Must try harder: France vows to end school neglect of Arabic

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Lissane said that the religious component of its Arabic course is “very light.” (AFP)
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A teacher writes on a board during a class of Arabic language for young children at the Institut Lissane private school in Le Kremlin-Bicêtre on the outskirts of the French capital Paris. (AFP)
Updated 29 October 2018
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Must try harder: France vows to end school neglect of Arabic

  • Demand for schools teaching Arabic in France far outstrips supply
  • Arabic is France’s second-most spoken language, and one used by over 430 million people worldwide

PARIS: In the ethnically mixed Paris suburb of Kremlin-Bicetre, a group of children sit quietly at their desks while outside their classmates frolic in the autumn sunshine.
“Ayna yaskunu Adel? (where does Adel live)” teacher Hanan asks the children, pointing to a textbook drawing of a boy and girl in a village with a school and a mosque.
Hands shoot up, and a little girl replies that he lives behind the “madrassa,” or school.
Welcome to Lissane, one of a growing number of private language schools where the children and grandchildren of North African immigrants go to learn classical Arabic on Wednesday afternoons, when schools are closed, and on the weekend.
While Hanan’s students, aged 7 to 10, study interrogative pronouns in one of seven classrooms housed in a former office building, a group of four-year-olds next door is singing a nursery rhyme about the parts of the body.
So far, so normal, with the notable difference that female teachers wear the Muslim headscarf, a garment banned along with other religious symbols in state schools.
But it is not so much the headscarves as the “Islamic sciences,” or religion lessons, conducted at Lissane and many other private Arabic language schools, that have drawn scrutiny in a country that has an uneasy relationship with its Muslim minority, the largest in Europe at an estimated five million.
Lissane’s co-founder Abdelghani Sebata, a 37-year-old Algerian law graduate, says that the religious component of the course — which includes learning verses of the Qur’an — is “very light.”
“We leave the religious side to the families,” he told AFP.
But at the many mosques that also teach children to read and write the Arabic used in official communications, literature and media across the Arab world, as well as in the Qur’an, Islam is the main focus.

A report on radicalization last month by the Institut Montaigne, a respected liberal French think-tank, warned that Arabic classes had become “the best way for Islamists to attract young people into their mosques and (private) schools.”
In response, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer — one of centrist President Emmanuel Macron’s most combative ministers — announced plans to take back control.
Arguing that classical Arabic should be treated like all other “great languages” such as Russian and Chinese, he vowed to develop its teaching in state schools in order to combat “the drift toward self-ghettoization” in private institutions.
His proposal drew a furious reaction from rightwingers who view the use of Arabic by North African immigrants with hostility, seeing it as evidence of a failure to integrate.
Luc Ferry, was was education minister under former center-right president Jacques Chirac, questioned whether the government was bent on “fighting Islamism or bringing it into public education” — suggesting that by giving Arabic more prominence it was doing the latter.
“We’re in a logic of submission,” fumed Louis Aliot, a lawmaker from the far-right National Rally (formerly National Front) party, echoing the title of a novel by controversial author Michel Houellebecq, “Submission,” which imagines a France ruled by Islamists.

Hakim El Karoui, author of the Institut Montaigne report which revived a long-running debate about France’s insistence that immigrants ditch their ethnic identities on arrival and embrace Frenchness, said he was “not at all” surprised by the reaction on the right.
“Everything to do with Arabs drives them a bit mad,” El Karoui, a Tunisian-born geography scholar and former government adviser, told AFP.
He points to the increasing scarcity of schools offering Arabic — France’s second-most spoken language, and one used by over 430 million people worldwide — as evidence of their reluctance to teach a subject associated with “problematic” immigrants.
Only 567 primary schoolchildren studied Arabic last year, a third of the number who took Chinese as their mandatory second language. Most chose English.
In secondary school, just 11,200 pupils studied Arabic, which is offered in a handful of schools in each city, mostly elite city-center colleges.

