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Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif: The Challenge of Teaching Arabic

Ben Tarif

Arabic instructor Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif inside the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies.

Jordan native Abdel Razzaq Ben Tarif shares a favorite quote from the Dalai Lama: “Share your knowledge; it’s a way to achieve immortality.”

This fall, he’s following that command but teaching Arabic at Duke, joining the university’s team of Arabic instructors. He has six years of experience teaching Arabic in a classroom setting, a master’s of arts teaching Arabic for speakers of other language (2009), and a master’s in American studies (2014) from the University of Jordan. 

“Ben Tarif was highly recommended by Duke students who studied with him in Jordan through the Kenan refugee program in Amman led by Suzanne Shanahan,” said Mbaye Lo, assistant professor of the practice and Arabic Language Program Coordinator at Duke. “So, he is somewhat familiar with the Duke culture; and with him, we hope to secure a diverse, and yet highly talented Arabic faculty to serve our students.”

Below, Ben Tarif talks with Julie Harbin, director of communications for Duke Islamic Studies Center.

HARBIN: You’re an award winning Arabic instructor who’s had a variety of experiences teaching Arabic, teaching UN employees, diplomats, defense department officials and U.S. soldiers and university students. How can you compare these experiences?

BEN TARIF:  I think teaching Arabic for different groups is challenging, because

you are dealing with many people from many backgrounds, and each have their own goal to study the language. When we talk about diplomats, soldiers and defense department officials, going back to school again to learn a language can be frustrating to them. You have to create your own curriculum that meets their needs to learn the language, and this is fun.


HARBIN: Why is it so important for people to learn Arabic? What should people know about learning Arabic?

BEN TARIF: Arabic is the fifth most commonly spoken native language in the world and the official language in in more than 20 countries.  There are more than 300 million native speakers of the language. The Arab-speaking world has a rich cultural heritage with its own unique art, music, literature, cuisine, and way of life.  Also there are financial incentives for learning Arabic. The US government has designated Arabic as a language of strategic importance.


HARBIN: Is the language hard to learn?

BEN TARIF: Arabic is written from right to left, as opposed to English’s left to right system. The open end of a book faces left, you have to start on the right hand side of your paper, and Microsoft word is going to come automatically aligned right. This is the first challenge that you have to overcome! The alphabet composed of 28 letters that looks nothing like the Latin script. Even more, each letter changes depending on its location in a word! But they are easy to overcome.


HARBIN: What is unique about teaching Arabic to university students?

BEN TARIF: Time. Teaching university students is all about time. You have one semester to make your student fall in love with the language.  You have 13 weeks to make an improvement in their ability to use the language. So you have more pressure, and keep in your mind that students care about their grades.


HARBIN: What is the Media Arabic course?

BEN TARIF: The course exposes students to a variety of media sources in Arabic and trains them to become proficient in reading, listening, writing, and comprehension skills in the context of Arabic-language media. Students will read, watch and analyze authentic materials from various Arab newspapers, satellite TV stations, and the like. Students are exposed to discourse in Modern Standard Arabic and Arabic.


HARBIN: Can you talk about the Arabic intensive program that you taught to Duke students in Jordan? 

BEN TARIF: This was for the Duke in Amman program.  The students came from the Kenan Institute for Ethics under the supervision of Suzanne Shanahan. They were in Jordan studying the culture in the Middle East and conducting research. It was basically designed as a (language) survival course and a one-month introduction to the culture.


HARBIN: You are Jordanian. Did you grow up in Jordan? How did you first get into the field of teaching Arabic?

BEN TARIF: I lived in Karak, Madaba and Amman. I got into this field because I like to meet people all around from all cultures. Also, I love to make people get to know the true Arabian and Islamic cultures. My goal is to represent a good picture about the Middle East through language and the culture.


HARBIN: What can Americans and Jordanians learn from each other?

BEN TARIF: We Jordanians would love if U.S. foreign policy was more effective and would have a clear agenda toward the Middle East. During the Arab Spring we believed that U.S. foreign policy was ambiguous. We love to live in peace.


HARBIN: Your masters thesis at the University of Jordan was “Creating a Frankenstein: American Involvement in the Evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda.”  Can you explain, in brief, the principle points of your thesis?

BEN TARIF: The attacks of September 11, 2001, on the World Trade Center (W.T.C) and the Pentagon led to crucial decisions by the administration of President Bush to launch operations against terrorists wherever they may reside. Osama bin Laden, the prominent mastermind behind the Sept. 11 attacks was based in Afghanistan where U.S. military strikes are still underway. In the recent past, during the 1980s, U.S. foreign policy played an important role in the introduction of U.S. influence in Afghanistan by financing military operations designed to counter the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Once the Afghan jihad forced a Soviet withdrawal a decade later, the United States lost interest in the Afghani rebels. For the international mujahideen drawn to the Afghan conflict, however, the fight was just beginning.

The Frankenstein story has been used as a political metaphor to condemn any policy that would have an unintended side effect in the future. I used the Frankenstein metaphor in this thesis to criticize American foreign policy in Afghanistan, which led to the evolution of Islamist fundamentalism there.


HARBIN: Have you continued to conduct research on this topic?

BEN TARIF: No. not yet. But I have the intention to write about the new generation of Islamic militias, including ISIS.