Instead of watching romantic comedies, students at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh spent their Valentine’s Day perfecting their Arabic script.
Arabic for Beginners provides students of all ages with a crash course in the language and culture of Saudi Arabia every second and third Sunday of the month at the library’s main branch, in Oakland. Unlike some Arabic-language classes — which can cost up to $30 per half-hour session — this series of hour-long sessions are free, just like other Carnegie Library language offerings from Korean to French.
The pay-offs are immense. Arabic is the fastest-growing language in the U.S. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, the incidence of Arabic speakers in the United States has risen 29 percent over the past four years.
Carnegie Library instructors like Sid Oudineche recognize the value of learning Arabic in a globalized world.
Oudineche, who has helped instruct the course since last summer, says that “once you learn the language, you gain access to the culture, art and history [of Islamic nations].” In his time teaching the challenging language, he has even witnessed a student convert to Islam after reading the Quran in the original Arabic.
Beside swooning for Muslim history and culture, Oudineche reasons that many students take the free courses to gain access to Arabic countries, whether for business or pleasure.
Veteran instructor Amal Manar offers an alternative reason. Some “learn Arabic to talk with Muslim friends or to give congratulations in their language. For example, someone might want to learn to say ‘I love you’ in Arabic for Valentine’s Day.” To Manar, Arabic is a way of deepening connections between traditional Arabic speakers and those less fluent in the language.
Alex Rice, a decorated traveler, was one of two students at the Feb. 14 class. She has been taking the courses since September 2014. “I see Arabic as opening up an opportunity to see other parts of the world,” she says. “I like traveling … and have lived on four different continents … so I like learning about other cultures.”
In a nation where Islamophobia runs rampant, any exposure to frequently misunderstood cultures is valuable. “Meeting the [Muslim] teachers is important because you realize that they are nice, genuine people,” says Rice. “There’s over a billion people who speak the language and it’s important to keep that perspective.”