Arabic studies centre to reopen in Beijing

The Arabic department at a university in the Chinese capital to be relaunched in September will be named after Sheikh Zayed, the late founder of the UAE.

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BEIJING // The Arabic department of Beijing Foreign Studies University is a building site, with piles of scaffolding rods, panels and rubble littering the ground.

Next year, however, the centre will again offer a flavour of the Middle East close to the centre of the Chinese capital, when a US$2.8 million (Dh10.2m) refurbishment, paid for by the UAE, is completed.

The dome that sits atop the auditorium will be a shining golden colour, while Arabic poetry and calligraphy will adorn the walls inside the main building.

The work began in August and is to last for about a year, with funds coming from the Court of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, also the Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

"The look was not suitable and the facilities and equipment were out of date. It was a little bit old," said Xue Qingguo, a professor and vice dean of the Arabic department.

"We are grateful for the generosity of the UAE, especially the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi."

Known as the UAE Centre for the Study of Islamic Culture and the Teaching of the Arabic Language when it opened in 1994, also following a grant from the Emirates, on relaunching in September it will be called the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Centre for Arabic Language and Islamic Studies, in honour of the founder of the UAE.

"This is in commemoration of Sheikh Zayed's role in disseminating the Islamic culture and Arabic language and in supporting scientific and academic works outside the Arab world," Mr Xue said.

The centrepiece of the department is an auditorium, which is having an extra floor of seating added and a stage created so Arabic dances can be performed for visiting dignitaries. An Arabic-style mosaic is being added to the building's facade.

The Arabic department at the university has about 200 undergraduates completing a four-year bachelor's degree course, plus 40 or so postgraduates pursuing master's degrees and PhDs.

An Italian architect was contracted by the UAE Embassy in Beijing to carry out the work, and up to 50 people at any one time have been on site doing everything from recladding the main building to refurbishing the interior.

"After the work is completed, we'll also decorate inside with a more Arabic, Islamic atmosphere, perhaps with some photos and products of the Arab world and some Arabic poetry, modern and ancient," Mr Xue said.

Teaching of foreign languages has grown in recent years in China, in keeping with a vast increase in the number of people graduating from the country's universities each year, up from about one million a little more than a decade ago to about six million this year.

"In general, language teaching has expanded in recent years because China is becoming more open to the outside world, but specifically the Arabic language is expanding faster than other languages because economic, cultural and political links between China and the Arab world are improving," Mr Xue said.

From seven a decade ago, the number of universities offering Arabic has risen to more than 20 now, and the number of undergraduates taking the subject numbers in the thousands, according to Ma Fu De, the dean of the Arabic studies department at Xi'an International Studies University.

He said studying Arabic was "good for employment", with Chinese companies working in the Arab world, including major oil companies, offering posts as translators. Bilateral trade between China and the Arab world rose from $24.5 billion in 2003 to $132.9bn five years later.

In addition to the universities, there are many language schools linked to mosques teaching Arabic, with Mr Xue estimating that more than 100,000 people could be learning the language through such institutions.

Many such schools use the New Courses for Arabic series of textbooks produced by Mr Xue's department.

The department is planning to produce a book containing the translated works of Emirati writers, including short stories and poems.

"This is a UAE centre, so we must do something to introduce UAE culture in different fields to Chinese people," said Mr Xue. "In fact, we're in the process of choosing short stories."