For the past two years, I've taught English writing to students from Saudi Arabia with a gifted students scholarship program at the University of California at Berkeley Extension. One day during my first semester teaching, the students were discussing their college admissions essays in small groups, using a fervent combination of Arabic and English.
I overheard the students of one group repeatedly saying, “Hamas, Hamas.” While I never suspected a terrorist plot, I did assume they had gotten off topic. My only exposure to the word Hamas was from news stories about the Gaza Strip.
I asked my students if they were still talking about their essays. They assured me they were.
“Then why do you keep talking about Palestine?” I asked.
They looked at me strangely for a few seconds before bursting out laughing. Turns out, the word “hamas” means “enthusiasm” and is a common Arabic exclamation. My students use it similarly to the way Americans might say “cool” or "awesome." They weren't talking about Gaza. They were praising each other's work and reacting to the feedback they were getting.
My misunderstanding has now become a class joke. "Less hamas," I'll say when the class is getting rowdy, which always makes them laugh.
They came back from spring break with a story about going to Six Flags, where one student pointed at a big rollercoaster and exclaimed “Hamas, hamas!” The other students noticed they were getting funny looks and told their friend to keep his voice down.
But this incident made me realize how, before teaching, my main exposure to Arabic words had been through media stories about war and terrorism. I tried to find an English-language source that discussed the meaning of “hamas” separately from its connection to Palestine. I came up empty-handed.
My students have also taught me the everyday meanings of other words and expressions that many Americans have come to associate with Islamic extremism. They pray daily in the back of our classroom, quietly murmuring, “Allahu Akbar.” I now associate this expression with quiet contemplation and peaceful class breaks, a moment to unwind.
The students also explained that the Arabic word for grammar is “qawaeid,"”which takes root from the plural form of foundation or base, the same word taken by the terrorist group al-Qaida. I can only imagine how a suspicious American might misinterpret an innocent discussion among my students about grammar.
It explains partly why U.C. Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight this month because a passenger told a flight attendant she heard him say “shahid,” the Arabic word for “martyr.” Makhzoomi claims he did not say “shahid,” but that the other passenger got confused when she heard him say “Inshallah” or “God willing” at the end of his conversation.
This is a common Arabic expression when making plans or talking about the future, used in the way English-speakers might say “hopefully.” It's no reason for suspicion. But these kinds of misunderstandings are sure to continue as long as Americans are primarily exposed to the Arabic language through media stories about Islamic extremism.
One of my students wanted to answer an application essay prompt asking which aspect of his personality he was most proud of with the word “jihad.” Separate from its association with violence, “jihad” means “striving, applying oneself, persevering,” and this student was a hard worker despite many setbacks.
I ultimately advised him against using the word in his application essay, since the opportunity for misinterpretation seemed too great. He took my advice, but I regretted that I had to give it.
Thanks to my students, I have the opportunity to regularly hear Arabic in a neutral, everyday context. It's a highly expressive language that echoes off the walls of our classroom during class breaks and small group discussions. My students thread it with English words and names, so I can often catch the gist of what they're saying without a translation. They talk about the same things American teenagers talk about: college applications, movies and music, problems with tests and teachers, plans for spring break.
To prevent the kind of discrimination that reportedly occurred on the Southwest flight, more Americans need the opportunity to hear Arabic in these kinds of natural settings. However, for that to happen, Arabic speakers need to feel like they're safe to speak their own language. My students tell me they won't speak Arabic at all in U.S. airports because the risk of being profiled as a security threat is too high.
Will it make us feel safer if the world's 300 million native Arabic speakers stop having natural conversations in airports and other public settings? I don't think so. I think we need to hear Arabic in exactly these settings. It's the only way that we'll begin to associate the language with its manifold, nuanced meanings, rather than its limited, extremist ones.
I don't associate Arabic with religious extremism. I associate the language with my students' college acceptances and rejections, their daily dramas and laughter, their hopes for the future: for themselves, their country and the world.
Caitlin Kindervatter-Clark is a writer and teacher at UC Berkeley Extension. She wrote this for The Washington Post.