In the Heart of Cairo, the Language of Immersion

Unhappy with its new home in the suburbs, a premier language program returns to downtown

Dana Smillie for The Chronicle

CASA students eat lunch at a fast-food restaurant in downtown Cairo.
July 27, 2010

Downtown Cairo isn't the easiest place for foreign students to get used to. It's crowded, noisy, and polluted; the traffic is dangerous; and women face sexual harassment regularly. But students at one of the most prestigious Arabic-language programs in the Middle East have insisted that this bustling, sometimes uncomfortable experience is exactly what they want.

The Center for Arabic Study Abroad—a premier language program financed primarily by the U.S. Department of Education—has just relocated to the American University in Cairo's downtown campus.

This is a return—after a two-year absence—to what has been the program's home since its creation in 1967. The small, intensive, yearlong program has educated generations of American scholars of Middle East. Its students tend to be proficient Arabic speakers with a long-term interest in the Arab world.

In 2008 the center moved to the university's new $400-million, 260-acre campus, located in a developing eastern suburb of Cairo. There students found all the amenities that were missing from the crowded downtown campus, including an Olympic-size swimming pool and a state-of-the-art library.

But, says the center's director, Martha Schulte-Nafeh, "From Day 1 the CASA students said: We don't want to be here."

Students complained of the long commutes to and from the campus, which averaged two to three hours a day, round-trip. And they were unhappy that they were socially and geographically isolated on a largely English-speaking campus with a student body who came mainly from the upper classes of Egypt.

The new campus is "surrounded by malls and suburban developments," says Anna Ziajka, who is studying at the center this year. At the international food chains that have outlets on campus, "Even the waiters speak English."

A Georgetown graduate with a degree in English literature and Arabic language, Ms. Ziajka has lived in Cairo before. "I know it would have been a completely different experience, living on the outskirts of Cairo," she says. "It's not an experience I wanted."

Like most of the 30 or so students at the center, Ms. Ziajka is planning a career based on her language skills. She dreams of one day running a publishing house focused on Arabic literature in translation and says learning Arabic "is also about interacting with the city, with the city's inhabitants."

Ms. Ziajka says that her interest in studying at the center increased after she heard it was moving back into central Cairo. The same goes for Kirsten Beck, a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin. "It was a really huge factor. It made a huge difference," Ms. Beck says of in her decision to enroll in the program this year.

Ms. Schulte-Nafeh says the sentiment is a common one among students. A program evaluation she conducted last year showed that "95 percent of students felt the program's location substantially negatively impacted their ability to use the language, interact with Egyptians ... have a true cultural immersion," she says.

Stronger Skills

The center is now housed in a renovated wing of the historic university campus, just a few steps away from Cairo's central El Tahrir Square and from the downtown's outdoor markets, bookstores, and coffee shops.

The location is particularly important, explains Ms. Schulte-Nafeh, because the program is focused on building not just language skills but "intercultural competence." That is true of many other Arabic-language programs these days, she says.

Kirk Belnap, director of the National Middle East Language Resource Center, notes the recent huge increase in Arabic-language programs in the region. Yet many students who travel to the Middle East to learn Arabic come home frustrated with their lack of progress, he says.

"The classroom only provides the springboard," says Mr. Belnap. "A classroom that is geared to help students engage in the community is going to be so much more successful." He points to recent research that suggests opportunities for language practice outside the classroom have a greater impact on students' proficiency than anything they are taught in class.

Being in central Cairo, those involved with the center believe, will offer just such opportunities. Students can meet friends after class at Al-Hurriya ("Freedom"), one of the downtown's last historic bars. They can walk from campus to the best-selling novelist Alaa Al Aswany's weekly literary salon. Whatever their interests—visiting art galleries or volunteering with Sudanese refugees in Egypt—they can find venues near the university to pursue them.

Still, another one of American University in Cairo's language programs has decided it is happy with the move away from the city. The Arabic Language Institute, which hosts hundreds of study-abroad students from the United States and elsewhere, remains committed to the new campus.

Students "are managing the commute and the study, and they are content," says the institute's director, Zeinab Taha. "We don't see that these students are negatively affected by being here. We have settled here in the new campus."

The area around the campus "is going to grow," says Ms. Taha, and eventually become "a whole city—crowded, busy, full of activities."

In the meantime there are many practical advantages to the move, says Ms. Taha. "We have space, our classrooms are bigger and better quality, teachers have their own offices." The institute now has the room to hold more student-teacher conferences, small seminars, film screenings, and other events.

As for cultural immersion, Ms. Taha points to the planned opening of Al Maqha Al Arabi (the Arabic Café) on the campus—a venue modeled on traditional Egyptian streetside cafes that will play Arabic music and serve a menu of traditional Egyptian food and drink. It may even require patrons to speak Arabic.