Teaching Arabic in a Time of Trump

After John McCain checked out of the cancer ward and flew across the country to cast his vote to deny healthcare to approximately 22 million of his fellow Americans, several friends asked on Facebook for the things that keep us going in such times. Here’s one.

ismii Fatima

This week, I started two new Arabic classes and continued with a third.

Altogether over the next ten weeks, I’m teaching twenty-four amazing students. They are journalists , doctors and nurses, work for the UN, are married to Arabs, love the culture or the literature, or the challenge of expanding their horizons. Since last year’s election, I’ve taught immigration lawyers and their support staff, public school teachers of refugees, refugee resettlement officers, and people who protested the Muslim travel ban at JFK Airport. My students are Jew and Gentile, Black, white, Arab and Hispanic, men and women, gay and straight, in their twenties and in their fifties.

I’ve never felt such despair for our society. Antisemitism, though it has always been part of the American fabric, has never in my lifetime been so boldly and openly practiced. I wasn’t in the United States in the year after 9/11, and although Toby Keith’s racist bullshit and the scapegoating of the Dixie Chicks did reach me in Europe, the domestic anti-Arabism in America today is almost unfathomable to me. George Takei’s advocacy to teach about Japanese American internment is timely indeed, as those who don’t know that dark history seem determined to repeat it.

In pursuit of a German minor in college, I accidentally got an unofficial Holocaust studies minor — semester after semester of wondering what I would do if I were confronted with the banality of evil. It turns out that what I do is teach. Teach the controversial, scary thing, defang the beast with knowledge.

At seventeen, high in the Alps, with a world of possibilities stretching before me, I made a decision to learn Arabic in pursuit of world peace. I often contend that I was young and naive, a dreamer to believe that peace could be so simple, yet as the immortal John Lennon sings,

You may say I’m a dreamer
I’m not the only one.

I have met dozens of dreamers like me since November. I have never been so inspired by regular people standing up en masse over and over again to say, “Not in my America!”

I am so inspired by my students of Arabic, coming from a range of backgrounds, with a variety of interests, but sharing the same conviction: Arabic is important, and the time to learn it is now.

I believe, like Theodore Parker and MLK, that the arc of the moral universe is long – interminably long – but it bends inexorably towards justice. And I believe like Rabbi Tarfon that I am not obligated to complete the work, but neither am I permitted to abandon it.

So I teach.

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