Athens, Ga. – Algebra. Alchemy. Zenith. Nadir: four words with something in common. They originate in the rich locutions of the Arabic language. Arabic, spoken by more than 200 million people, has grown in popularity because Westerners have more reason than ever to know and understand the Middle East and North Africa.
That’s why the University of Georgia for the first time is adding a major in the Arabic language beginning spring semester 2009. Interest has been so strong for the past few years that new professors and instructors have been added, just to keep up with students wanting to study the tongue, with its ancient history of literary works, religion, philosophy and mathematics.
“Arabic at UGA has had a slow but steady climb,” said Alan Godlas, an associate professor of religion and one of the moving forces behind the resurgence of the language here. He teaches courses on Islam, Quranic and Hadith Studies, Arabic and Persian, and Sufism. “I was originally hired to teach Quranic Arabic and Islamic Studies, but after a few years then-dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Wyatt Anderson asked if we could start teaching modern Arabic as well. He was very supportive.”
Since Godlas was trained in Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Literary Arabic at the University of California at Berkeley, he was ready to put a program in place.
The department of religion instituted a minor in Arabic, which is both an Asian and an African language, nearly a decade ago. Even then, interest was rising in the language and its history, and since so many people speak it, there was a reason for majors in international studies, business and other areas to gain facility in the language.
Interest among students was so strong that the program was able to hire another professor, Kenneth Honerkamp, a specialist in Arabic, Islamic texts, Islamic Law and North African Sufism, who had been director of the Arabic Language Institute in Fes, Morocco. After a number of years the program also added Haider Bhuiyan as a lecturer and was fortunate to get federally funded Fulbright foreign language teaching assistants in Arabic.
With these instructors in place, the Arabic language program has grown almost exponentially. After the events of 9/11, the need for Arabic speakers at every level of government, business and the military increased dramatically. Suddenly, a facility in Arabic has become a résumé point for many graduates.
“We knew we had the interest for a major in Arabic, but we were delighted when the University System of Georgia Board of Regents approved it in late August,” said Godlas. “We’re excited and ready to accept formally our first majors in the coming spring semester.”
The Arabic major consists of 21 upper-division semester hours in Arabic together with 15 upper-division major electives drawn from Arabic, history, religion or international relations, as well as courses in a relevant foreign language.
Since many students have been taking successive courses in Arabic during their time at UGA, the first graduates in the new major will receive their diplomas next May, so the program will be starting at a place it takes some new majors several years to reach.
Right now, there are about 100 students in first-year Arabic, 60 in their second year and 20 in the third year-180 students learning a language that wasn’t even taught at UGA until recent years.
“They think-and I agree-that it’s an intellectual and cultural challenge as well as a good career move,” said Godlas. “For future jobs in many fields, knowing Arabic will be an asset. Also, I should point out that for a number of students taking Arabic, it’s their heritage. We have students from a variety of Arabic-speaking and Islamic countries. Also, we’ve had returning soldiers from the Middle East who are interested, as well as people wanting to get into the Diplomatic Service and various areas of intelligence.”
An enrichment to the new Arabic major is the department’s existing Islam, Islamic Culture and Arabic and Intercultural Dialogue Maymester in Morocco, a study-trip that draws strong interest. Nineteen students went in May of this year. The program is centered at Marrakech, but students also take trips to the western edge of the Sahara Desert as well as to Casablanca, Rabat and Fes. They also visit UNESCO World Heritage sites, study spoken Moroccan Arabic and have formal discussions in English with Moroccan students on a series of topics of current interest.
There’s even talk of establishing a full-year program in Morocco associated with the Arabic program, though that’s down the road a bit.
UGA is the only university in Georgia that offers a major in Arabic, said Godlas, who also runs one of the most-visited web sites on Islam and Islamic studies in the world (http://www.uga.edu/islam/).
“We also encourage our students to take languages such as Persian, Russian, French, Spanish, Urdu and others,” he said. “There are so many places that use two languages. All over North Africa, for example, people speak French and Arabic. It’s useful to have a facility in more than one language there.”
For students in Arabic at UGA, the language has most often been a zenith, not a zero. But if they use either expression, it’s a loanword from the musical Arabic language.