Friday, May 30, 2008

Departure Info

I forgot - I will be leaving DC on 27 August, flying out of JFK airport on 29 August, and arriving in Riyadh on 30 August. I will have the same Skype number as I do now (draperha/703.348.7791) when I am there, as well as when I am in Jordan, which runs 3-20 June. Just so you know.

On Arabic Teachers and Training

Before I dive in, I'll be heading out of DC Saturday afternoon for two days in Boston and then three weeks in Jordan, during which I'll get to make at least one short trip into Syria for the hell of it. This will be the first real bit of excitement on the blog since ohhhh, we'll say November. I promised you some entertainment once I got overseas, and you'll be getting it soon! I promise! Photos and stories will abound. Soon.

Now. Arabic teachers at FSI. Comparatively few are actually teachers by training. There's a great shortage of Arabic teachers in general around DC, so pretty much anyone who can speak Arabic has a passing chance at getting hired at FSI because we're desperate for teachers. I think our department is the primary reason that FSI is getting a major expansion - we've gone from 8 to 50 teachers in about 6 years. With the net cast so broadly for any Arabic speaker, there's obviously a variety of quality among the teachers. The best I've had here (and indeed, among the best language instructors I've ever had) was an elementary school teacher and then an Arabic instructor for Peace Corps volunteers in Morocco before coming here. I've also had a teacher with a PhD in Arabic linguistics and a former Arab League ambassador to the US. What's more, prospective hires who have guest taught my class include a man with a PhD in classical Arabic literature, a former Iraqi Army officer who maintains his strong nationalist viewpoints, and an Iraqi lawyer here as a political refugee after his work in the anti-corruption office of the Interior Ministry led to a few too many threats on his life.

There's also a lot of extra-curricular stuff for my class, mostly voluntary but strongly encouraged, because we are the most advanced class and thus are good for PR stuff. After the al-Hurra segment a month or so back, we we paired off with visiting Iraqi diplomats for lunch. That was a head trip and a half. One of my lunch partners was half Turkmen, half Arab, and the Turkmen language spoken in Iraq, which he grew up using, is virtually identical to Azerbaijani. I'm not sure which of us was more shocked that the other knew that bizarre-o little language. I also got to talk to a Kurd one day, which was as exciting as you could hope for... I barely managed to avoid using the word "Kurdistan," but my fumblings were really obvious - luckily he got a laugh out of it. Nice guy. All of these diplomats were pretty up front about America's numerous mistakes in Iraq, but they seemed mostly resigned to the situation and eager to create a functional government structure and bureaucracy that is the backbone of any state. One suggested that either US foreign policy should not be determined by elected officials or that everyone in the world should be given the right to vote on our foreign policy because its results are more obvious and direct outside US borders.

Another mentioned his strong desire that the US not withdraw its troops immediately from Iraq in January 2009, and thus that he would support McCain if he could vote here. It was an interesting situation to be in - I could have said that I didn't think that any of the candidates would be pulling out troops from Iraq in 2009 because it would be so lethal, but then I'd be left with defending the position that it's okay to say that on the election campaign without following through. I get the feeling that these diplomats, new though they were (most began training in Iraq's Foreign Ministry around the time I joined the FS), are just riding out the end of the Bush Administration to see which way the wind will blow next year.

One more observation about the Iraqi diplomatic service - male, married diplomats can take their wife and family abroad with them on assignment, but the female, married diplomats (of which there were more than a few but nowhere near parity) cannot do the same; their husbands and children must remain in Iraq unless the husband is also a diplomat and can travel with her to the same assignment. I would criticize, but our system is convoluted too. If I had to guess what issue will drive me out of the Foreign Service, it will most likely be what spouses, partners, and families of FSOs have to go through to follow their loved ones around the world. That's an ordeal I'm not sure I'm comfortable asking anyone to suffer through.

