Why Hindus are learning Arabic Mohammed Wajihuddin [ 24 Dec, 2006 0100hrs IST TIMES NEWS NETWORK ] Every Sunday morning, dentist Vikram Ganje visits University of Mumbai’s leafy Kalina campus in Santacruz, almost 40 kms from his home in Mumbra. He undertakes the weekly journey not to cure anybody’s nagging toothache. He is part of a class of 88 who have enrolled themselves in an Arabic course that is taught from 10 am to 1 pm every Sunday. Fifteen in the class are Hindus — doctors, engineers, businessmen, BPO personnel and event managers — who earlier did not have even a fleeting acquaintance with the language in which the Koran was revealed 1,400 years ago. Apart from the Koran and the Hadith (the Prophet’s traditions), all those exotic tales of medieval rulers who lorded over the sandy lands of Arabia and other pieces of fascinating literature that Indians have read in translations, are originally in Arabic. "I stay in Mumbra, a Muslim-dominated area, where I often hear the azaan and the mullah’s rendition of the Koran. I felt sorry as I couldn’t understand a word and gradually developed an affinity to the language," says Ganje who can now read and write rudimentary Arabic. Undoubtedly, curiosity about the Koran has drawn many to the Arabic class. Shradha Dave, an event management executive at a top- end hotel in Mumbai, always wanted to know what the Koran, one of the divine books, tried to convey. "As I read the Koran in translation, my appetite to understand it only increased. I decided to read it in Arabic as a translation can never match the flavour of the original," says the sari-clad, evidently pretty Shradha. Her parents were initially opposed to the idea of her joining the Arabic class. "They protested, but have now relented. They have realised that I am not committing a sin," says Shradha, smiling. But not everyone attends this class because of any particular fascination for Islam or its holy scriptures. As a child, Sanjeev Chaudhari was hooked on to Alif Laila (The Arabian Nights). "I always thought Laila was a female character’s name. Now I know it actually means night in Arabic," he says. Chaudhari and his wife Vidya Sarode, also an engineer, now try to converse in Arabic. "We actually fight in Arabic," says Vidya. She asks their Arabic teacher Shafique Sheikh, "Sir, tell me the equivalent of 'shut up' in Arabic." Sheikh says jovially, "No, you will misuse it and direct it at your husband." Then he goes on to explain, "Shut up in Arabic is uskut." Arabic education in India is essentially the monopoly of madrassas but there are several courses in various parts of the country for non-Muslims who may be interested. Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi has courses that are increasingly attracting non-Muslims. The ministry of Defence Affairs, at its school of foreign languages, also teaches Arabic. "Arabic is one of the most sought-after subjects among the defence personnel," says Dr Farhana Siddique who taught the language at the Defence Ministry’s school. Interestingly, not many madrassa graduates are scholars of Arabic. "Madrassas mostly teach Islamic theology and Koran. It’s the secular universities which produce Arabic scholars," says Dr Shafi Sheikh, a former head of the department for Arabic in the University of Mumbai who was instrumental in introducing an advanced diploma course in Arabic. Earlier, petro-dollar dreams used to draw many to the language. Now the options to work in call centres here and in the tourism industry are attracting people. Many desperate learners join crash courses, which promise proficiency in six weeks flat, for Rs 5,000. Aspiring cooks, drivers and domestic helpers in the Gulf usually join such courses. "They think Arabic is like fast food," says Shafi Sheikh, lamenting the exploitative nature of such classes. Among these new students of Arabic are several who want nothing more from the language than the joy of learning. Students in the University of Mumbai credit their teacher Shafique Sheikh (not to be confused with Shafi Sheikh, the former head of the department for Arabic) for keeping their interest in an alien language alive. "In the first lectures he made us draw vertical and parallel lines, curves and circles. I thought I had returned to my nursery days, but he was only making the formation of words simpler for us," says Saurabh Bondre, who claims that being multi-lingual is a trait in his family. "My grandparents fought in Sanskrit." Bondre, who works for a call centre, says that when Arabs settled in Australia call his office, “their tone changes when they find that I know Arabic. Even the rudest voice becomes soft." Bondre says that he knows 13 languages and has vowed to marry a girl who knows all those languages. "You will either remain a bachelor or will have to get 13 wives," someone in the class tells him. Chaudhari recalls the hilarity that learning alien languages sometimes generates. Like, when he learnt the Arabic word khalun. "In Marathi, khalun means from underneath or below." The class laughed uproariously when they were told that in Arabic it means wife of the maternal uncle.
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