly, taking a risk in Pictionary or mispronouncing a word. I’m learning to read and write Arabic. Alhamdulillah. Thanks be to God.

I do mind falling behind. It is getting tougher to keep up now. We switched books and gears. We’ve finished learning the alphabet and we’re on to bigger things: grammar, syntax and verbs. The amount of homework and the time needed to complete it doubled overnight.

I tell students in our journalism courses that one of the keys to success in class, and in life, is to show up. That’s what I intend to do. Keep showing up.

There’s a midterm on the horizon.

I can do this. Insha’allaah. If God wills it.

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/outside-the-box-key-to-success-in-class-and-life/article_ce85287a-5a23-11e4-939a-d74312c02238.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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