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Language Can Bring Us Together, Keep Us Apart

By Bob Sipchen in the July 17, 2006 edition of the Los Angeles Times.

I'm watching a master language instructor demonstrate her techniques to a group of Jewish and Muslim teachers, using kindergartners as guinea pigs. But I slipped in after the session started. I don't speak Arabic or Hebrew. The teacher's words enter my ears as gibberish.

Disoriented, I discreetly try to find clues as to which language I'm hearing by reading the faces of the teachers seated at the back of the room — the sound of an enemy's native tongue, I figure, might well trigger a smirk of contempt or some strange hateful tick.

Only when one of the children blurts "babushka" do I realize that I'm listening to Russian and that the 20 language teachers, originally from Jordan, Israel, Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt, don't understand the seeming babble any better than I do.

They listen, though, as if something vital is at stake.

For almost two weeks these 20 teachers have tested their skills on each other, critiqued each other, shared stories and, to garner universally usable language instruction skills, watched a highly skilled peer give a handful of Los Angeles kids a crash course in Russian.

None of this would be a big deal if the languages weren't Arabic and Hebrew, taught at Southern California's Islamic and Jewish day schools, respectively. Big differences there. But the organizers of UCLA's Center for World Languages saw similarities. Islamic and Jewish schools alike, they realized, tend to employ Middle Eastern immigrants. They may never have been taught the classroom skills to coax American children — mainly the sons and daughters of immigrants — into learning a difficult language. This year the school's Hebrew professional development institute expanded to include Arabic teachers.

The goal of teaching these ancient languages, several participants told me, was twofold: to give the children of religious immigrants a key to sacred texts and to insulate them from a new culture and changing world.

Why not? Protect the faith with insularity. That's one reason to teach language. But there's another, almost opposite reason, and I want to know what these teachers think of that rationale.

When the class breaks for lunch, I join participants under the umbrellas outside a campus cafe. Hava Mirovski, an immigrant from Israel, yaks not just of teaching techniques, but about the similarities between the two languages and cultures. Ilham Zayat, an immigrant from Lebanon, nods as she tears into a burger and fries.

Neither Mirovski's enthusiasm nor the smile framed by Zayat's cheerful pink-and-blue head scarf offer any hint that Lebanon and Israel are, at this moment, exchanging bombs and bullets.

In the hallway, Yirat Horwatt, who arrived in Los Angeles from Israel at the end of June, tells me that she and her fellow teachers have tiptoed around the geopolitical landmine in the middle of the classroom. Tension surfaced only once, when an instructor asked the class to draw a place to which they longed to return.

Horwatt says she sketched Jerusalem's Western Wall. Samia Nabham, a Muslim immigrant from Jordan, sketched the nearby Dome of the Rock.

Those entwined sacred sites, of course, remain ground zero in the region's blood-soaked turf disputes.

"It was awkward," Horwatt says.

Nabham is one of two teachers I flag down after Horwatt returns to class. Hearing Jews stake a claim on places she sees as Muslim riled her, she confirms. "When they put Palestine on the map and said, 'This is Israel,' I got angry."

Even now, her face flushes.

That volatile classroom moment cooled, Nabham says, when a Jewish teacher suggested that the two of them fly back to Jerusalem together to tour the sacred sites.

Her face softens. Astonishment lights her features. "From my heart, I like this lady," she says. "This was the first chance I ever had to sit down with Jewish ladies and talk, to find we have the same hopes for taking care of our kids and communities. I talked to ladies who said 'This is the first time I've talked to a Muslim.' I went home and told my husband, 'Can you imagine? We're eating together and talking about our kids.'"

Nabham's 18-year-old son will attend UC Santa Barbara in the fall. "A party school?" she asks. She worries about young Muslims in such circumstances. She says she feels a strong obligation to teach them Arabic. "It's our responsibility to keep the language alive."

But she also hopes her students will carry the language from their insular Islamic American realm out into the world.

"I hope they will go to Arab countries and speak as Americans, in Arabic, and as people who see the world in the big view."

Nabham's energetic gestures suggest an openness, an eagerness to connect.

Amal Sakr, an Egyptian immigrant, watches the woman in the pink-and-green Hawaiian-style shirt almost expressionlessly from beneath a beige head scarf.

When I ask the two if they'd be willing, someday, to teach Arabic in a Jewish school, Nabham says yes. Sakr shakes her head no. Nor would she want to teach in a Christian school, she says.

Nabham: "When I talk to a Jew or Christian, I'm doing the best thing for my religion. You have to let others know you."

Sakr: "I want to be close to Muslim students."

To me, teaching language to insulate is dangerous unless coupled with that almost-opposite motivation: to help people communicate across cultures. And while Sakr says she enjoys warm relations with non-Muslim neighbors, I worry about her reluctance to cross this teaching gap.

Then we return to the classroom. Horwatt is teaching. Moving around the circle of seated "students," she asks each to pull an object from a paper bag and say something about it in Hebrew.

She pushes the bag under Sakr's nose. Sakr reaches in and pulls out a piece of orange paper.

The Jewish woman gives her a stern teacherly look. The Muslim woman hesitates, then responds. My guess is she names the color in Hebrew.

Again I'm watching facial expressions. Horwatt smiles. Sakr … smiles. Most of the women in the room smile. Communication. Camaraderie.

With the Middle East again soaking itself in blood, I'm sure this interfaith bond is fragile. But if the teachers take even a trace of it back to their classrooms, their students will be well-served.

Center for World Languages