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UC Berkeley students enrolling in Arabic classes in record numbers

– A generation ago, during the Cold War, students on college campuses were poring over Cyrillic alphabets and Russian textbooks.

In the same way, campuses around the country, including the University of California, Berkeley, have seen a dramatic rise in students enrolling in Arabic language classes since Sept. 11, 2001.

This summer at UC Berkeley, the number of students taking Arabic is the highest ever for a summer session, with around 60 enrollees. The usual number is around 20.

"I've definitely noticed the numbers going up," said graduate student instructor Sam Liebhaber, who is teaching one section of the four beginning Arabic classes offered this summer. In his class, Liebhaber uses video and music to give the students a taste of the various Arabic cultures.

"The students who take Arabic during the summer are very motivated," Liebhaber said. "It's incredibly intense, with four hours of class every day and more than that each evening in homework. They aren't here on a whim. "

"We do a lot of language instruction in the summer," said Gary Penders, director of UC Berkeley's Summer Sessions, which run through Aug. 15. "It's basically a year's worth of language instruction in eight or 10 weeks. Because they are focused on what they are doing, they feel they get a better handle on it. They do well in the summer and have no problem moving on to the next level in the fall."

While a number of students enrolled in the class are aiming for careers with the CIA or the diplomatic corps, quite a few are there for very different reasons.

Some, such as 26-year-old Eritrean political refugee Eyoel Gebreyesus, want to work in Africa or the Middle East for a non-profit organization. A senior, Gebreyesus plans to go on to graduate school in international relations.

"Many people don't realize it, but there is a lot of poverty in Saudi Arabia," Gebreyesus said. "There are a lot of people who need help."

Another reason he said he wants to become proficient in Arabic is because "the language is beautiful. The way they write, the way they sing...it's just beautiful."

A love of Arabic music, particularly songs, was a common theme among several of the summer students.

Lara Walklet, who just finished her first year at McGill University in Montreal, said the music sparked her interest in learning the language.

"The music was definitely the reason," Walklet said. "I realize how messages are conveyed through music." Already multilingual, she has learned to love songs from around the world and the messages imparted in languages including Hebrew, French and Spanish.

Walklet said that since she is Jewish, she is hoping Arabic will help her understand another culture.

"People make a lot of judgements about people they don't understand, " she said. "I hate that. I think I might throw people off balance by speaking Arabic, but that's good. It allows two people from very different backgrounds to communicate, to find common ground."

First year UC Berkeley student Mishana Hosseinioun, who is of Iranian ancestry but was born and raised in Marin, fell in love with the Arabic language and culture when she and her family visited Egypt two years ago.

"The people in Cairo were so warm," she said. "I suppose they reminded me somewhat of my own culture." After her trip, she bought what she said must be "thousands of Arabic CDs. The music really got under my skin."

Although just two weeks into the semester, the students are already writing and speaking some Arabic.

"I'm walking on Cloud Nine after class," Hosseinioun said. "You have to be crazy about the language to spend the amount of time we do to learn it."

English major Ruby Tovar, a senior, grew up in a Mexican household speaking English and Spanish, but she is excited about adding another language to her repertoire.

"Arabic music endeared me to their culture," Tovar said. She named some singers she loves - Amr Diab and Khaled - and exclaimed, "I can't wait to find out what they are singing about!"

Tovar and her fellow students believe that music may be a way to help unite diverse cultures.

"The music transcends boundaries," she said. "We have a different perception because of the music. Even if we don't understand the words, the music is a language unto itself."