At Bell High School, Arabic-Language Classes Attack Cultural Prejudices, Monitor Arab Spring

For the 165 students in Nada Shaath’s Arabic-language classes at Bell High School, the Arab Spring has been as immediate and real as federal debt ceilings, same-sex marriage, or even the crisis in public education funding.

Since the swift departure of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January, and the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak one month later, Shaath, who was raised in Jordan, has continued to teach her students in grades 9-12 to speak and write basic Arabic, while also helping them to understand regime change in Egypt and Tunisia, civil war in Libya, turmoil in Bahrain and Yemen, and protests and government-sponsored violence in Syria.

She peruses American newspapers, monitors the Arab media, and contacts friends and relatives in the Middle East as part of a determined effort to stay current with a consistently shifting, historic sequence of events that few would have predicted at the beginning of this year. She also shares with students details of her traumatic, personal connection to the situation; Shaath’s husband is a Syrian whose family lives in Duma, a suburb of Damascus that has been a hotbed of opposition to the government of Bashar Assad. For several days recently, Shaath’s father-in-law was missing, and the family naturally feared the worst. Luckily, he turned up, and was not harmed, but she and her husband live with the constant worry that something terrible could happen at any time to loved ones in Syria.

Now that the extraordinary has become the norm throughout much of the Arab world, Shaath has encouraged her students –almost all of them Latino – to share with classmates what they have learned about the changing political environment. “Once the Egyptian revolution happened, my kids became ambassadors,” explained Shaath, who has taught at Bell for four years. “They are the mini-experts for other students.”

Along with explaining Mideast politics, Shaath uses her language classes as a means to dispel cultural prejudices. Every year, she asks her classes on the first day of school what they know about Arabs. The most common answers: Terrorism and domestic violence against women.

“I just let them say it,” said Shaath. “I don’t say whether they are right or wrong.” By the end of the year, she has employed a variety of methods -- films, readings, guest speakers, and language instruction -- to teach her students that Arab culture and the Arab people are much more than is typically portrayed by the American media.

For 2011-12, the Arabic-language department at Bell has doubled in size with the addition of Mohamed Hassan, who until this summer was teaching English at a girl’s middle school in the Egyptian city of Qus. Hassan applied on-line for a grant from the U.S. State Department to spend the 2011-12 academic year teaching at an American school. He was one of 10 applicants out of 600 across Egypt to be accepted into the program. “I felt very proud,” said Hassan, who had not previously been to the United States.

His wife and three young children will remain in Egypt during the year. “It’s not going to be easy for us,” he noted.

Hassan will teach one class on his own and others with Shaath, and discuss with students what it was like to be in Egypt for the first seven months of 2011. When he heard the news about Mubarak’s resignation, Hassan said “I felt like I was dreaming.” He explained that after “30 years of a police state,” the time had arrived for Egyptians “to live like other people.”

To American audiences, the fate of the Egyptian revolution, and the mood of the Egyptian people, is largely based on what is happening in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on any given day. It is there that the world media assembled to report on the fall of Mubarak, and it is there they remain to chart the progress of a movement intent on establishing a democratic form of government and free elections.

Hassan noted, however, that Egypt is more than Tahrir Square, and more than Cairo. “All of Egypt was taking part (in the revolution),” he said. “There were demonstrations throughout” the country; including his hometown of Quena, located near Luxor.

Though Bell is a year-round school, Hassan spent his first few weeks on campus in an observer’s role, watching his colleague teach classes and offering occasional comments. Shaath is eager for the help; the number of students enrolled in Arab-language classes has grown by more than 100 since she started at Bell four years ago. “I was the first person in California to get credentialed to teach Arabic,” she said. “I’ve have been able to build the program.”

Two other LAUSD high schools now teach Arabic; Roybal (two classes) and New Tech High, which is part of Jefferson. According to Shaath, LAUSD is the only school district in the state that offers the language as an A-G requirement.

At Bell, parents and school officials lobbied for the inclusion of Arabic as a means of building better relations between the Arab-American and Latino communities located in the vicinity of the school.

Shaath said that some 5000 Arab families live in the Bell area, most of which have ties to the Lebanese town of Yaroun. Many of these residents own small businesses in the community, said Shaath, adding that in the past there was some tension between them and Latinos, including an occasional fistfight.

“With the Arab-language program we have been able to bridge that gap a bit. There is greater tolerance on both sides.”



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Photo caption: Nada Shaath (left) and Mohamed Hassan (right), Arabic-language teachers at Bell High School.


By: Tom Waldman
Posted: August 17, 2011