Oakland teen Naomi Moskowitz at a mosque in Casablanca
Oakland teen Naomi Moskowitz at a mosque in Casablanca

‘Here’s lookin’ at you, kid’: Bay Area teen studies Arabic in Morocco

When Naomi Moskowitz graduated from Jewish Community High School in June, she had already completed two intensive Arabic summer courses at UC Berkeley and was fluent in the language. But she still felt she had a long way to go.

That’s why before heading off to UCLA, the 18-year-old Oakland resident is spending two months of her summer in Morocco. The program, sponsored by the National Security Language Initiative for Youth, takes high school students who are studying one of seven foreign languages to countries around the world to immerse them in the culture and advance their language skills, and then use that knowledge in the global community as they continue their studies.

Students in NSLI-Y’s Arabic section are sent to either Jordan or Morocco. Since arriving on June 17, Moskowitz has visited Casablanca, Tangier and other cities. During morning hours she studies “standard, newspaper Arabic,” and two days a week she learns the French-influenced Moroccan dialect, which she says is like learning Arabic all over again.

To communicate effectively in Arabic-speaking countries, one has to know the specific dialect, Moskowitz explained. Though she can speak with impressive fluency in standard, formal Arabic, she says this sort of intensive experience is the best way to learn more.

During the week she also participates in cultural immersion activities. She’s attended a lecture at Mohammed V University in Rabat on how to write an academic article, served rfissa (a Moroccan chicken dish) at a senior residence, and repainted the walls at a rural high school.

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Naomi Moskowitz serves rfissa (a native chicken dish) at a senior residence in Rabat, Morocco.

It all started with her first Arabic class at Cal in 2015. Moskowitz had entered high school fluent in Hebrew and was frustrated that she would have to study four years of a language she already knew. So she decided it would also be good to learn Arabic, which has a similar alphabet and grammatical constructions.

The class was four hours per day for eight weeks, plus three hours of homework every day. Her parents were baffled by her dedication, but Moskowitz joked with them every morning that she was “going to camp.”

“They said, ‘we can’t believe you’re calling it camp,’ but I was having so much fun,” she recalled from her host’s home in Rabat.

Part of the thrill of learning the language at Cal was exposure to new ideas and people.

“Going to a Jewish school all my life, everyone was always the same,” said Moskowitz, who attended Oakland Hebrew Day School before JCHS. “Learning Arabic is how I’ve learned to meet diverse people. People who wear ‘free Gaza’ bracelets, girls in my class who wore hijabs.”

Last summer, she used her language skills working at a summer camp for Arab and Jewish kids in Israel, where she has family.

“I made so many Arab Israeli friends and engaged with those families. That was really eye-opening,” she said. “When I went to Jewish schools I only saw one side of Israel. I didn’t even know huge Arab communities in Israel existed.”

Now, in Morocco, she’s had moments where she realizes the power and potential of her linguistic skills.

“The coolest part about language to me is being able to speak it to people in their native lands,” she said. “My favorite part is every time I talk to people on the street.” One time she was able to communicate that she was lost and some locals walked her to her location. “And even though it’s kind of broken Arabic, to be able to have a full conversation with a native speaker, I always leave with a smile on my face, because everything you’ve been studying you’re actually using.”

Every morning, she leaves her host family’s home and takes a tram to class and cultural activities, which usually end at 5 p.m. Afterward she’ll stroll about the neighborhood before going back home for dinner. She said the family doesn’t always serve Moroccan dishes; she’s even had tuna sandwiches for dinner.

Being the only Jewish student among 22 in the program has not been awkward, she said, and in fact she enjoys answering questions about Judaism. In Morocco, Judaism is not conflated with Israel the way it is in other Arabic-speaking countries, she said. She thinks the difference is related to the historical presence of Morocco’s Jewish community. She recounted learning how during World War II, Sultan Mohammad V protected the Jews of Casablanca, famously saying: “There are no Jews in Morocco. There are only Moroccan subjects.”

Today there is still a sizable Jewish community in Casablanca, which boasts a community center, several shuls, a camp, a Chabad and a Jewish history museum. Moskowitz has visited the museum and has gone to synagogue almost every Shabbat, and each time she discovers a new aspect of Moroccan Jewish history. At the Rabbi Akiba synagogue in Tangier, she saw a 600-year-old Torah.

She says one of her favorite Jewish experiences so far has been speaking with a visiting rabbi from Israel in a mix of Arabic, Hebrew and English.

“For me, the coolest thing is getting in those situations where you’re speaking multiple languages,” she said. “These past two summers I’ve really seen how these languages can be used together, and it’s not a big deal for a Jew to speak Arabic and for an Arab person to speak Hebrew.”

She is not sure how she would like to use her language skills in the future. NSLI-Y’s goals are “to improve the ability of Americans to engage with the people of Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Persian, Russian and Turkish-speaking countries through shared language,” as well as to encourage young Americans “to use their linguistic and cultural skills to advance international dialogue and compete effectively in the global economy.”

Moskowitz knows she wants to study abroad and spend more time in the Middle East, but meanwhile she will be starting her studies in cognitive science at UCLA. She’s already thinking of ways to bridge her interests, maybe by minoring in Middle Eastern studies or writing a computer program that could help foreign-language learners.

“Part of cognitive science is linguistics,” she said. “I think it’s cool to see how everything, like language, psychology and computer programming, connect.”

Hannah Jannol
Hannah Jannol

Hannah Jannol is J.'s summer 2018 intern.