This is a rant a long time in the making.
As some of you might know by now, I started studying Arabic close to 5 years ago. And literally from the first day I turned up in class, I wasn’t able to escape the mind-numbing dreariness of the dreaded al-Kitaab li ta’allum al’arabiyyah.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I learned a lot from al-Kitaab, though what I learnt probably had more to do with training my patience not to rip the ridiculously heavy, unwieldy tome into a million little pieces and set them on fire Carrie-style, than actual Arabic.
Now you may feel al-Kitaab is a godsend from the Arabic gods, and that you couldn’t possibly imagine life without discussing Maha and Khaled’s romantic life and you quivered with anticipation to understand how to say stuff like ‘my dad is an interpreter at the United Nations’ and ‘my mom is an admissions officer at a university’.
In which case, this post is probably not for you.
I mean it. Stop reading. You’ll only get your feelings hurt.
No, this post is for all those other Arabic students, who, like me, have needlessly suffered with the complicated, un-intuitive and most of all f***-ing brain-bashingly boring ish that is contained within its pages.
Now trust me, I could have ripped into al-Kitaab book by book, chapter by chapter, and page by page, but that would require an entirely new blog altogether. So for simplicity’s sake (and that of my mental health), I’m going to keep this simple.
So how much do I abhor thee, al-Kitaab? Let me count the ways.
1. Utterly Useless Vocabulary
Okay so perhaps I’ve got the vocabulary for complicated politico-socio-economic conversations, with words like nationalism, governmental, facade, movement and research paper. I assure you, writers of al-kitaab, if I ever found myself on prime time Arab news with the Foreign Minister of Egypt and we had to debate the merits of writing a research paper on the facade of nationalistic movements in post-Mubarak government, I assure you would be more than well-prepared for such a task.
But the reality is, I won’t be finding myself on prime time with the Foreign Minister of Egypt.
More likely, I will probably find myself somewhere on the streets, having drunk a tad too much water and wondering where the nearest public toilet is in case I absolutely piss my pants, at which point I would realise I don’t know how to say:
‘Excuse me, where’s the bathroom?’
Or now that we’re on it, how to order food in a restaurant.
Or how to negotiate for a bargain in the souk.
Or how to strike up a simple conversation.
To basically, live life in any competent way in the Middle East.
Now, how is it possible to not have these expressions in an Arabic textbook, when even the most fundamental, simple travel guides will contain them between their pages?
The irony, it boggles my mind.
2. Complicated Presentation of Grammar
I swear to you, I didn’t have anything close resembling a grasp on grammar until I went to Jordan. Why? Because I didn’t have the foggiest clue what al-Kitaab was talking about. It wasn’t clear in the book when to use concepts like marfou’, majruur and the other thing (still can’t remember what it’s called) and things like i’rab flew right over my head like homing missiles and multiple attempts to come to terms with the grammar yielded absolutely zero understanding.
On the other hand, it did yield increasing levels of high blood pressure, stress and confusion.
My understanding of grammar now is far better, (not that hard to do if you’re starting from rock bottom) but believe me, that had absolutely nothing to do with al-Kitaab and everything to do with finding alternative ways around having to refer to it.
3. Disorganized Chapter Content
I always think that one of the most crucial cornerstones of any resource or manual is how easily and quickly it is to find what you’re looking for. If you’re in a rush to refer to something, the last thing you want to do is ruffle through pages and books and sections and saying I swear that one time I saw it in here!
Unfortunately, al-kitaab fails epically at this.
Firstly, the chapters are not organised around any really strong theme or content. Concepts are sort of scattered throughout the book instead of being presented in any sort of focused way.
Secondly, the contents pages are all in Arabic. Now I understand that as a textbook of Arabic that you want to force students to be comfortable with the language, but if you’re a student rushing to refer to a specific grammar rule or linguistic technique, being faced with pages of unintelligible squibbles that you have to decode is an exercise in utter frustration.
4. Dismal Audio-Visual Guide
I’m firm believer that if you want to add an additional product or service on top of a textbook, that additional item should add incredible value to the product you’re already selling.
Do you know how many times I’ve used the CD from al-Kitaab?
And that was only because the teacher assigned us homework from it. Would I have willingly listened to it on my own discretion?
And I’ll tell you why. The clips are confusing, incorrectly titled and above all, the material is not compelling. The videos look like they were taken in the 1970s, the cinematography is disappointing, and the topics do nothing to inspire feeling, thought or action. Which, in part, is a result of:
5. Disappointing Choice of Topics
Out of all, this is probably my biggest gripe with al-Kitaab.
