One language, many reasons
Pa. teens plan to use their Arabic lessons in different ways.
ERIE - Erin Dakas wants to travel.
Niven Sabherwal wants to be a doctor.
Asha Thomas wants to communicate with friends.
Andrea Carneval doesn't want to be an ignorant American.
Different reasons for studying the same language.
The four are part of a group of high school students meeting one day a week after classes at the Al-Makarim Islamic Foundation in Erie. Its director, Sheikh Mazin Al-Sahlani, is teaching them Arabic.
"Language is so important," said Sahlani, who speaks Polish in addition to English and Arabic. "You feel rich when you have another language."
He began a session with his students' reciting the 28 Arabic letters.
Sahlani taught the teens words such as notebook, fire, light, home, and date - the kind you eat, not one you go on.
He showed them good night written in Arabic and then wrote taba masauka to show how the words might appear in English.
Yes is na-aam, Sahlani said. No is la.
"You have a question?" he asked Thomas.
"No. La," she replied.
Numbers, colors, body parts, and dialogue that would be helpful at an airport would follow in future classes.
Most of the students have studied Spanish or Mandarin and think Arabic is the hardest of the three. But Dakas said it was easier than German.
A senior, Dakas, 18, would love to travel to other countries. When she does, she wants to be able to meet people in their own languages.
Sabherwal, 17, a junior, knows that as a doctor, she could be treating patients from all over the world. She wants to understand them.
Thomas, 17, another senior, shared a room at a conference with a girl from Palestine. Thomas' friend calls her in English. She'd like to answer in Arabic.
Carneval, 18, a senior who has studied Spanish since elementary school, knows that students around the world are learning English. She thinks it's important for Americans to learn other languages, too.
"I don't want to be an oblivious American," she said.
Dakas, Thomas, and two of Sahlani's other pupils sparked the afternoon classes.
Senior Katie Morton, 17, said the girls had attended a women's conference in Boston with participants from around the world.
"We met a lot of people who spoke Arabic," Morton said.
When the students returned to Erie, a teacher heard them talking about wanting to learn Arabic. He gave them Sahlani's contact information.
The class usually numbers nine sophomores through seniors and includes boys.
Sophomore Brandon Lipchik, 15, and junior Mark Zahar, 16, said that learning was important, and that Arabic could help them be well-rounded.
Learning the language isn't the classes' only challenge. "It's kind of like stepping out of your comfort zone," Morton said.
Most of the students are Christian; one is Sikh. All remove their shoes when they enter the Islamic Foundation. Sahlani, who calls his students "brother" and "sister," doesn't preach about Islam but does mention its holy book, the Quran, written in Arabic.
He told the students that when their lessons with him were over, he wanted to introduce them to girls from his community so they could talk in Arabic.
"That would be so fun," said senior Julie Hawthorne, 17.