With demand far outstripping supply, parents have turned to mosques, religious associations and private schools like Lissane, which together attract some 80,000 students, according to a government estimate cited by the Institut Montaigne.
Ines Kridaine, a 35-year-old Tunisian living in France for the past 13 years, enrolled her daughter Ikram in classes at Lissane at the age of four.
Five years later Ikram can understand her Tunisian relatives, follow Arabic news channels and read the Qur’an. But Ines, who wears a headscarf and a loose abaya robe, still wishes Arabic was taught during class time.
“It should be treated like any other language,” she said.
Writing in Le Monde newspaper last month, the head of the prestigious Arab World Institute in Paris, former Socialist minister Jack Lang, defended Arabic as the language of “Arab Christians, Jews, Muslims and atheists, bloggers, social media, young people, writers, poets, artists, singers, hip-hoppers, scientists, researchers, journalists, companies and innovators.”
It’s a view shared by Jerome Gercet, principal of an international secondary school in the southeastern city of Grenoble that has to turn away applicants for its Arabic section each year.
After graduation, most of his students go on to study political science, medicine, business, engineering, arts or administration.
That’s proof, he said, that Arabic is “a subject of excellence.”


Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

Jana Ghalayini’s work at Art Dubai invited visitors to draw on their responses.
Updated 25 May 2019
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Creative group in the UAE gives female artists a chance to tell their story

  • Female-led art collective wants society to rethink the way women of color are perceived
  • Banat Collective publishes artworks in print and online and hosts events to encourage debate

DUBAI: Sara bin Safwan founded the Banat Collective in 2016 to connect with other like-minded people, championing
their art through the group’s website, banatcollective.com.
The group aims to help society to rethink the way women of color are perceived by showcasing contemporary art, poetry and other writings. The collective publishes artistic works in print and online and hosts events aimed at spreading awareness and encouraging debate.
“A lot of the artists are young and emerging and never had the chance to be either exhibited or publicized, so we interview them to offer a critical, insightful look at their work,” said Safwan, 25.


Now an assistant curator at Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, Safwan graduated from London’s world-famous Central Saint Martins college in 2015 with a degree in culture, criticism and curation.
It was while studying in Britain that she developed a keen interest in post-colonial theory; the Banat Collective focuses on themes relating to both womanhood and intersectionality, which is an analytic framework to identify how interlocking systems of power impact those most marginalized in society.
“The mission is not only to connect artists but open up discussions about Arab womanhood in the region, because there’s not necessarily any other place to do so. We do that through art, poetry and other writings,” Safwan said.
“I use the word ‘womanhood’ to make it a more accessible term because if I use ‘feminism,’ it’s a very politically charged word that has almost been tainted by Western ideologies. And those Western ideologies don’t necessarily fit within our context as Middle Easterners.”
“In the Middle of it All” is the collective’s debut publication. Released in 2018, the book is a 31-artist collaboration of visual art, writing and poetry. Our book is a means to help us stand out — it’s thoughtfully curated and tackles a specific issue, which is ‘coming of age’,” she says.
“It’s a notion that’s taboo in the Arab world and either unheard of or misunderstood. It was a chance for female artists to tell their own story.
“Throughout the book, we go through many topics such as puberty, identity, sexual harassment and abuse, sisterhood, motherhood, beauty standards and all these other societal expectations.”
The collective held its first exhibition as part of March’s Art Dubai fair, showcasing a short film, “Ivory Stitches & Saviors” by member Sarah Alagroobi, which she describes as an “unflinching glimpse into identity, colonialism and whitewashing.”
Says Safwan: “It’s a tribute to all women of color who have been marginalized and, all too often, erased.”
Another work by Palestinian-Canadian artist Jana Ghalayini is comprised of a 26-meter-long piece of chiffon on which visitors can draw with chalk pastels in response to questions posed by the artist including “How does your environment affect your identity?”
Safwan adds: “The themes we explored were vulnerability and community — it was a way to introduce ourselves in person because previously we only had an online presence.”
Born and raised in the UAE to Honduran and Emirati parents, Safwan is now working with Alagroobi and Ghalayini to brainstorm ideas for future projects that include a podcast series on the notion of shame. The collective is self-funded and run by volunteers.
“I hope there will be more opportunities to showcase our work and collaborate with others. This year, we will be publishing more content,” Safwan said.

This report is being published by Arab News as a partner of The Middle East Exchange, which was launched by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Global Initiatives and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to reflect the vision of the UAE prime minister and ruler of Dubai to explore the possibility of changing the status of the Arab region.