In the first of a series of interviews that aims to profile the newest and noteworthy academic institutions in the MENA region that are helping to advance critical learning, Jonathan Adler of the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative interviews Katy Whiting of the Sijal Institute. The Sijal Institute is an intensive language and cultural school and institute in the Jabal Amman neighborhood of Amman, Jordan. Whiting discusses the Sijal Institute’s efforts to fill gaps in Arabic language instruction, develop new pedagogical strategies, and design more effective cultural immersion programs.
Jonathan Adler (JA): My name is Jonathan Adler and this episode is the first in a series of institutional profiles brought to you by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI). In this series, we’ll highlight some of the newest and most noteworthy academic institutions in the region that are helping to advance critical learning in Middle East studies. I’m speaking today with Katy Whiting, the managing director of the Sijal Institute in Amman. Sijal is an Arabic language school and cultural hub in the historic Jabal Amman neighborhood of the Jordanian capital. And full disclosure for our listeners, I attended Sijal as a student for the second half of 2018, so this interview may be colored by my memories of the many happy months that I spent at the school. So, Katy, welcome! I’m very excited to speak with you today.
Katy Whiting (KW): Thank you so much Jonathan! I’m excited to be here.
JA: I thought we’d start, for those listeners who may be unfamiliar with Sijal and its program, by asking you to give a general introduction to the school and its programs.
KW: The Sijal institute is an Arabic language school and an academic institute where we provide intensive Arabic instruction at all linguistic levels as well as academic offerings including seminars, lectures, public workshops, things of that sort.
JA: Can you talk a little bit about the background of the school and perhaps in its founding what were the gaps in Arabic language education that it tried to fill?
KW: The main idea behind establishing Sijal was to couple language instruction with cultural immersion and critical engagement with issues in the region; whether political or social. And we felt like students of Arabic came to Jordan often to learn Arabic, but they had a very bubble kind of experience. They weren’t necessarily critically engaging with issues that are happening around them. So, we were trying to bridge that gap with having rigorous academic study as well as having a high-quality language coursework. So, we’ve been open since 2015 and we have been steadily growing in the Jabal Amman area ever since.
JA: Could you talk a little bit more about some of the concrete strategies that Sijal uses to try to bridge that gap between language learning and cultural immersion? Is there a particular pedagogical philosophy that you’ve helped to develop or that the school has developed that informs the ethos of the school? And this could be anywhere from the material that teachers use, and students engage with in class to the choice of speakers lecture speakers or extracurricular trips.
KW: All of those are very much in the core vision. If we start with the idea of integration, you find a lot of students who will come and they will only be interacting and engaging with students from their said program. So, what we try to do is make students feel as if they’re part of the city by encouraging and setting up internships, volunteer opportunities, language partners. And we also have a pretty rich cultural events calendar so we’ll have speakers who are engaged with issues coming from Jordan, coming from surrounding countries, who are able to offer a critical lens. We have the same idea with the trips in that they’re meant to be academic in their fundamental vision. So we take people to sites not with a touristic lens, but an academic lens of where they’re going and are aiming to interact with the local community, hear more of the local community’s stories, learn more not just about the site itself but about the people who are connected to the site and the people who have lived in the site. Finally, as well, the content, as you mentioned, the content of the coursework. It’s always really important to be constantly reviewing and changing the curriculum to make sure that it’s critical, that it’s academic, that it’s using news sources, that it’s using sources that are engaging. Especially at the intermediate and advanced levels, you find that students have content that is directly relevant to their studies and to their interests. We’ll be taking from literature that is changing the field today; taking from newspapers, magazines, form Jadaliyya, from Al Hudood, from 7iber, from a lot of the cutting-edge places that are doing really strong journalistic work in Jordan and in the broader region. And we’re making sure students are engaging with and grappling with these materials. And honestly even at the elementary levels, we worked for the last year on developing our own Amiyyah curriculum, our own Jordanian colloquial Arabic curriculum which put the cultural elements of the language and the history of the language at the forefront. So students are not just memorizing lists of “these are all of the fruits!” They are actively out in the area talking to people and meeting people and learning about the cultural dimension of the language.
