Professor Invigorates Arabic Cultures with Language

While we master Electra Street traffic patterns and the art of directions-giving in Abu Dhabi — take a left here, then a right, then pass this ...

Nov 9, 2013

While we master Electra Street traffic patterns and the art of directions-giving in Abu Dhabi — take a left here, then a right, then pass this landmark, then go by this other landmark — there's one aspect of navigating the city that, for many, remains elusive: Arabic. It exists, in scrambled letters on storefronts and soda cans, but it's not necessarily a tool students use to make their way around the city. For some of us, the language is like a friendly acquaintance that we see and acknowledge every now and then, a footnote at the bottom of the Abu Dhabi experience.
But for Senior Arabic Language Instructor Nasser Isleem, Arabic is something more. It presents a way to form relationships with others, and there is rich culture bundled inside every word. During his time at NYU Abu Dhabi, Isleem has worked not only to ingrain students with Arabic grammar and vocabulary, but also to peel back the language and reveal what's underneath: the tradition, beliefs and ways of living in the Arab world.
"Inside and outside the classrooms, I always try to enrich the class with different cultural concepts," said Isleem. "I think it's the soul of the language ... In order to understand fully the language, you have to be aware of the cultural aspects."
Along with the Arabic Department at NYUAD, Isleem is now in the process of developing a textbook on the Arabic dialect of the Gulf, which includes recordings from Emirati students at NYUAD. The textbook will be piloted during the January Term course Colloquial Arabic: Emirati Dialect, which may also incorporate homestays and visiting speakers in order to better introduce students to the local culture.
For Isleem, educating is a family tradition. His father and grandfather were Arabic teachers, along with his four sisters. In total, Isleem's family numbered eight — enough for a soccer team, he joked. Along with this family legacy of teaching, Isleem grew up in an environment where education was seen as the ultimate goal, a way to trump the hardships and struggles of living in the camps.
Isleem's childhood in the refugee camps of Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip is one told in smells — the lemon tree in his family's home, the schools, the United Nations’ kitchens that gave food to families. Laughing, Isleem recounted going to school carrying a backpack sewn from his sister's old dresses, heavy with textbooks and the oily scent of the falafel sandwiches his mother packed him for lunch.
"Education and going to college was something that every Palestinian in Gaza wanted for their kids," said Isleem. "It was something that [my family was] always shifting towards — education, educating our kids ... If I wanted to read something that mingled with politics, my father would just scold me, [saying], ‘oh stay away from this here, this is something that you will learn in the future.’ Even with religious books, the same thing: ‘concentrate on your education.’"
This attitude led Isleem to leaving Gaza for the first time in his life to travel to the United States and attend university.
"When I thought of going out, it was the middle of the First Intifada," said Isleem. "There was always something going on that imposed curfews or closure of the borders. But I finally managed to leave back in 1989."
Although it was difficult for Isleem to leave behind his home and small community, his family was grateful for the opportunity.
"Every parent wants successes for their child and, also, they want [them] to be safe," said Isleem. "So they felt that, okay, at least one member of the family is out, he's safe, and he's there for a good cause, which is education."
Receiving a degree, however, was not the only goal in mind. Upon arriving to the United States, Isleem immediately perceived a gap between U.S. American people and those from the Arab world — one carved by distance and wedged wider by ignorance. While attending university in West Virginia, Isleem wished to change this dynamic and spread his culture to those curious and willing to learn. This, it turned out, was not a matter of playing ambassador so much as making friends — an easy task for outgoing Isleem, sociable by nature.
"I like to talk and mingle with people," said Isleem. "I started to educate people. When I was a student back in college, I was the president of the international student body, and I was giving speeches to high schools, going out and talking to different professors, different teachers and different schools and the community members. I even had the chance to be on TV many [times] on the local TV."
After graduation, Isleem occupied himself by taking up the position as principal of a small primary school in Raleigh, North Carolina. After eight years of working at the school and managing its Arabic program, Isleem decided to, in his own words, split and explore higher education. He applied for part-time teaching positions at UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke University and Meredith College, an all-girls university.
"Everyone said, you're crazy, you're taking a part-time job at UNC and leaving that principal job, and I said, well no, I think it's going to open doors," said Isleem. "And look, [now] I'm working here [at NYUAD]. It's so beautiful."
At UNC-Chapel Hill, Nasser strived to change Arabic from a niche Asian Studies course to a linguistic powerhouse of culture, activity and community engagement. He organized coffee hours for his students, invited them to his home for Iftar and established the annual Big Activity, for which he transformed a friend's farm into an authentic Arab village complete with traditional dance, falafel frying and, as a finishing touch, a sign at the entrance that forbade any English-speaking whatsoever. For his efforts, Isleem was rewarded with the prestigious Order of The Golden Fleece award by UNC-Chapel Hill. The certificate now hangs in his office, next to the colorful cards and well-wishes from past students.
As he continued to further connect with community, however, Isleem began to see instances of friction between the United States and the Arab world. He remembered his young son feeling confused after his friend stopped speaking to him once it was revealed he was Muslim.
"That kind of a situation is a triggering point for me, [to] try to be open to people and just get them to know who we are," he said.
Such reactions only encouraged Isleem, who began inviting students to the mosque to witness prayer and participate in Iftar celebrations. At one point, over a hundred students attended, prompting the local newspaper to come and cover the event. Isleem also began writing textbooks, with topics ranging from Palestinian proverbs to Arab film.
While current students at NYUAD learn Modern Standard Arabic, a dialect not commonly used among native speakers, Isleem broadens the curriculum’s boundaries and introduces other aspects of Arab culture in class, asking students to give presentations on topics that range from Arab weddings to famous mosques and including popular proverbs at the beginning of every class.
"I felt that I have a responsibility [to spread culture], I have like a trust — amaana — on my shoulders," said Isleem. "The Arabic program is pretty active in exploring different opportunities for the students. [Director of Arabic Studies] Muhamed Al-Khalil and I work hard on the students to explore things outside the culture."
Back in his office, Isleem flipped through the glossy pages of one of his many books on the Arabic language, “Popular Proverbs: An Entrance to Palestinian Culture," a collection of more than 1,000 sayings common in Gaza and the West Bank. He stopped at a line that caught his eye.
"Al-jaahil adu nufsha," he said. "The ignorant person is his own enemy ... That's a good one."
Zoe Hu is features editor. Email her at
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