Reflections on Arabic Language School + Egypt-Jordan Study Abroad

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By Zeke Caceres

Speaking, listening, reading and writing strictly in Arabic for two months seems like an incredibly daunting ordeal to put oneself through. Nevertheless, about two weeks ago, I successfully completed Middlebury’s Summer Language School program in Arabic. Undergrads, recent grads, young professionals, and even some who were well into their careers traveled to Middlebury’s Vermont campus as well as Mills College in Oakland, CA for six to eight weeks of intensive language study. At Mills, there were students studying Arabic, Japanese, French and Spanish. At Middlebury, students also pledged to only speak French, Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, Russian, Italian, German, or Portuguese for the duration of the program. Until last Friday, “No English Spoken Here” became the motto the students of the Language School lived by in order to fully engage with and benefit from the immersive environment Middlebury creates for its students.

Having two years of experience with Arabic language study at Middlebury, I was placed into an advanced intermediate level course in which we used authentic Arabic sources to take a thematic approach at exploring the features which make the Arab world so rich, diverse, and complex. I attended Language School in hopes of expediting the learning process and reaching high proficiency in Arabic. Middlebury’s Arabic program attracted a supportive group of faculty and staff from all over the country and even from the Middle East. I believe the composition of the program reflected the geographic diversity within the Arabic department at Middlebury as well. For example, my freshman year alone I studied Arabic with Lebanese, Egyptian and Palestinian professors for the fall, winter and spring semesters, respectively. (Interestingly enough, as a sophomore, my Arabic professor for the year was a native of Colorado!) In hindsight, studying alongside enthusiastic individuals with a love and shared interest in the Middle East made for a unique and enriching experience.

Being a student of the Arabic School during the time of radical political change in the Middle East was equally eye-opening. When Egyptian military General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi officially announced on July 3rd that President Mohammed Morsi was no longer in power, faculty, staff and students from the Arabic School rushed into the dining hall cheering and chanting in celebration. Since I could only read the news in Arabic, I was generally uninformed of the political situation in Egypt and wondered what it would mean as I planned to study there this coming fall. As a Middle East Studies major with a focus in Political Science, it was inspiring to see how the Arabic School stood still for a moment as people engaged in lively conversation on what the ramifications of these events could be for Egypt.

Due to the violence that ensued in Egypt after the coup d’état, Middlebury decided to suspend its study abroad program in Alexandria. I was one of a dozen students planning on studying abroad in Egypt and soon had to transfer to the program in Amman, Jordan. Originally, I planned on dividing up my year abroad by studying in Egypt for the fall and Jordan in the spring. When I learned about Middlebury’s suspension of the program in Alexandria, I was initially upset to give up the opportunity to go to Egypt and arrange my travel to go to Jordan. Egypt is known for its great role in regional politics and culture; therefore, I was excited about the idea of visiting the country. I have met many people who carried Egypt close to their hearts and was disappointed to see the situation worsen. The rapid political transition from authoritarianism to democracy that followed the Arab Spring left many with optimism for the Egypt’s future. It saddens me to think what we are witnessing in Egypt currently may be a natural consequence to the Arab Spring and bring more instability to the region.

Today, I still keep a close eye on the news in the Egypt as I finalize my travel preparations for Jordan. After learning some of the Jordanian dialect at Arabic School and hearing from friends who had visited the country before, I am looking forward to my year abroad there. Prior to setting off for Jordan, I decided to return the Admissions Office here at the Emma Willard House for a couple weeks working as an intern. It has been wonderful to return back to Middlebury–which has become a home base for me these past two years–share my experiences with visiting families and prospective students through campus tours and discussions in the office on what this special institution has to offer.

Arabic School Professors Nizar Qabilat (left) from Jordan, Ikram Masmoudi (right) from Tunisia and I smile for the camera at our banquet dinner.

Celebrating the end of “No English Spoken Here” on my last day in the West Coast. These little monkeys sure seem to know how to keep a Language Pledge!

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