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Arabic International Language Day: Arab America puts Alefb in the spotlight

🙌 So proud to be featured in “ArabAmerica” Arab America for Arabic International Language Day, by our Alumni Khalid Kishawi. Read below ⬇️

PHOTO: puffin11k/Flickr – Spiegel by Jaume Plensa at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, United Kingdom.


Celebrating the 48th United Nations Arabic Language Day

POSTED ON: DEC 15, 2021

By: Khalid Kishawi / Arab America Contributing Writer  

World Arabic Language Day is celebrated every year on 18 December since 2012. The date coincides with the day in 1973 that the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Arabic as the sixth official language of the Organization.

The First Arabic Speakers in America

Celebrating the 48th United Nations Arabic Language Day

The first Arabic speaker to set foot in the modern-day United States was a Moroccan man named Zammouri. He was stolen from his home by Spanish slave traders, renamed Estevanico, and shipped to Florida in 1521 to work on a plantation.

Another notable Arabic speaker who ended up in the United States was Omar ibn Said, a Muslim scholar who was stolen from his home in Senegal and enslaved in North Carolina. He wrote 14 manuscripts of his experiences in Arabic, under the name Uncle Moreau. These texts are essential to telling the true story of enslaved Africans

“A Slave of Great Notoriety of North Carolina” (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library/Yale University/Public Domain)

This migration pattern drastically shifted in the late 1800s when Arab merchants settled in America in large numbers. They were primarily Lebanese and Syrian Christians who moved to major cities.

Boston’s South Cove neighborhood was once called “Little Syria” with blocks of argeeleh lounges, cafes serving traditional pastries, shawarma shops, and carpet stores. The Kawkab America newspaper sent weekly Arabic language issues around the world. These are only a few of the examples of a cultural renaissance that came from the economic success of Arab-Americans during the industrial revolution. Today, only a fraction of the original businesses remain, however, the early twentieth century will forever be recognized as a period of Arab-American excellence.

My journey as a Young Arab-American with the Arabic Language and Culture

I grew up in a bilingual household with English spoken by my mother and Arabic spoken by my father. I attended a Muslim Arabic-speaking preschool until I was five. This allowed me to stay immersed in my culture in a place where I am part of a small minority. Being there for three years extended my ability to stay proficient in Arabic, but when I transitioned to an English-speaking and predominantly white elementary school, I experienced a culture shock. My peers ate animal crackers and goldfish and played kickball during recess, three things that were foreign to someone who ate hummus at recess and had no idea what those games were. In first grade, I felt isolated in the culture of teachers who had a “figure it out yourself” attitude and didn’t prioritize teaching sharing. So for years, I believed that being raised connected to my Arab culture and speaking my language was a weakness and a setback.


Celebrating the 48th United Nations Arabic Language Day

My father continued to speak almost entirely in Arabic and as I began to answer him almost entirely in English, he and my mother became insistent that I attend Arabic classes with the principal of my preschool. We would spend afternoons copying stories and filling out grammar booklets word for word in the environment of the principal’s short temper. When she retired, I was enrolled in classes at Alefb**, an afterschool Arabic independent NGO in South San Francisco. The learning style was project-based,  and I learned writing, reading, and speaking skills from topics that interested me. After one year, I transitioned to weekly online lessons with a Syrian teacher named Asalah living in Lebanon, hired through Alefb. Ms. Asalah was the first language teacher in my life that made learning a language exciting. Between middle school and high school, I created multimedia projects based on my interests- the environment, endangered species, politics, and cooking. I learned new vocabulary with articles from news outlets in the Arab world. Ms. Asalah’s ability to push my mind to keep picking up Arabic is a learning style that I treasure to this day after studying three new languages.

Celebrating the 48th United Nations Arabic Language Day

The other experience that shaped my identity as an Arab-American at age 14 was when I attended a summer institute for Arab youth, set up by the organization Arab Youth Organizing* The day that stuck with me was the day we learned about the history of Arab-Americans, starting in the 1500s,. We created a timeline on a ten-foot sheet of paper and added the history of our families in the United States and our own accomplishments. Other youth wrote about being the first Arab team captain of their school’s football team, the first Arab student to win an award for outstanding students, and the first person in their family to graduate high school and attend community college. Being in a space that was centered around the history and accomplishments of Arabs in the United States, changed my perspective on who we are and who we can be.

On this 48th UN Arabic Language Day, I feel motivated by the Arab professors, writers, and painters that I met in my teen years. Starting as a high school student, I hope to share the underrepresented stories of Arab-Americans and build on the accomplishments of the academics who inspire me.

United Nations Arabic Language Day:

“Arabic is a bridge between cultures and across borders – a true language of diversity.,” says Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO. “On this international day, UNESCO will celebrate and explore the role of Arabic language academies.  Not only do these institutions preserve, enrich and enhance the Arabic language, they also help monitor its use in conveying accurate information in the context of global current events.”

According to the UNESCO website, the Arabic language is a pillar of the cultural diversity of humanity. It is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, used daily by more than 400 million people. World Arabic Language Day has been celebrated since December 18, 1973, when the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted Arabic as the sixth official language of the Organization.

This year’s World Arabic Language Day theme is “Arabic Language, a Bridge Between Civilisations.” The theme is a call to reaffirm the important role of Arabic in connecting people through culture, science, and literature.

Over the last 1,500 years, some of the greatest contributions to knowledge were invented in Arabic. Before Algebra entered every math class around the world, it was invented in Iraq through the Arabic numeral system. The word Algebra comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr” which translated to, “the reunion of broken parts.” The Arab alchemist Abū Mūsā Jābir ibn Ḥayyān is the father of chemistry with the word itself coming from the Arabic word “al-kimya.” For centuries, libraries in Iraq, Egypt, Morocco, and Mali housed tens of thousands of religious texts, medical texts, poetry, and folktales. Five hundred years back, Arabic texts were the basis for the golden age of Southwest Asia and North Africa. The region has endured many changes since then but the impact of the thousands of Arabic-speaking scholars will never be lost.

Today, Arabic advocates hope that a reaffirmation that Arabic is the language of science, mathematics, literature, medicine, and music, will break down stereotypes. This recognition will remind the Arabic-speaking community worldwide to take pride in their language and the heritage that comes with it.

Khalid Kishawi is a student and activist in the Bay Area. His articles have won seven national awards and his work has been used as a writing prompt at Ohlone College. In his free time, he enjoys studying languages, biking, and baking.

Alefb has pioneered teaching the Arabic language and culture to children in a playful way, since 1994. Alefb’s mission is to raise global citizens while creating job opportunities in Lebanon and MENA. Alefb offers 1-on-1 online Arabic classes for all ages and all levels, anytime and from anywhere. Alefb is registered as a private non-profit 501(c)(3) organization.

Arab Youth Organizing (AYO) is the youth branch of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center (AROC). AYO is made up of Arab youth ages 14-22 from all over the Bay Area who engage in political education, skill-building, and organizing.


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