Tayseer Gomaa wants nothing more than for her students to succeed, and she works hard to make that happen. Since her arrival at Binghamton University in 2001, the Arabic program has grown tremendously.
“I had about 15 or 20 students in my Arabic language classes when I arrived,” she says. “Now I have about 60 students. My Egyptian Spoken Arabic class, which teaches the most important Arabic dialect (because it is understood all over the Arab world), has grown from two students in 2001, to now around 25 every fall. There are probably 10 to 15 times more students in the Arabic program overall; around 150 this year.
“In 2001, when I started, I was very eager and enthusiastic and I encouraged every student who wanted to learn Arabic,” she says. “I promoted the Arabic program. We wanted the Arabic program to be stronger and bigger. Arabic is recognized the world over as one of the top two or three global languages. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations.”
There are now about 40 Arabic majors and language classes are at their maximum, Gomaa says. Over 90 percent of the students do not have any background in Arabic when they enter the program. “They come because they love the Arabic language,” she says. “It’s different and a challenge for them but they say ‘We want to be up to the challenge and we want to be able to understand the culture through the language.’”
With Arabic being a critical language for national security, Gomaa will continue to be passionate about the program. “Arabic is a critical language especially for a better understanding of the Arab world. Binghamton is the only SUNY school with a major in Arabic,” she says. “Because most of our students have no knowledge of Arabic when they begin, they need more language courses, and 5 hours per course per week, like all modern languages. This is especially so because Arabic is different from European languages. Students in other languages like Spanish or French usually come with several years of high school study behind them. Even with this background, they take 10 or 12 language courses above the elementary level. Arabic needs the same approach so that students can meet higher education standards and have a really meaningful proficiency level.”
“There is a strong connection between the language and culture of any society,” Gomaa stresses. “Especially in the Arab world, there is a strong cultural dimension to language. To really know the culture, you need first and foremost to learn the language. Behind every word, there is a cultural component.” A native of Egypt, Gomaa learned this as she earned her doctorate in cultural anthropology, whose approach, she emphasizes, is that in order to know any peoples’ culture, you have to learn their language.
Breaking new ground in visual and cultural anthropology for her home country, Gomaa produced two films for her master’s and doctoral degrees. One was about the continuation of traditions from ancient to modern Egypt, using information and visuals gleaned from writings on papyrus and walls, among other places. “The other film was about the impact of the environment on different types of cultures living in an urban area as opposed to rural areas or the desert,” she says. “There are distinct material cultures contained within Egyptian cultural as a whole, with different uses of materials, and different functions, from area to area. These cultures also have different vocabularies and expressions related to their environment.”
Gomaa wants to make the Arabic language and culture come alive for her students. “I work hard for the sake of my students. I do all that I can to help them achieve their goals,” she says. That included organizing a five-week summer trip to Egypt that allowed students to be immersed in the Arabic language and culture. After almost two years of planning, because of the H1N1 influenza outbreak, the trip was canceled at the last minute by the university the students were to partner with in Egypt. However, in a week’s time, she was able to reschedule the trip, partnering with Alexandria University; and in the summer of 2009, she and Associate Professor R. Kevin Lacey, director of the Arabic Studies program, traveled to Egypt with 28 students, the largest group from one university ever to have studied Arabic in Egypt. “There were some challenges,” she says, “But overall the program was very successful and the students were very, very happy. As many said after returning, ‘It was a great experience.’”
A number of students want to go to Egypt right now, even under current circumstances,” Gomaa says. “I went last summer to check the situation out after the Jan. 25 revolution, because I want to organize another program; but I am waiting for things to settle down.”
Until the time is again right for such a trip, Gomaa will continue to promote a better understanding of the Arabic language and culture, and to help her students to succeed. “I want the best for our students. When they graduate, I want them to be able to compete with students from others universities, in terms of jobs, scholarships, or acceptance into MA or PhD programs.”
Last Updated: 12/13/11