JA: And on this note of one thing I always think about when I reflect on my own language learning journey is the constantly changing regional dynamics. So the fact that perhaps if I had been born five or ten years earlier and taken the same path then I may have seriously considered also studying in Damascus or Cairo or other places in the region—and in fact I remember much of the colloquial material that I learned in my first year of undergraduate Arabic seemed to have been designed for students planning to travel to Syria or Egypt even though at that time none of my peers did or could have. So, on that note could you talk about how Sijal and perhaps studying Arabic in Jordan and Amman in general allows students to attain not just a perspective on Jordanian life and politics and culture but perhaps also a broader regional perspective, particularly now as geopolitical realities prevent or make difficult for students to learn Arabic in other Middle Eastern capitals?
KW: That’s sort of the lived reality of being in Amman right now. The region has quite a lot of changes and conflicts that are happening. Honestly Amman’s history has very much, since the beginning of the building of the city, been shaped by refugee communities and by conflicts in other areas. It’s in the genetic makeup of Amman as a capital and as a city and it very much affects our work. Right now, you have a really large Syrian refugee population, Yemeni refugee population, still, Palestinian, Iraqi refugees, you’ve got people from all over which affects Amman at all levels. In terms of Arabic language studies, the effect on it pales in comparison to the effects of these conflicts on other aspects of life. But in general, it has changed the countries that people are comfortable going to and it changes the dialects that people are interested in learning. If you look population-wise, it makes so much more sense for students to be studying Syrian Arabic Egyptian Arabic. But in terms of what is available and strategic to people’s personal interests, Jordan has seen a really big difference over the past couple of years in terms of what students are coming and when students of coming and what students are interested in studying as well.
JA: And I reflect on my own time there, being in Amman for me seemed not only to be an introduction to Jordanian life but even more so an immersion into Palestinian culture and history – at Sijal but also in terms of the events going on around Sijal.
KW: It is so intimately intertwined with Palestinian history; they are the same. Palestinian history and Jordanian history can’t be separated and, what, 60% of the Jordanian population is of Palestinian background. So, we try very much within our instruction, within our curriculum, to talk heavily about Palestinian history, to talk about Palestinian issues. So, in the Summers we have a content course focusing on Palestinian history, we almost always have speakers talking about Palestinian affairs in every semester, coursework readings that talk about it as well as an educational tour of a Palestinian refugee camp most semesters. And those we don’t take lightly; we take very sensitively. Because it’s always very important for students to understand that this is an educational tour. This is a tour for people to learn more about the initiatives that Palestinian refugees have taken, to learn more about the history and gain experiences with said people. It’s not poverty tourism, it’s not people coming in and taking pictures. It’s about creating conversations with people who wouldn’t necessarily have an opportunity to meet otherwise.
JA: One other question, also reflecting on my time in Amman, one of my favorite parts of coming to Sijal every day was being in this space. Especially, I spent a lot of time in the garden behind the first house studying and enjoying the sounds across the city. So, I was wondering if you could talk about both Sijal houses, but particularly about the first one and its history and perhaps also what you think is the value of learning in this kind of rich historical environment.
