Where in the World Do They Speak… Arabic? In Lebanon!
An Interview with Dr. Joseph Hitti, Adjunct Professor of Arabic at SSU
By Dr. Michele C. Dávila, Department of Foreign Languages
Dr. Joseph Hitti, a native of Lebanon, has joined Dr. Mohamed Abdelfattah, as an Arabic instructor in our department, as our offerings have also increased this year, with the addition of post-intermediate courses. Dr. Hitti is currently teaching ARA 101, and he will be teaching ARA 102 in Spring 2011.
Dr. Dávila: Where are you from originally and what can you tell us about your country?
Dr. Hitti: I am originally from Lebanon, a tiny country in the Eastern Mediterranean located at the intersection of Asia, Africa and Europe. Historically, Lebanon is the ancestral homeland of the Phoenicians, the ancient biblical people of sailors and merchant travelers who developed the phonetic alphabet that we today use in the Western world. The country’s geography is essentially a huge mountain range that rises very steeply from the Mediterranean, all of it in a surface area just under the size of Connecticut. Because of its location and geography, Lebanon has seen many invaders come and go – Babylonians and Persians, Greeks and Romans, Arab Muslim conquerors and European Christian Crusaders, and ultimately the Ottoman Turks which ruled the country through the end of World War I. After a brief French mandate between the two world wars of the 20th century, Lebanon emerged as an independent country in 1943.
This history contributed to the evolution of a country that one might call the ancient world’s melting pot, which unfortunately failed to really melt, thus leaving an assortment of small religious communities, all residues of past invaders and/or minorities fleeing the dominant vast Sunni Muslim surroundings, to constitute the social and political structure of the country. For example, you probably heard that the Iraq War of the past 7 years has forced the displacement of Iraqi Christians, many of whom have settled in Lebanon because of a sizable and still powerful Christian Lebanese community. This background might explain why the country has been in constant turmoil. In recent decades, Lebanon has declined due to a war that began in the late 1960s and that has yet to come to an end, mostly caused by the insoluble Israeli-Palestinian conflict next door. This recent history has sent a new wave of emigrant Lebanese to every continent of the globe, including here in the United States, where they have settled like their forerunner emigrants from 19th century and early 20th century Lebanon. I am one of those recent emigrants.
Dr. Dávila: What differences have you noticed between life in Lebanon and life in the US?
Dr. Hitti: Well, an answer to this question requires volumes, but suffice it to say that because of their diversity and exposure to various cultures back home, the Lebanese generally assimilate well in the American experience and readily integrate, particularly since they share a very strong entrepreneurial mindset with their American hosts here. Also, their numbers, compared to other immigrant groups, like say, the Irish or the Chinese, are very small, which does not lend itself to the creation of ethnic enclaves, which tend to slow down the process of integration. Hence, you find many famous Americans with mixed backgrounds – Former Senator George Mitchell of Maine, for example, is of Irish (father) and Lebanese (mother) backgrounds, and he is now President Obama’s special envoy on Middle East peace, where I truly hope his Lebanese background will help him succeed there in bringing about peace between the parties.
Dr. Dávila: What did you study in school and how many languages do you speak?
Dr. Hitti: The educational system in Lebanon is one of the best that I know of. A variety of state and private institutions have long flourished, again representing the cultural and religious diversity of the Lebanese people. Local Muslim and Christian religious orders have their school systems, the State has its network of schools, and foreign countries have their own schools. You can attend a Maqassed (Sunni Muslim) school, a French secular (Ecole Laïque française), a French Jesuit institution (Catholic), a Lebanese state school, a British High School (Protestant), an Ecole Italienne (Catholic) or an American International School (Protestant secular). This goes too for university level education, where the State’s Lebanese University System competes with a plethora of foreign universities like American University of Beirut, Arab University, French Ecole des Lettres, French Jesuit Saint Joseph University, as well as a more recent crop of English language Lebanese private universities like Notre-Dame University (Maronite Catholic), Balamand University (Greek Orthodox), and others.
Because of this system, all schools teach a fully bilingual curriculum from Kindergarten through the “Terminale” (one year more than the US school system). So, for example, as I went through the school system in Lebanon, I studied all subject matters in both Arabic and French, generally split as follows: Arabic literature, Arabic language, Middle East history and geography, Arab philosophy, Civics and Government, Social Studies etc… all in Arabic. In parallel, French literature, French language, Western and World history and geography, French and Western philosophy, etc… are all taught in French. Mathematics and sciences are the only subjects that are strictly taught in the non-Arabic language, i.e. French or English. Finally, by sixth grade, students learn their third language, which in my case was English. Basically, an education that produces virtually trilingual people with a very solid general education. I went to a French Jesuit school through middle school (French), transferred to a private Lebanese secular school (French) for my high school, then went on to American University of Beirut (AUB) to study biology (English). So, I was fully trilingual by the time I arrived to the US for my graduate work.
Dr. Dávila: When did you come to the United States and why?
