This is a post I wrote for the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies website about my experience studying abroad in Jerusalem summer 2015 on the FLAS (Foreign Language and Area Studies) fellowship. See the original post here.
In Jerusalem, the Arabic language is never very far away. Alongside Hebrew and English, the standard version of Arabic is one of Israel’s official languages — almost all street signs are in all three languages. This alone can be a helpful way to pick up unusual phrases or words. I remember seeing a sign reading “King David’s Tomb” in English. The Arabic translation said “Tomb of King (Prophet) David.” Just by looking at a street sign, you can be reminded of vocabulary words like “tomb” or “prophet”, the Arabic spelling of the name David, and an interesting distinction in the religious understanding of David.
During my studies I focused on learning spoken Palestinian Arabic, which can be heard throughout most of Jerusalem’s Old City, everywhere in East Jerusalem, and occasionally in West Jerusalem too. You don’t have to travel far from Jerusalem to be immersed in the Arabic language in the West Bank — and it’s possible to practice Arabic in nearby Israeli cities like Haifa, Nazareth and Acre, which have large Arab minorities.
Jerusalem is a unique place in the world, filled with political, religious and cultural fault lines. In class discussions at the Al-Quds Institute we didn’t shy away from controversial or divisive topics – of which, in a politically tense city, at an institute with students and teachers of differing cultures, there could be many.
In Standard Arabic class on one of the first days of the program, we were discussing the role of the woman in Arab society and around the world. It gradually became clear that the teacher leading the discussion was unapologetic about having traditional views on the role of women — views that for many American students in the room seemed, at very best, outdated.
In my spoken Arabic class the teacher had no problem discussing topics that are controversial or taboo in traditional Palestinian society: LGBT issues, racism, increasing religiosity in society. In both cases, it was a fascinating and rare glimpse into a culture that for many Americans is unknown or impenetrable. Learning how to discuss weighty subjects was also satisfying way to learn the language.