Arabic Prof Encourages Tough Questions

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.


Professor Sawsan Abbadi, recently hired as a lecturer for the Tri-Co Arabic program, aims not only to teach students Arabic, but also to give them wider exposure to Arabic culture. Before coming to Swarthmore, Abbadi taught at the University of Massachussetts at Amherst for five years.

At Swarthmore, Abbadi teaches the drill sections that complement Arabic students’ lectures. According to Abbadi, the Arabic program at Swat teaches that “reading, writing, speaking, listening, and culture are all one component.”

The department’s teaching style jives well with Abbadi’s goal of helping Swatties understand Arabic culture. She said, “Hopefully… by the time we are really immersed in that environment, we realize that, so what, it’s just the same.”

Abbadi has the background to know firsthand the truth of that statement. She grew up in Amman, Jordan. There, she earned her bachelor’s in English Language and Literature and then taught English for half a year. She moved to Germany and lived there for three years before coming to U Mass at Amherst to earn her doctorate. “It started as a job and study,” she said, “and then it ended up as just living here.” Abbadi settled down at Amherst with her daughter, and after graduating, she taught Arabic and aided minority students as an administrator in the Equal Opportunity Office before coming to the Tri-Co.

“I just went today for my first time across the three colleges,” Abbadi said, “and I can see how it’s really not that easy. But it’s fun, and it’s very different in every school, the kinds of students that you meet, and the challenges.” In addition, she said, “you still feel that the relationship across the colleges are always nurtured.”

Another source of support for Abbadi as she and her daughter settle into their new lives is the intercollegiate Arabic department. “Here we have quite a team… and you feel that you’re always supported. It’s not like the main professor has an authority over the new lecturers; you really feel that everybody’s word is appreciated… we never had that chance in Amherst.”

And though she has been at Swat no longer than the new crop of freshmen, she is already excited about the students. “Swarthmore students are [not only] open-minded, they’re really curious learners,” she says. Abbadi explained that meeting people from different backgrounds “really sparks their curiosity to ask questions, and being a language teacher… you’re always bringing up something to them.”

As much as she appreciates Swattie curiosity, Abbadi worries that college students at large risk failing to learn about other cultures by being overcautious. “People are getting more polite, I think, and they don’t want to offend. And it’s okay, but sometimes then we don’t really ask the right questions or get the right answers because we’re always worried about offending somebody in front of us.”

Abbadi finds that younger students are less afraid to ask questions. “Every year in Amherst I would go to my daughter’s school… and the kids would ask really tough questions: ‘Why are you wearing a scarf? Why do you have to do this? Why don’t you eat that? Why doesn’t your daughter do this?’ So these are the good questions, these are the students who will learn, because they are not intimidated by whatever is around them,” she explained.

Her story inspired me to ask her about her scarf. She replied, “I believe my scarf has never hindered me from fulfilling my personal and professional commitments whether living in the Arab world or in the 9 years that I have spent in the Western world… we need to admire our different dress codes and appearances and consider that a point of privilege.”

“I am an Arab,” she continued, “and I’m very proud of who I am.” However, “It hurts me when somebody says, “The Arabs say this.’ You really have to [force] them to think [about what they are saying].”

Abbadi sees respect for each individual’s personal manifestation of his or her culture as the key to resolving interpersonal and international conflict. According to her, it is okay to disagree as long as the two parties respect each other. “And sometimes people do not really see that clearly. I mean, they think if you say something and you disagree with me it means you don’t respect me and then we’re not really going to be good friends together no matter what. But that’s not the reality.” So, if this article piqued your curiosity, seek Professor Abbadi out as a friend, and ask her the tough questions.

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