BRIDGEWATER – Anna Brewer, 19, sits in the front of the classroom, watching closely as professor Atallah Alroud writes a new letter of the Arabic alphabet on the white board. She is the first to raise her hand and repeat after Alroud as he introduces students to an unfamiliar sound – for which, he says, English has no equivalent.
Brewer says she spends about six hours a week studying the new language, but she isn’t doing it just for fun. Like many students in the Bridgewater State College classroom, she has a more practical goal in mind: “I spoke with an FBI special agent, and they said if I could speak Arabic, I’d be more likely to be hired by the bureau.”
Brewer is one of more than a handful of local students who have been drawn to the study of Arabic, now offered at an increasing number of state and community colleges around the state.
In recent years, smaller private colleges and even state and community colleges have begun teaching the language, which previously was offered only at large universities, according to William Granara, the director of Arabic Studies at Harvard University.
“What you’re seeing now,” he said, “is the demand for Arabic has gone beyond the elite universities and has progressed to the small private universities and state universities.
“All of a sudden in the post-9/11 world, Arabic could be a key to getting a good job.”
Russian was the language of choice for many in the 1960s; now it’s Arabic, Granara said.
Salem State College and Worcester State College began offering Arabic in September, while Quincy College and Bridgewater State started teaching it in January. At Salem State, the course was so popular that many couldn’t get in, according to Jon Aske, the chairman of the foreign languages department. A dozen of the students planned to spend their 10-day spring break in Morocco, polishing their language skills.
Two community colleges, Massasoit in Brockton and Bunker Hill in Charlestown, got on board even sooner. Both have taught Arabic for three years.
“Right after the war in Iraq started, there was a lot of interest in Arabic,” said Sawsan Zahara, who has been teaching Arabic at Massasoit since 2004. During the past semester, she said, four of her students returned from Iraq as active military personnel, and wanted to learn to read and write the language because they knew they would be going back.
At Bridgewater State College, also, the course filled up quickly. Fourteen people are enrolled currently, and of the 11 students interviewed for this article, six said they hope to pursue careers with law enforcement, the military, or the FBI.
Anita Amin, 18, who sits behind Brewer in the class, is thinking about a career as a translator.
“I might go into the Army because they need more female translators who can speak Arabic,” she said. Amin is Muslim, so she also wants to learn Arabic to be able to read the Koran in that language.
Then there is Jesse Austin, 26, a biology student from Middleborough, who spent several months in Bahrain as a soldier three years ago. He says he learned “a few things, a couple of words,” but now he is looking at a career in law enforcement and thinks Arabic would be a worthwhile skill.
“I figured it’d be a lot easier to get in if I had Arabic,” he said. “I looked on the website for the FBI; they had a list of the languages they were looking for, and that was one of them.”
Robert Gove, 18, a management student who is in the Army National Guard, is preparing to be activated. “I want to go to Iraq. I want to have a comprehension of the language.”
It probably will take more than a semester of classes. Since he started teaching the course on Jan. 23, Alroud said, students have been learning the letters of the alphabet and how to write their names in Arabic.
“They learned to ask for something to eat. I teach them the necessary words they need if they go to Jordan,” he said, adding that a trip to that country is being planned for the summer “to see the achievement of the course.”
Bridgewater State decided to offer the course after students in criminal justice and political science approached the head of the foreign languages department and said they would take the course if it were offered. Originally, a Boston University professor was expected to teach it, but a month before the course was scheduled to start, he begged out.
“I had 20 people signed up for the class, but I didn’t have an instructor,” said Fernanda Ferreira, chairwoman of the foreign languages department. “Finding an instructor in Arabic is so hard because there is such a need. I called the chair of the Middle Eastern department at Harvard, and he said, `Good luck.”‘
Bridgewater eventually arranged to bring in a professor from Tafila Technical University in Jordan on an exchange-scholar visa. That was how Alroud, who had never been outside the Middle East, found himself spending the winter in Bridgewater, where he sometimes lectured wearing an overcoat.
In addition to teaching Arabic, Alroud also has given talks about Jordan at a local high school and middle school, as well at the Bridgewater Senior Center. The president of Tefila Technical University and some of his administrators and faculty visited Bridgewater State in March.
Salem State College also faced difficulties finding an instructor.
“It was very hard to find someone to come to Salem and teach Arabic,” Aske said. Eventually, the college arranged for its chemistry professor, who is from Morocco, to teach his native language part time.
Darlene Kirk, a spokeswoman for the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said the number of Arabic teachers who have come to the United States almost doubled this school year and has increased by almost six times since 2003-2004. This year, 107 of those teachers arrived this year to teach their language through the Fulbright program, Kirk said, compared with 57 teachers in the previous school year.
This was good news for Samar Jaberi, a citizen of Bahrain, who landed a job as a teaching assistant in an Arabic course at Wellesley College.
“More schools in America are having Arabic and Middle East departments; that is why the Fulbright [program] gave more scholarships this year,” she said.
Jaberi said she was surprised on the first day of class when she asked her students why they wanted to learn Arabic.
“I thought most of them would be from an Arabic background and that is why they [would want] to learn Arabic,” she said. “Most of them wanted to be journalists, FBI [agents], or work for the Department of State.”