Volume 75, Number 16 | September 07 - 13, 2005

Back to School

A special Villager supplement

Stuyvesant Muslim students now able to study Arabic

By Sara G. Levin

Three years after Stuyvesant High School’s Muslim Student Association began raising money and support, introductory Arabic will be an elective there starting this fall. Students were motivated by a combination of academic curiosity, cultural awareness and religious pride.

Growing up in a religious family, Batool Ali, co-leader of the Stuyvesant M.S.A., had learned to read Arabic from the time she could interpret the prayers, but she has never spoken the language. When she left Al-Iman, a Muslim school in Queens, to attend prestigious Stuyvesant in Lower Manhattan three years ago, she carried Islam with her.

Ali joined the M.S.A., where other students, some with religious upbringings and some without, met to discuss interpretations of the Koran. But like her, few of the students, many of whom were from the Asian subcontinent, could speak Arabic and even fewer could read it.

“Stuy already offered about 10 different languages and we said, ‘Why isn’t Arabic on the list?’” said Shams Billah, one of last year’s M.S.A. leaders. “It’s one of the top five languages spoken in the world.”

The elite public high school does offer a wide range of languages in addition to traditional romance languages, including Mandarin, Hebrew, German, Korean and Japanese.

So Billah joined then-M.S.A. leaders like Naazia Husain and began raising money for an elementary Arabic class. Three years and $20,000 later, the class is finally taking off this semester.

Though still in hurried planning stages — textbooks have yet to be ordered and a teacher has yet to be confirmed — the class is expected to be an elective under the school’s College Now collaboration with City University, according to Arlene Ubieta, head of the foreign language department. College Now is a satellite program that allows high school students in dozens of city public schools to take college-level classes for college credit.

Similar to other language classes at Stuyvesant, Arabic will not become a regular part of the curriculum unless students continue to show interest within the first couple of years. That enthusiasm, for example, is what supported the Korean class being added in 2001. Rolf Schwagermann, who was head of the language department at the time noted, however, that the effort to raise money for Korean was distinctly driven by parents, whereas Arabic was primarily encouraged by students.

“For Muslims, you have to read the Koran and knowing Arabic adds a more personal aspect,” said M.S.A. co-president Ali. By organizing events like the annual Islam forum and fast-a-thon, one of the association’s goals is to promote understanding of the religion. Ali added that other students at Stuyvesant are curious about Arabic because language is a way of learning about another culture.

Language can also be a microcosm of cultural pride.

“With Arabic, we’re representing our own little portion,” she said, adding she was surprised that with all the students who spoke Russian there was no Russian class.

But raising money from the ground up was no simple task. After being told they had to prove student interest and raise $20,000 for textbooks, supplies and curriculum planning, M.S.A. students gathered 400 signatures, but found checks were harder to earn.

“We started writing foundations like the Rockefeller Foundation,” Billah said. “We got lots of letters back but no money. What we finally ended up doing was starting private fundraisers. We went to our families’ friends and relatives for donations. We went to mosques and after a prayer we’d stand up and speak, ask for donations.”

Over $2,000 came from the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, where some students and their families are members.

According to Billah, the group had raised $12,000 by 2004 and then struck a deal with the school’s Parents’ Association whereby if they could raise $15,000, the P.A. would support them with $5,000, which they did. That year, they were told, the Arabic class would begin in the fall of 2004.

Then the city was hit with substantial school budget cuts, and their goal was put on hold when the school’s principal, Stanley Teitel, was forced to cut Arabic and several other classes.

“We had 55 students signed up. We had a teacher who was lined up to come, an N.Y.U. professor we had found,” Billah said. “We took [the budget cuts] hard, but we understood that it wasn’t only aimed at the Arabic class; lots of classes were canceled.”

With 34 students signed up and the start of elementary Arabic this year, Billah, who graduated last year, is sad he can’t take the class, but is proud of the accomplishment. His younger brother, Shabil, a Stuyvesant sophomore, hopes to take the class next year.

“My brother and others worked so hard to get the class, but never got to take it themselves,” Shabil said. “They’ll be able to leave it for future generations, I guess.”

According to the Department of Education, only one other high school in New York City is registered as having an Arabic class, the School for International Studies in Brooklyn.

Students will learn Modern Standard Arabic, the form used in publications, literature and politics throughout the Arabic-speaking world.

“I quite frankly think there’s a misconception of Arabic being so difficult to learn,” said Taoufik Ben-Amor, a professor of elementary and advanced Arabic at Columbia University. “The most difficulty comes from the fact that it’s not an Indo-European language.”

Another Columbia professor, Jamil Daher, highlighted the distinguishing features of Arabic versus English. Most remarkable, he said, is the derivational system.

“Arabic words are derived from basic trilateral roots; e.g., all words that are related to the concept of writing are derived from the same root, K-T-B; the three consonants making the word kataba ‘to write.’ Thus, kitaab, ‘book;’ kaatib, ‘writer;’ maktaba, ‘library,’ etc.”

Yet Ben-Amor insisted that one of the most important aspects of learning Arabic, like learning any language, is twofold — that it increases curiosity and understanding about another culture, and that it opens the mind up to a multidimensional way of thinking.

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