Arabic in the New Millennium: [Khaled AbuAmsha, Ph.D.]

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There were about a dozen knocks on the door, five phone calls and three separate times when someone simply walked in while I was talking with Dr. Khaled AbuAmsha.

He’s a very important person with a lot to do, if it’s not apparent from the numbers above. For better context, we only spoke for about 35 minutes. That means someone’s trying to get his attention at least every two minutes- usually less.

A little over half an hour is a generous amount of time for him to give to me because Dr. Khaled is the Academic Director of the Qasid Institute. This summer alone, Qasid has about 440 students, including myself, as well as 82 teachers on payroll. The school’s goal is simple: to introduce students from all over the world to the Arabic language and culture through intensive 4-hour classes and, of course, immersion in an Arabic culture by living in Amman. The word ‘Qasid’ itself is explained on the back of his contact card- ‘a person who strives forward with a direct and specific intention.’ It’s a good name for an Arabic program and it also serves as a good description for Khaled himself.

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Dr. Khaled as an adorable child (on left)

Dr. Khaled, 43, was born in in 1973 in Palestine. He remembers the first Intifada during his high school years and, for the most part, “I can remember in the last year of my school- we just started one semester, we couldn’t finish the rest of the year,” he says, “… they multiplied the grades from the first one to the second one. So whatever we got in the first semester, they considered that for the whole year.” By that point, Dr. Khaled had narrowed his goals to attending medical school and focusing on Arabic studies. The former accepts only straight-A students, which Dr. Khaled was-up until his final semester of high school. He was still making good grades, just not quite medical school level. He never had the opportunity to raise his grades in the second semester and college admissions only pay attention to the performance of a student in their last year of high school. “I promised my parents that I would achieve [their] dream and still become a doctor, just a doctor in Arabic and not medicine,” he says. They were happy as long as he was.

It was probably for the best, because by then, Dr. Khaled had developed a love for Arabic poetry and novels. He describes himself as an admirer of the language. Occasionally he works on his own prose even today- called nether. He would go on to study it deeply at the University of Jordan.   Amman served as a point of return for him after that. “I obtained my Masters [in Applied Linguistics] from Malaysia, I stayed there for 3 years, then I came back and worked at the University of Jordan, then I moved again to Saudi Arabia and spent 4 years. I came back to Jordan and then I left to work in America and then decided to return to Amman.” He’s been to many other countries and cities besides these, but for shorter periods of time. He loves traveling, if that isn’t obvious. He lists his two favorite cities as Istanbul and Paris, in that order. “Istanbul for me is like the city where the East meets the West and where history meets modern culture… I used to stay up late and wake up early to watch the ships and listen to sound of the birds…and Paris, it’s peace and art…” he trails off, so I add some filler. “It’s Paris,” I say. He grins and nods in agreement.

drkhaled3He taught for a year at Brigham-Young University. He planned for only one year because he didn’t want to lose the work and connections he had built in the Middle East, but he thoroughly enjoyed the experience. He likens the Mormon community to the Arab community. “In many ways I think Mormons are the closest to the Arab community. We are really close in several ways, in how they dress in more modest clothes, they don’t drink, and relations before marriage are not as accepted, big families with lots of kids. There are many things we can share together. I liked my time there, they were very generous with me and my family,” he says. I’ve never thought of a link between Arabs and Mormons up until this interview, but in how he explains it, it makes perfect sense. “I remember one thing, which I always tell people about, that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the world. When I was in that neighborhood, they took care of us like we were guests… for three weeks, from around 1-2[PM], I would find lunch left in front in front of my door for me and my kids. I thought this would happen for the first day or two, but it went on for three weeks, I haven’t seen this anywhere else in the world,” he says. Later, I think of any time I’ve seen this kind of welcoming behavior, and the closest for me comes from the Middle East, so maybe he has a point.

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As his pursuits in academia have carried him around the world, Dr. Khaled has
accumulated both amazing connections as well as a stunning resume. He simply states that all this has bloomed out a love for reading, writing and, especially, teaching. “That’s where I can find myself,” he tells me. He leans forward as he talks about his interest in the learning process and how great it can be to work with both beginners and advanced students. Both find the fruits in their efforts on an almost daily basis. He’s written, independently and with colleagues, more than 30 books on linguistics and has participated in educational conferences all over the world. In two months, he will defend his second PhD in Applied Linguistics. The greater context of his work provides context for his extensive list of accomplishments. “After 9/11, everything has changed. Arabic used to be viewed as somewhat a dead language, like Latin… Since that time, a lot of things have changed in different levels. Now most schools around the world, even in the States, now have programs for Modern Standard Arabic [MSA] instead of just Classical Arabic. People feel like they need to communicate with the language, not just to read,” he explains.
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Dr. Khaled has been a pioneer in this re-thinking of how Arabic is taught. “We don’t hear
as much now about how Arabic is difficult, because the way that we teach it now is completely different… If you just look in the last five years [at Qasid] most of the students that came to study were at beginners’ level, we used to have 12 classes for level 1, now in this summer, where we have 440 students- the most students we’ve ever had- we have a class for each section… so already you can see a big change,” he says. He believes Arabic will once again become one of the most important languages to learn.

But with his understanding of the importance of Arabic and how teaching it has changed over the past decade-and-a-half, also comes an understanding of the importance of cultural connection. Maybe this, more than any other aspect, defines Dr. Khaled and it’s why I got my 35 minutes with him. He exudes warmth that comes through in his voice, and his eyes light up and crinkle excitedly as he describes the places he’s been and people he’s met. The most touching is a final anecdote of how he met his wife, Amira.

Dr.  Khaled was working in Saudi Arabia in 1997; he was 25. He wasn’t even interested in marrying at that point. “My older sister set up the appointment with [Amira’s] family, why I don’t know, I wasn’t planning on it at all…” In these arrangements, it’s considered very rude to back out, and so Khaled agreed to meet for a short and sweet visit. “I went there and I said to my sister ‘We’ll get a cup of coffee and talk for just 15 minutes and then leave,’ and among the things we do in such visits is [the family] leaves you with her to talk and ask each other questions privately for a few minutes. So I said ‘just leave us for five minutes’… so what happens indeed is that I started to talk with her… and my sister comes and says, ‘you’re the one who wanted to stay for five minutes and now we’ve been here for three hours! Do you want to go home or continue with this?!’”

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They now have 7 kids together, 4 girls and 3 boys; the oldest is entering 10th grade and the youngest is three. It’s only at the very end of our conversation that he unloads the greatest factoid I could hope for: “Today is our 16th anniversary,” he says laughing. I almost drop my pen. His explanation for what he saw in her is so simple that it’s beautiful: “I liked how she looked, how she spoke and how she deals with things, and so, like that, I said ’this is the woman I want to marry.’” As for what ‘Amira’ translates to: “It means in English, like, ‘Princess’,” he says, glowing. I didn’t even have to ask.

 

 

(Photos provided with permission from Dr. Khaled)

 

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