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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Not in Translation

By Malcolm Knox 

When Gough Whitlam told the young Kevin Rudd to go out and get a university degree, Rudd chose to study Chinese language and history at the ANU. What if a present-day mentor showed equal prescience and advised an ambitious protégé to go out and learn the language which is in full flower across the world, which is of immense political and cultural relevance, and which is urgently needed - don't worry about 30 years down the track - right now?

Where, in other words, would today's future leader go to learn Arabic?

There is no gainsaying the urgency of the need. The 2004 Flood report into Australia's intelligence agencies noted, "Language proficiency represents another core competency for the AIC [Australian intelligence community]. Many of the agencies lack depth in this area, a weakness that reflects generally poor levels of formal foreign-language training in Australia."

The critical shortage of Arabic speakers in the intelligence and military communities is the tip of a national iceberg. In the media, Arabic speakers are so hard to come by that when Sheik Taj el-din Al Hilaly, the so-called Mufti of Australia (a questionable title that itself owes something to the language gap), was criticised over his "uncovered meat" sermon late last year, the outcry happened several weeks after the speech. It had taken that long for newspapers to have Hilaly's words translated reliably into English.

As foreign correspondents are redeployed from Europe and East Asia to the Middle East, the language shortage creates a buffering and distorting effect. Nicolas Rothwell wrote in the Australian two years ago, "Almost none of the high-profile journalists who operate in the Arab world speak more than a few words of Arabic ... The networks rely excessively on ‘fixers' and local intriguers for their access to well-placed interview subjects, but ... the journalist ... is merely a spectator receiving one possible translation of the words he [or she] retails."

This has significant consequences. The lawyer Waleed Aly, an executive member of the Islamic Council of Victoria, argues in his yet-to-be-published book ‘People Like Us' that Western incomprehension of terms like jihad is itself a root cause of mutual hostility. Culture and language, in other words, are indivisible. Semantics are politics.

According to the 2001 census, nearly 210,000 Australians speak Arabic at home. Just over 90,000 of them are born here. Among the so-called community languages, Arabic is the fourth largest, behind Italian, Greek and Cantonese. Yet birth does not equal aspiration, and community languages do not equate to what Australians are studying - strikingly, it seems, when it comes to Arabic.

Visit the Language Book Centre, the biggest multi-language bookshop in Sydney, a shop aimed directly at students, and a measure-up of shelf-space tells the story. First of all are the languages assigned their own sections. French books have 78 one-metre panels of shelving. German and Spanish have more than 40 metres, Chinese 36 metres, and Italian around 30. Arabic, meanwhile, does not rate a section of its own. It does have the most shelf-space among the "Other Languages": nine metres, ahead of Portuguese, Hindi, Persian, Maltese and Urdu. While the European languages supply a mix of textbooks, reference books and literature, the Arabic section has only textbooks. (There is also an Arabic phrase book for tourists. It sits, alphabetically, alongside a phrase book in "Australian".)

The stock of a bookstore in the centre of the nation's biggest city represents demand, particularly from students. In our universities, Arabic-language courses are meagrely sought. Melbourne, Sydney, Queensland and the ANU, all of which offer extensive Arabic courses, are the only four of the Group of 8 universities to offer the language. While the other Group of 8 universities - New South Wales, Monash, Adelaide and Western Australia - teach undergraduates about Middle Eastern politics and the Islamic world as part of Asian Studies or International Relations programs, none teaches Arabic.

In Australia's other 33 accredited universities, Arabic is almost non-existent. Griffith, La Trobe, Curtin, Macquarie, Flinders, RMIT and UTS all have courses to interest undergraduates willing to engage intellectually with the Islamic world, but not a single one teaches the Arabic language. European and Chinese languages, and Japanese, Indonesian and Korean, are taught almost universally. The Australian Defence Force Academy - the training ground for those at the pointiest end of engagement with the Middle East, our soldiers - which is linked with the University of New South Wales, does not offer Arabic-language courses for undergraduates.

The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) was noting this paucity when it reported in 2005 that all Asian-language enrolment in Australian universities was falling, except for Chinese languages. "Other languages of Asia survive," the ASAA submitted to the Senate, "through the commitment of specific individuals and their ability to influence their institutions." In the face of indifference, only the most committed teachers have been able to keep languages such as Arabic alive in the universities.

Below the degree level there are, of course, many ways of learning a language. The University of Melbourne offers short courses in Arabic, though Open Universities Australia does not. Arabic-language packs are easily downloadable from the internet, private tutors can be sourced, and continuing-education bodies and correspondence schools around the country offer elementary Arabic courses. For a gifted elite, the Saudi Arabian Embassy offers scholarships to travel to four different Saudi universities to study Arabic.

Beyond these, the non-Arabic speaker has few places to go. Religious schools and masjids teach classical, or Koranic, Arabic to students who already speak a version of colloquial Arabic and read and write Modern Standard Arabic, the written language that unifies dialects spoken across North Africa and the Middle East. It is not long before the curious would-be Arabic speaker finds himself in murky waters. On the internet, a Google search of "Learn Arabic for free" in pages from Australia leads to an organisation called Mission Islam, with a site that accuses a federation of Freemasons, Zionists and American imperialists of plotting to wipe Islam off the face of the earth and, as a counter-measure, advocates home schooling. "Learn Arabic for free" leads to a world in which language teaching is one element of a wider program of indoctrination. The scarcity of serious Arabic language courses in Australia brings such programs several degrees closer to the surface.

My father-in-law is a Moroccan who speaks six European languages, as well as his native Arabic. He is most comfortable in Italian, French and English. "European languages are easy once you start with Arabic," he says, "because Arabic is the most difficult." Even at 60, he has trouble with written Arabic.

For native English speakers, the barrier to understanding Arabic is its difference from our language, with its European roots. Difference begets prejudice. As the boorish fictional Secretary of Homeland Security rants in John Updike's 2006 novel, Terrorist, "There's something weird about the [Arabic] language - it makes them feeble-minded, somehow."

In Updike's novel, a young idealistic American, Ahmad Mulloy, becomes corrupted by his imam, crossing the line from religious observance to violent action. It all starts with "the heavenly purity" of classical Arabic, the gateway drug to Islamic extremism. Ahmad observes of his teacher that he "inhabits a semi-real world of pure words and most loves the Holy Qu'ran for its language, a shell of violent shorthand whose content is its syllables, the ecstatic flow of ‘l's and ‘a's and guttural catches in the throat, savoring of the cries and the gallantry of mounted robed warriors under the cloudless sky of Arabia Deserta." In Terrorist, it is a short step from those guttural catches and visions of mounted robed warriors to the explosives-laden truck and the Lincoln Tunnel, just as, on the other side, there is little distance between a politician hearing the exotic syllables of a desert language and construing its speakers as feeble-minded.

Arabic speakers are commonly accused of isolating or (a term rich in unconscious irony) ‘ghettoising' themselves by not speaking English. It's worth asking if other Australians are isolating them by showing so little curiosity in Arabic. Australians embrace Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean and a continent of European speakers by meeting them halfway, showing a curiosity in their tongue. There is a troubling language gap between English and Arabic; are we missing some aspect of mutuality, of welcome? Or is it all, literally, too difficult?

About the author Malcolm Knox
Malcolm Knox is a former literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and has won a Walkley Award for journalism. His books include Jamaica and The Life.