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Speaking up

Federally funded language program shatters stereotypes, advances efforts to teach more American students Arabic

From left, Ian Kapuza, Chelsea Durkin, and Sahar Hakim, students at Charlestown Arabic Summer Academy, displayed drawings of everyday items and their names in Arabic. The program teaches students Arabic and Middle Eastern history. From left, Ian Kapuza, Chelsea Durkin, and Sahar Hakim, students at Charlestown Arabic Summer Academy, displayed drawings of everyday items and their names in Arabic. The program teaches students Arabic and Middle Eastern history. (ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/GLOBE STAFF)

Arabic words for teacher, student, and homework decorate metal classroom doors. The 28 letters of the alphabet dot rows of orange lockers in the dimly lighted halls. The fourth floor of Charlestown High School, a five-story brick fortress that abuts two housing projects, has been transformed into a slice of the Middle East for five weeks.

Speaking halting Arabic, students use Iraqi dinars to buy granola bars and chewing gum in a makeshift dukan. They occasionally feast on kebabs , falafels, and grape leaves as Lebanese music fills their classroom. They watch sexy dancers in Egyptian music videos performing moves they are surprised to see on something other than MTV.

For more than five hours a day, six days a week, the 29 Boston public school students are learning Arabic and studying Middle Eastern history, geography, and culture as part of a national initiative to ramp up the number of Arabic speakers. The new, federally funded program, which is in only eight schools nationwide, is shattering many stereotypes of the Middle East that the students gleaned from coverage of the war in Iraq.

Saturated by images of Muslims and Arabs as terrorists since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the students say they have the unique opportunity to adopt more expansive views of a volatile, oil-rich region that will only grow in importance.

The teenagers, whose native tongues include English, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Chinese, are taking Arabic to become diplomats, journalists, and entrepreneurs. A couple hope to join the FBI or CIA. Several Muslim students said they want to understand what they are reading in the Koran; one would like to communicate with locals when he makes his pil grimage to Mecca and Medina. Other students, who are of Arab descent, want to better connect with family members when they visit Morocco and Lebanon.

On July 7, the students visited the Islamic Society of Boston, a mosque in Cambridge's Central Square, where they sat in a circle on the carpet and learned about Islam from two mosque members. Peberlyn Moreta, 16, said she imagined that the women would be veiled head to toe, and was surprised to see only their heads covered.

"I was afraid," said Moreta, a junior at Charlestown High. "I didn't want to offend anyone by the way I was dressed or by my cross."

Moreta, a Catholic who tucked her gold cross under her T-shirt, felt comfortable asking the mosque members why they fast and why women cover their hair.

She also asked them to demonstrate a prayer, and they obliged for several minutes, standing and bending and kneeling while reciting parts of a prayer in Arabic, then translating it into English.

"It took the fear out of the whole stereotype I had in my mind from the things I see on the news," Moreta said. "It's been a real awakening."

In a music class, teacher Carolyn Brunelle showed students a video of Egyptian men in jeans strumming guitars and singing a love song and women dancing provocatively in the streets. Students said they had pictured Middle Eastern music videos as featuring more rural scenes, more religion, and more clothes.

"I never imagined Middle Eastern videos as having the same themes as the West," said Jeffrey Yu, 15. "They actually show skin."

Yu, a Boston Latin sophomore who speaks Chinese at home, said he is taking Arabic to get an edge in his pursuit of an international business career.

Already, he has used Arabic to communicate with taxi drivers and strangers from Somalia and Iraq who approach him on the bus as he does his homework.

Across the hall , another group of students watched the film "Divine Intervention," a 2003 comic tragedy about love on both sides of the Palestinian-Israeli border.

They giggled at the repeated scenes of a Palestinian woman holding hands with her lover. But the students quickly turned somber when their teacher, Lama Jarudi, delved into why some people martyr themselves in suicide bombings.

Jarudi, also an economics teacher, said she has received mixed feedback from family and friends about teaching Arabic.

"They fear that I'm helping Americans train more spies," said Jarudi, who lived in Lebanon until age 9. "I feel quite the opposite. Anyone who learns the Arabic language inherently has to understand the culture a little bit."

Jarudi and Steven Berbeco, director of Charlestown's Arabic Summer Academy, began teaching Arabic to Charlestown students during the school year two years ago.

It remains the only public school teaching Arabic in the state, according to Boston schools. Other schools want to offer Arabic, but there is a national shortage of trained teachers. Massachusetts has three licensed Arabic teachers, including Berbeco and Jarudi, and the state does not know where the third one teaches.

Fewer than 30 public high schools in the country offer Arabic, which takes nearly four times longer for native English speakers to master compared with the more popular Spanish or French offered by nearly every American high school.

President Bush last year declared Arabic a critical language for national security because the intelligence community lacks enough fluent speakers.

The Boston students will graduate from the program Friday evening, when they are expected to perform skits in Arabic about Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt for parents and friends. Each student will receive $500 from the federal government for completing the course.

"This program shows there's another side to the Middle East besides war and conflict," said Cameron Arroyo, a 17-year-old senior at Boston Latin School. "Not every Middle Eastern country is under an Islamic dictatorship."

Tracy Jan can be reached at

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