Mahmoud Hegazy with his Arabic students who are making a documentary to dispell stigmas and stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims.
أضواء. الة تصوير. عمل.
Or for the English speakers out there: Lights. Camera. Action.
A Moroccan exchange student sits in front of the camera, mic’d up and ready to go. Her classmates go through a list of questions — where are you from? Are you Muslim? What stereotypes have you heard from Americans about Muslims? What are the common stereotypes of Americans back home?
As the camcorder, balanced precariously on a wobbly tripod, rolls, students in Mahmoud Hegazy’s Arabic class at East High School work to dismantle stereotypes, one conversation, one interview, at a time.
“There are a lot of stereotypes and stigmas about the Arab world. Coming from Egypt to America was a dream, but I had a goal in mind. I wanted to tell everyone that I met that I am an Arab and we are not tough, we are not terrorists, we don’t hate you as the media tries to tell you; on the contrary, we love you,” Hegazy says. “That’s why my students and I are producing a documentary — to outsmart the stereotypes.”
The documentary project is just one part of the Facilitated Language Study program at East. The other, possibly more daunting, task is to learn Arabic, a language with anywhere from 90 million to 500 million words.
Before Hegazy arrived, a small group of nine students studied Arabic on their own. But when Hegazy arrived in December, more students joined the class, excited and intrigued by the opportunity to learn from a native Arabic speaker.
Three months later, his 22 students have learned a new alphabet, and built their vocabulary to include clothing, body parts and basic conversational necessities. They’re to the point where most of them can even sing along in Arabic to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes.”
“When I came, the students felt happy because they had someone who spoke Arabic to talk to them,” Hegazy says.
Hegazy came to Madison as part of the U.S. State Department’s Teachers of Critical Languages Program. It places teachers from China, Egypt and Morocco in high schools across the U.S. to teach both their native language and culture.
While primarily focused on teaching the language, Hegazy also addresses complicated cultural issues. When students ask questions about social justice, gender equality and corruption in the Middle East, he responds candidly.
“I try to be frank when presenting to the students; I don’t like beautifying facts,” he says. “Some people in the Arab world don’t talk about the problems taking place in their country. I feel happy talking about this to let the students know, please appreciate what you have here, appreciate that you can voice opinions freely, and do not allow anybody to make divisions in this society.”
Despite President Donald Trump’s effort to ban immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to the U.S., students and teachers at East made sure to let Hegazy know he was part of the Purgolder family.
“After Trump’s ban on the seven Muslim countries, everybody came and told me, ‘This is not our attitude, we love having you here.’ I really appreciated this,” Hegazy says. “Some of them cried. This is something we don’t have in my country. No colleague comes to me just to show empathy; I was really taken.”
For the remainder of the semester, Hegazy will continue to work with the students on improving their Arabic and finishing their documentary project on dismantling stereotypes.
After that, sticking with the language is up to the kids.
“By the end of June I will not be here,” says Hegazy. “I would like my students to continue with Arabic, and hopefully we can find somebody to give them a hand; but for now, they just have to continue learning.”
5th: Arabic’s rank among top spoken native languages
467 million: Native Arabic speakers in the world.
11: The number of words for “love” in Arabic
Fastest-growing language in the United States: Arabic, which grew from 615,000 speakers in 2000 to 1.1 million in 2014.
Facilitated Language Study Program: Developed at East High School, the program enables students to independently study a language. The East program currently offers Arabic, Mandarin Chinese and Japanese, as well as advanced French and Spanish.
Purgolder: East High School’s mascot, most likely a cougar or cat-like mammal, named by merging the words purple and gold, the school colors.