When students show up for a class in Arabic, it’s true that some of them show up because they have to for the credit. But for the vast majority, they show up because they are genuinely interested in learning it and are passionate about it.
Why, then, does al-Kitaab try to flagellate the s*** out of that passion, by presenting the Most Boring Topics In the History of Mankind? Here is a sample of the topics al-Kitaab has chosen, (out of millions of possible unique topics).
1. From Islamic Social History
2. Who are the Pioneers of the Feminist Arab Movement?
3. The Mission of University
4. Personalities from Modern Arabic Literature
Now don’t get me wrong, each and every one of these topics belong somewhere in the academic realm and I’m not saying at all that no one has the right to teach them. But I beg you to step into any Arabic class while the poor teacher is dealing with them and I guarantee you that almost every student has the same expression of blank, bored apathy.
I know my class did. I especially remember a particularly dull reading exercise on Tawfeeq al-Hakeem and how painful it was to get through the text. There was nothing even remotely interesting or attractive about it at all.
Perhaps the one and only chapter that got us excited was the one on Alf Leila wa Leila (A Thousand and One Nights). The rest were just met with tired sighs of resignation.
What about producing content that is actually interesting? What about increasing rates of plastic surgery in the Middle East? What about travelling? What about celebrities? What about fashion, food and dating? Sure, they may not be strictly ‘academic’ topics, but realistically speaking, these are the things we humans talk about on a daily basis.
And the strange thing that I’ve found is that so many other students and teachers feel the same way about this wretched textbook (that it is a cleverly-disguised demon bent on sucking any remaining passion for Arabic from your soul), yet it still remains the most used reference in most Arabic classes today. The reviews pretty much say it all.
It just goes to prove that just because something is popular doesn’t make it good.
What can you do about it?
At this point you might ask me:
‘But my teacher/college/language institute uses al-Kitaab for instruction and I can’t possibly do anything about it!’
To which I would reply, my dear reader, with all due respect that is a crock of b***shit. Because:
You have total control over your Arabic education.
Sure, you can spend your six hours a week in academic instruction, but time outside of class is yours to do with it what you wish. So if you really want to be successful at this, you’re going to have to find other ways outside of al-Kitaab to complement your academic instruction. I’ve written about this before, in How Timothy Doner Became Fluent in Arabic (and 21 other languages) Without Leaving His Country but I’ve distilled the most important lessons here.
1. Don’t depend on al-kitaab alone.
If you do, you’re going to be in big trouble. There’s no harm using it, but I would strongly urge you to instead, find other textbooks that can do better to complement it. A quick search on Amazon for example, showed that people had good things to say about Ultimate Arabic.
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because your teacher or institute is using this book, that it’s the Holy Grail of Arabic education, because it’s not. You wouldn’t go to a buffet and eat only from one dish, would you? You wouldn’t be doing your money or tastebuds justice. Use the same approach here – take the best out of a few books and work from there.
2. Find some people to talk to.
Most of your learning will happen when you’re interacting with people who are native speakers of the language, rather than from a textbook. If there’s an Arab coffee joint, restaurant or sheesha place, it’s more likely that’s where they’re hanging out. Your city is far more international than you think, if you just take the time to search.
But if you say that you can’t find any Arab people in your town or city, then I would urge you to go online.
Plenty of the Arab people that I’ve met are thirsty to practice their English skills with native speakers, so there’s something you can offer to them in exchange for their Arabic skills. In fact the less English they speak, the better, because you’ll have to understand the explanation in Arabic. Conversation Exchange, for example, is a website that I’ve tried with success. Which then leads me to..
3. Find other resources online.
It never fails to amaze me what the Internet has done for our education. Resources that were once impossible to get your hands on or chargeable, is now available to you 24/7 at your fingertips at no charge. Some days I still can’t believe that I get to hear experts from every field like Tony Robbins, Ken Robinson and Seth Godin for free, which would have been absolutely impossible even 15 years ago.
Use this to your advantage.
Before I left for Jordan I was frequenting websites like BBC Arabic, AlJazeera Arabic, Rusiya alYom, which helped me greatly in my Arabic education. A lot of these news websites have Youtube channels as well where you can check out past clips of news broadcasts and listen to how words are being pronounced to get you accustomed to hearing spoken Arabic.
What do you think of al-Kitaab? Does it rile you up as much as it does us? Or do you disagree with this article in its entirety? Let us know in comments, we’d love to hear from you. Or better yet, share this article if you agree that al-kitaab needs a revamp like, yesterday.