Bridging Cultures, and Taking Arabic to Iowa

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed Jan 2 13:40:31 UTC 2008

January 2, 2008
On Education

Bridging Cultures, and Taking Arabic to Iowa


Zahra Al-Attar drove down the two-lane highway from Iowa City to her
morning classes here. As she entered Kalona, population 2,200 and change,
she rolled past the harness shop and the veterinary clinic, those
reminders of her dislocation. She noticed, too, a horse-drawn buggy on the
shoulder, an unexpected cue for memory. When she was growing up in Baghdad
nearly 40 years ago, she had ridden a similar cart to school. On occasion,
the driver would let her hold the reins. Here and now, the buggies belong
to the Amish. And into their part of Iowa, she had come to teach Arabic.

While the Amish do not send their children to the public schools,
considering them too worldly, Ms. Al-Attars students at Kalona Elementary
are the sons and daughters of Mennonite families who have been here for
generations, or of Germans and Czechs who arrived in Iowa a century before
the new teacher. Yet when Ms. Al-Attar bounded into a kindergarten early
last month, one Muslim in a roomful of Caitlins and Haileys, the walls
decorated with paper candy canes for Christmas, she was greeted with the
chirping chorus of an Arabic song. Over the next 30 minutes, until the
first period ended, Ms. Al-Attar led the class through the Arabic numbers
13 through 19 and the Arabic words for hand and pencil. Together, they
sang an alphabet song, with the letters pegged to familiar objects like a
duck, a lemon, the sun.

Two hours later, when Ms. Al-Attar took her first break, she said with a
touch of rapture, Every day, Im like, whoa, how did this happen? This
happened because in the early 1980s, a young woman named Susan
Swartzendruber moved from the Kalona area to an Egyptian village to teach
English as part of a Mennonite social service program. During three years
in the Nile Delta, Ms. Swartzendruber learned a passable version of Arabic
and acquired the habit of defying global divides. Two years ago, while
teaching in Kalona and studying at a local college for her certification
to teach English as a second language, Ms.  Swartzendruber heard from her
professor about a new federal grant the Foreign Language Acquisition
Program that would provide money for schools to teach languages of
strategic importance. Ms. Swartzendruber persuaded her superiors in the
Mid-Prairie School District here to apply, and in the summer of 2006, it
received a $200,000 grant that covers three years of classes.

About the same time, a member of Ms. Al-Attars mosque in Iowa City, 20
miles north of Kalona, called her attention to a flier on the bulletin
board that was advertising for a native Arabic speaker to teach in a
nearby town. Ms. Al-Attars academic and professional background had mostly
been in business, including several years as a personal banker in Atlanta.
But having followed her husband, a professor of medicine, to the
University of Iowa, and with two toddlers, she had worked most recently in
an after-school activity program. Her life had known stranger twists, some
of them life-threatening. During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein had
expelled her family because of its strain of Persian ancestry. When
President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles to be fired into Baghdad in
1998 to force Mr. Hussein to cooperate with arms inspectors, Ms. Al-Attar
said, one intended for an intelligence services building killed a friends
parents in their home.

So last fall, in the second year of the federal grant, Ms. Al-Attars
peripatetic path delivered her to Kalona Elementary School. Each week, all
230 pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade receive two 30-minute
lessons from Ms. Al-Attar. The children use, and will keep, three Arabic
textbooks apiece, ordered from Jordan. The books can barely compete with
Ms. Al-Attars energy and invention. She has taught Arabic through maps,
glossaries, bingo games and pictures of imaginary islands. One of her
favorite props is a small rubber model of a brain. She has made sure to
introduce words with immediate resonance, like thura for corn and baqara
for cow, even if the students transgressive favorite seems to be hammam
for bathroom.

But in a static, homogenous place, even such innocuous lessons carry risk.
Some early foes of the Arabic program asked why Iowa children should be
learning the language of the enemy. Jim Cayton, the principal, heard
complaints that Christians were being taught to be Muslims. Of course I
was worried, Ms. Swartzendruber said. Theres almost no diversity here, and
most people have been here forever. But I thought, all the more reason to
do it here. What better way to break down the stereotype than to see the
person, know the person. In addressing local fears, it helped that school
officials could say that the grant had been created by the Bush
administration. It helped that the program avoids religion entirely. It
helped, too, that Ms. Al-Attar does not wear the traditional hijab, or
head scarf, and that she speaks fluent English, albeit with an Iraqi

Besides teaching her classes, Ms. Al-Attar has established an Arabic
culture club, which draws about 35 students, parents and staff members to
meetings once a month. She has brought her family to Kalona for ice cream
socials and bike-safety rallies. When I first started, I thought, Wow,
Arabic in Kalona? Whats this going to be like? Ms. Al-Attar said. But
everyone has been so welcoming. One recent Tuesday, she was guest speaker
at the Kalona Rotary Club luncheon, tucking into the Swiss steak before
speaking about her curriculum and her familys life under Mr. Hussein. One
man asked her to translate aloud part of the Rotary newsletter, The
Kalonian, into Arabic.  When Ms. Al-Attar finished, the audience

Samuel G. Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.
His e-mail is sgfreedman at


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