Dr. Hitti: After finishing a Master’s in biology at AUB in 1981, I came to the US in 1982 for my PhD. The country had been at war since the early 1970s, so my leaving for the US was both for the pursuit of graduate work, but also as a temporary reprieve from the war. But the war never stopped, so I ended up staying after completing my doctorate, doing a number of post-doctoral research stints at various campuses. By the mid-1990s, the realm of biology had begun mutating from a heavily academic one (my original professional goals were to teach biology at AUB back home) to an industrial one with the birth of biotechnology. In 1996, I was lucky to land a job as a senior scientist at a Waltham-based biotech company that was the only corporate component of the international Human Genome consortium. I led a team of 12 scientists that was a part of a larger group of geneticists and molecular biologists who all worked on the sequencing of the human genome whose first draft was published in 2000. I then went fully corporate and took a position at a Danvers-based company as Marketing and Technology Manager, which gave me the opportunity to travel almost constantly to Europe and Asia for three years.
Dr. Dávila: How was it that you became a teacher?
Dr. Hitti: Both my parents were teachers. My father taught at a private school, then founded his own school. My mother was a state school teacher. I grew up hearing all kinds of stories about teaching and education. Needless to say, home was more like school because of my parents, so I actually preferred to be more at school than at home. I started teaching science in a local school in Beirut while an undergraduate student. As a Master’s student I taught constantly as a teaching assistant in biology, running lab and discussion sessions. I also substituted occasionally teaching science in local schools.
In the US, I also taught for years as teaching assistant while pursuing my doctoral work. Then, in 1991, when the first Gulf War broke out, I had a gut intuition that Arabic was going to see a surge of interest in this country. Others did too, and while I was a post-doctoral researcher at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, I saw an advertisement at the local supermarket posted by Professor Richard Lobban, from Rhode Island College’s Department of African and Middle East Studies, looking for an Arabic language teacher. I was hired and started an Arabic program there between 1991 and 1994, teaching beginning, intermediate and advanced Arabic. Other research positions took me to Boston, so I stopped teaching. But the language bug was in me now, so I started a freelance Arabic and French translation business on the side, earning a certification in Arabic from the American Translators Association (ATA) in 1996. Freelance translating remained more of a hobby that a source of income, until 1999 when the ATA started their first web site. This raised my freelance translation work to new heights, which predictably boomed after the September 11, 2001 events. The rest is history, as they say, and by 2005, I quit all my biology-related activities to focus on the language business.
Dr. Dávila: What language do you speak at home?
Dr. Hitti: In the US, I married a fellow graduate school student who is German by birth, but Francophone by education. Now, her childhood history is a bit complicated. Her father spent World War II in concentration camps, so after the war, he married, but not wanting to stay in Germany, the newlyweds moved to Paris where their three children, including my future wife, were born and raised for the first the years of their lives. Now, of course, being a German in post-World War II France was no picnic either, so the family moved back to Germany. So my wife and I shared French as a common language. When my daughter Sarah was born, I spoke exclusively in French to her (with some Arabic), her mother spoke exclusively in German to her (with some French), but Sarah, all the while absorbing those two languages, spoke only English to us. It was really funny to see us at the kitchen table, each speaking a different language, but all understanding everyone else. Since I had taken 2 years of German back at the Goethe Institute in Beirut, I knew enough German to get by. When my wife took Sarah and moved to Germany after the German unification, within two weeks Sarah switched completely from speaking only English, to speaking only German. So Sarah is basically fully fluent in German and English, moderately fluent in French, and with a very basic smattering of Arabic.
Dr. Dávila: What would you say to students in Salem State that are not sure if they should take Arabic as a second language?
Dr. Hitti: Beyond the professional interest that students might have in studying Arabic – as many professional environments in the near future will welcome people with a knowledge of the Arab world, and speaking to a broader education perspective, there are two main reasons why I think students should seriously consider the study of Arabic in particular, but also of Chinese and other “lesser-known” languages, as the US government calls these and other languages.
The first reason has to do with the misconception of Arabic and Arab culture as “alien” to the West. The facts of history and geography, and by any other criteria one might want to consider, Arab culture, as well as Islam, are, for better or for worse, part of a parcel of what we refer to, erroneously I believe, in the West as the “Judeo-Christian” tradition. In my view of the overall relationship between the West and the Arab-Islamic world, and being myself of a culture that straddles East and West and the Christian-Islamic divide, students should understand that there is an intrinsic historical continuity between the three monotheistic religions that have to come to define this divide we see today. After all, they all arose and evolved around the same Mediterranean basin, and each arose in succession as a reaction to the precursor. Christianity evolved from within Judaism, and Islam arose from within both as an immediate reaction to both. In fact, I have always argued that Islam, in its genesis, is not much different from the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Protestantism in Europe. Think of the Arab influence on Europe from the west, in the Spanish Moorish experience during 700 years, but also from the east, through the Turkish Islamic Ottoman influence. Conversely, those experiences were reciprocated with the Greek and Roman conquests of the east, the Crusaders, and in more recent centuries, through the colonial era. But I digress, and I am no expert. I do want students not to think of Arabic as so alien a language or culture to avoid studying it. In fact, it will open their eyes to a broader and more enlightened view of their own culture and history.
The second reason is more of a pedagogical argument: If students do not use this phase of their lives when they are testing themselves, discovering themselves, challenging themselves, etc., then I think they would be missing a tremendous opportunity. Now is the time to venture into areas they never could venture into in the past, nor will they probably be able to in the future. Exploration is, I think, the appropriate word here. Very often, students underestimate their own potential. They listen more to what they are told than to what they really think, and in so doing they too readily give up on opportunities. So, I encourage students not to be scared of the novel, the different, the other…. because that is where real discovery is. Arabic, Chinese, Astronomy, the Human Genome, or Quantum Mechanics… they all might seem too daunting, too out there… but they are not.