The Class of ’62 Learns Arabic



Plaque at the Tangier American Legation

We can't leave 2012 without remembering the Class of 1962.  Fifty years ago, the Tangier American Legation's first role in its post-Legation, post-Consulate General period, was as the Foreign Service Institute's school for Maghrebi Arabic.  And the class that year numbered six young Foreign Service Officers. 

It seemed like a good idea at the time.  The historic Legation building had just ceased its diplomatic activities, and the space was available.  A chance to learn Arabic in the field (or in the winding medina streets, as it happens).  Lannon Walker, one of the student diplomats, recalled being given free reign to choose classrooms in the sprawling and empty edifice.  He found the 1930s-era Pavilion a congenial place for a classroom.

Robert Duncan, in a 1995 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in the Library of Congress Frontline Diplomacy oral history series, had doubts about the kind of Arabic on offer in Tangier:

[T]he Maghrebi dialect is basically something that I never used after I left Morocco. Once, when I was visiting in Egypt, I started speaking to Egyptians in my Maghrebi dialect, which was sort of part humorous and part quizzical. But then I would sort of shift from using the Maghrebi dialect into what I called the "bastardized Arabic," where I'd sort of speak to them in both. That was what we communicated in.

In his Frontline Diplomacy interview, Ambassador Ed Peck spoke of his high expectations on coming away with a very respectable "3+/3+" score (respectively Speaking and Reading, in a scale where 5/5 is native fluency) after his time in Tangier:

We were the six who opened the school, and I was there for twenty two months learning Arabic–I thought. In fact, we were all taught to speak a dialect which is fully usable within perhaps one hundred kilometers of Tangier, and since Tangier is on the northwestern coast of the continent, it doesn't really take in an awful lot.

You see, Tangerine Arabic is the Arabic that's spoken in Tangier, which is heavily interlarded with Spanish and also has a lot of Berber. The dialects in Arabic are grossly different from country to country and within countries, and we learned a way-out dialect, which even in the south of Morocco was not well understood.

When I finished the program–and I got a 3+/3+, which was considered quite good–I was sent to Tunisia. When I arrived there, getting off the ferry boat from Italy, I said to the dockworkers who were unloading my stuff, "Oh, my brothers, in Allah's name, handle these boxes with careful attention. They contain many things of importance to me and my family. May God reward you."

And they all said, "Huh?" They said, "What?" They said, "Do you speak French?"

And that's what I spoke for the two years I was there. [My Tangier Arabic] was almost totally useless in Tunisia. I could read the papers but I could not speak with anybody.

Despite the temporary handicap, it did not hinder Peck in his career, which included a number of Arabic-speaking assignments, and an ambassadorship in Mauritania.

Likewise, his classmates made the most of their Tanjawi Arabic: Frank Wisner (read about his exploits surviving louche Tangier bars in Peck's interview) became a four-time ambassador, including to such important countries as India and Egypt; Lannon Walker devoted his career to Africa, serving as ambassador to several countries; Robert Pelletreau served as ambassador to several Arab countries; Amb. John W. MacDonald, after his Foreign Service career, founded the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy.

Not bad for the Class of '62 – five out of six eventually become US Ambassadors.  Happy 50th anniversary!

Gerald Loftus

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.