News & Reports

An Educator and Translator Confronts a Decline in Teaching Arabic

CAIRO—Over her 35-year career, Maha Saleh worked as an academic researcher specializing in Arabic literature at the American University in Cairo, a teacher of Arabic language and literature for Arab and foreign students, and a translator of novels from English into Arabic.

She has noticed what she considers a remarkable and continuous decline in interest in the teaching of Arabic at the region’s universities due to what she regards as “unsuitable” curricula. In particular, she believes the wide number of textbooks and their styles of Arabic has resulted in a fragmentation of the language itself.

“Most universities do not teach Arabic as part of their main curricula,” she said. “Besides, many parents are not interested in teaching Arabic to their children, as it is not useful in the professional path and not strongly required in the labor market.”

Saleh has taught Arabic to Arab and foreign students at the American University in Cairo; Middlebury College, in the United States; and the AMIDEAST Foundation, in Cairo. She notes that the political fluctuations Arab countries have witnessed over the past ten years have prompted many foreigners to avoid coming to study Arabic in the region. That, she believes, has also contributed to a decline in teaching the language. (See a related article, “A Website Seeks to Show “How Alive Arabic Is.”)

She also believes that the lack of a unified list of the most commonly used words and combinations by Arabic speakers is the most important problem facing Arabic teaching. This, she believes, has contributed to a breakdown in teaching curricula in a way that has harmed the language and its teaching. (See a related article, A Conversation With One of the Most Influential Arabic Teachers.”)

Still, Saleh’s personal and academic passion for the language has never faded. “Teaching Arabic made me deal with this language from a different perspective,” she said. “Through teaching, I discovered the enormous variety in the connotations of the language’s words and the many ways to use and employ them across various contexts.”

An Early Passion

Saleh graduated from the American University in Cairo’s Department of Arabic Studies (Arabic Language and Literature) in 1983, and from Cairo University’s Faculty of Politics and Economics, Department of Politics, in 1984. After working her way through a variety of other diplomas and degrees, she eventually got her Ph.D. in Arabic literature in 2011 from Benha University, in Egypt.

Mahmoud El-Rabie, former head of the AUC’s Modern Arabic Literature department and the supervisor of Saleh’s master’s degree thesis, said that her choice to study the letters of Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, the most influential intellectuals and thinkers of the 10th century, was contrary to most of the university’s programs, which tend toward modern literature.

“Her choice was not easy, and she always prefers what is difficult and suits her patient personality and literary talent. Thus, she has become very skillful in writing.”

Mahmoud El-Rabie  
Former head of the AUC’s Modern Arabic Literature department

“Her choice was not easy, and she always prefers what is difficult and suits her patient personality and literary talent,” he said. “Thus, she has become very skillful in writing.”

Saleh’s writings include contributions to several bibliographic and critical works, among them Salah Abdel-Sabour: An Experimental Bibliography, the Dictionary of Modern Arabic Literature, and Naguib Mahfouz: From Gamaliya to the Nobel Prize. Her writing is characterized by being analytical and having a critical sense for the texts, according to Al-Rubaie.

In turn, Saleh is proud of contributing to the Dictionary of Modern Arabic Literature, published in 2008 during her work as a scholar at AUC’s Center for Scientific Research in Arabic Literature.

“It is an important and useful reference for specialists in modern Arabic literature and for interested non-specialist readers alike,” she said.

Saleh’s literary achievements also include contributing to the Dictionary of Literary Terms during her work as an expert in the Literature Committee of the Academy of the Arabic Language, in Cairo, between 2013 and 2018. As an expert in the academy, she contributed to the book’s completion along with a number of linguists.

“Maha is very diligent and has an ambitious plan in scientific research, knowledge acquisition and export,” said Al-Rubaie, who was the vice president of the Academy of the Arabic Language at the time.

Teaching and Translation

Mona Hassan, former head of the Arabic Teaching Program at the American University in Cairo and Saleh’s colleagues, believes Saleh has a special teaching style.

“I like her way of teaching Arabic, through her reliance on a communicative approach that allows students to express themselves verbally and argumentatively,” Hassan said. She pointed out that Saleh’s literary background and work in translation give her special skills in transferring some vocabulary and meanings from Arabic to English when she is teaching Arabic without losing its beauty. (See a related article, “An Increasingly Popular Cultural Lens: Arabic Literature.”)

“I like her way of teaching Arabic, through her reliance on a communicative approach that allows students to express themselves verbally and argumentatively.”

Mona Hassan  
Former head of the Arabic Teaching Program at the American University in Cairo

In recent years, Saleh has devoted herself to translating books from English into Arabic, including three popular novels, Little Women, The Call of the Wild, and White Fang. Another novel is on the way.

“Translation is the receptacle that represents the sum of all my various professional and academic experiences I have acquired during the past years,” said Saleh. “It is also the dream that gives me half the pleasure of writing the novel, as I live in the personal worlds of every novel, and feel integrated with its protagonists and their feelings.”

[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]

Al-Rubaie praises Saleh’s linguistic ability to overcome the complexities of the language in her translations, and to present the texts in accurate, clear Arabic instead of drowning the reader in complex Arabic terms.

“Given her great linguistic capabilities and extensive experience, she is able to present translated works as if they were originally written in Arabic, by not only using precise words, but also placing them in an understandable context,” he said.

Saleh hopes to revive interest in learning Arabic through a website to serve Arabic literature in all its stages and to provide clear writings about its characteristics. On the academy’s website, she wants a special section about teaching Arabic to foreigners.

“There is still a long way to spread this lively and rich language the way it deserves,” she said.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button