KW: The Sijal house is a historic building, it dates back to the era of the British Mandate when Jordan was known as the Emirates of Transjordan. It was built by a Syrian family that had settled in Amman as part of the first waves of merchants that had arrived from Damascus. And you can see so many of the Damascene influences in the architecture of the house itself. There are fountains in the garden, original tiles, and we worked really hard to preserve this original character. We wanted this space to be inspiring for teaching and learning and we wanted it to retain its authentic character. We thought a lot about the furniture, the artwork, we wanted it to reflect contemporary artistic production in Jordan while still retaining the original structure of the building. So, when we first moved into the house in 2014 it was a really dismal space. It basically needed a complete overhaul, even some of the tiles weren’t visible at that time. We pulled flooring up and things like that. But the focus wasn’t in any way on gutting the building, it was in preserving the fundamental elements of it. So, we originally opened in Sijal House which is right across the street from the famous Books@Cafe on the end of Rainbow Street. And as we grew, our student populations grew with us, we expanded to another building across the street. So, both buildings we’ve tried to cultivate beautiful gardens in, especially gardens that have edible components to them; olive trees and pomegranate trees and lemon trees and herb gardens. And we’re proud of the outcome. I feel as if the historical air of the buildings themselves lend very much to students being in that cultural environment further. Especially being in Jabal Amman, the location of the homes is also historically a very important part of Amman. It’s one of the oldest neighborhoods and has so many other cultural and artistic institutions that we’re very much able to benefit from our relationships with.
JA: Another thing I wanted to talk about was to give you some time to talk about how the program has grown and changed. And I know that Sijal is still relatively young, but I know that there are a lot of new programs, new initiatives, and new partnerships in Jordan and outside. So perhaps if you could talk a little about those as well as any obstacles or challenges that you have had to confront as part of this developmental process.
KW: I remember when I first started working at Sijal we had seven students and three classrooms. And I remember at the time I was very much thinking “how are ways that we’re going to build the programs?” And I remember having to be so strategic on social media to try and not show that we only had seven students at all of the events. And since then, humdAllah, we’ve experienced quite a lot of growth, it’s no longer seven students per semester. We’ve had faculty led programs this last year with Northeastern University, University of Houston, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, as well as Lincoln High School (which was an interesting experience) in addition to our core programs. So, it’s just been running to keep up. We’re always trying to think about how we can preserve that family environment, that small environment where everyone has individual attention, the teachers and the students know each other very well, the students know each other very well and there’s that sort of deep bond with every cohort which is harder to do especially in the Summer months when we have more programs coming in. But I think that we’ve been able to keep up pace. All of our growth has been very organic; people talking to each other, recommending the program to each other. So, it’s been really a joy, honestly, to see the growth of the programs. And we’re always looking for new ways to grow and to develop. We recently hired on Dr. Sanabel Alfar in a new role where we’re focusing more on developing Arabic coursework for the Jordanian population as well. Developing new seminars to be offered in Arabic, developing new workshops and lectures as well as courses, teaching the Arabic language to native speakers. People who might feel as though their skills in Arabic need some fixing up. It’s been inspiring and it’s been interesting to let the growth lead us more than trying to pursue a particular path.
JA: Is there anything else you’d like to add? This had been really a fantastic discussion so far.
KW: It’s been such a pleasure talking with you! I can go on forever about these topics. I love thinking about curriculum, I love thinking about how the curriculum itself really shapes the way students interact with the country and with the people that they meet. And I think that those questions are questions that are always important to keep in your mind. If you’re hoping to teach in a critical manner and to really guide students to be critical learners. So, these are important questions that we’re always keeping in mind and we’re always so inspired to see the work that’s going on that’s coming up around us in Amman. There’s so much movement and so many interesting initiatives that are happening right now in Amman. So it’s really interesting to be here in this time, to be a part of that, to work with people, to provide a space for people to really showcase a lot of their work. There’s so much going on that we really do want to use our space to amplify these voices.
Katy Whiting is the Managing Director of the Sijal Institute for Arabic Language and Culture in Amman, Jordan. She has extensive experience teaching Arabic and developing curricular materials at the K-12 and collegiate levels. She holds a Master’s degree in Applied Linguistics from the University of Texas at Austin, where she specialized in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language and Curriculum Design.
Jonathan Adler graduated from Yale University in December 2017. He is the Managing Editor of Tadween Publishing and a contributor to Jadaliyya E-Zine. Jonathan is also the Engaging Books and Pedagogy JadMag Editor at the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI). His work has been published in Jewish Historical Studies: Transactions of the Jewish Historical Society of England and the North Carolina Historical Review.