So much for my first four months of language training here. The Arabic program here, by and large, is strong. I have some quibbles with the curriculum and some of the teaching philosophies, and my last rotation was just about the worst educational experience I've ever had (for a Wash U comparison, I would have preferred a year of AKSR to six weeks of this demon), but at the same time, I can also see how much my competency in the language has increased from continued exposure and work. I can only hope that being in Jordan helps with my colloquial Arabic and that in the last two months here at FSI I can buckle down and get the highest score I can. (Also, I will be hoping that this high score will not automatically lock me in for "volunteering" for Iraq in 2009. That's a worry for another day, though... I'm still some ways away from being volunteered.) I'll write more from Amman next week!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fun things about DC, part fifty-five

DC is great and all, but sometimes you have to go a bit farther afield to find your fun. This weekend, I, my mother, and two good friends went to Baltimore to see the Preakness. If you've been living in a cave all of your life, the Preakness is the second of three races in the Triple Crown for thoroughbred horse racing, and it's kind of a big deal. This year, the Kentucky Derby winner also won the Preakness, so the Belmont in three weeks will be a very big deal. Unfortunately, I will be in Jordan, so I will have to find the one bar in Amman that will carry the race! I am determined! This won't be the first time I will have to get my Belmont fix from overseas; in 2004 I stood in the middle of the night at the pay phone outside my apartment building in Madrid and listened to my mother call the race as Smarty Jones lost the Belmont at the very last minute.

At any rate, here's a few photos. We had great seats, but I was shocked at how shabby Pimlico is - it made me miss Oaklawn so very much.

The field right out of the gate, passing in front of us the first time

In the home stretch, Big Brown is ahead with about an eighth of a mile to go before the finish line.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Lifestyle of a Long-Term Arabic Student

I really shouldn't bitch. I'm essentially getting paid to go to class for seven months, i.e. getting paid to do what I sort of did at Wash. U. for four years to the tune of $40K a year. Here's some of the highlights of what I'm doing now.
  • This week, I and some of the other advanced students are being paired up at lunch with a group of visiting Iraqi diplomats. I'm assuming that they know little to no English, so it'll be fun. I just hope I can understand them - Iraqi Arabic is a beast unto itself.
  • Two weeks ago I and my class were interviewed by al-Hurra, the satellite channel we fund in the Arab world. It was a fluffy piece about how Uncle Sam is teaching its diplomats Arabic - skipping over the fact that everyone in my class had actually learned the language outside the department. Nonetheless, it was a pretty sweet deal to be interviewed in Arabic. I got my ten to fifteen seconds of "fame" (al-Hurra doesn't exactly have much of a viewership anywhere), and I didn't flub up my grammar!
  • This afternoon I sat out at a coffeeshop and read a Saudi magazine, al-Majalla, which is associated with The Economist. It was a slow read, but I managed to get all of the meaning of the editorials without help from a dictionary. This is a major, major success for me: it means that I've finally learned the useful political and economic terms that the standard Arabic textbook series completely ignores. I'm functional! Yay!
Of course, no list like that is complete without some downsides.
  • The problem of being in the most or second-most advanced Arabic class is that there is absolutely no curriculum designed for us. FSI is very good at taking people from zero to basic proficiency in Arabic, but it's not designed to take people much higher than the basic level required at post. There's a field school in Tunisia to take care of that, but you can't go into that program until you have been in the service for five years or more. Which, of course, is bad news for me: I and a handful of others fall between the curricular cracks, and it's really obvious. Unfortunately, the curriculum won't be developed to even a draft phase until long after I'm gone to Saudi.
  • The Arabic program has grown from eight teachers in 2001 to fifty now. This necessarily means that there have been some growing pains, and it shows in the uneven quality of teachers. I've had some wonderful ones here, among the best teachers I've ever had in any subject, and I've had others that spent all day talking about their cats (not making this up). It's really frustrating.
  • We have a morning a week devoted to area studies, also known as a reprise of four years of college, or alternately as Arabic Films 101, which I evidently failed the first three times and must now repeat. If I have to watch Control Room one more time, I am going to scream.
  • Have I ever mentioned that Arabic is really, really hard? Seriously. What was I thinking when I signed up in August 2003?
All things considered, I'm still getting a sweet deal - 30 hours of Arabic a week, in a class with four students, and more conversation practice than I've ever had. I just wish it were a bit better than what it is. So if you talk to me and I seem particularly bitter about Arabic, that's why.