Asked for three words to describe Arabic, Marie-Claude Quignon quickly offers two –beautiful and rich – and then pauses before adding a third, “open”.
The choice of adjective is relevant. Ms Quignon’s growing command of the language opens a world of communication with the women and children she works with on periodic visits to Palestinian refugee camps, including the Aida settlement just outside Bethlehem, as co-founder of La Forge, a French multi-media artists’ collective.
She is one of 900 students studying Arabic at the Institute of the Arab World (IMA) in Paris.
Students take two-hour weekly classes in all levels from beginner upwards, and come in all ages. Ms Quignon is 70 and has been attending weekly two-hours lessons for four years since the university in her home city of Amiens cancelled its Arabic course.
Nada Yafi, a Lebanese-born former French ambassador to Kuwait and now director of IMA’s languages centre, estimates that about 30 per cent of students are of Maghrebin or Middle Eastern origin with the rest – like Ms Quignon – having no Arab roots but keen to learn the
language for cultural or professional reasons. “The demand is undoubtedly there,” she says.
“With sufficient resources, we could easily double the number of students.”
Ms Quignon, a visual artist who also speaks a little English, Italian and Spanish, found Arabic hard at first but is satisfied with her progress. She has yet to read the book by the IMA president Jack Lang calling on the French government to increase access to Arabic teaching in state schools, but says she fully supports his campaign.
“There are usually about 10 in my class,” she says. “It’s quite a mix of people, including those from Arabic-speaking backgrounds learning for family reasons and those who want to work in Arabic or just learn the language. Progress can depend on the teacher but some are really passionate and I feel I am advancing.
“I could not call myself fluent because my vocabulary is too small but I understand the alphabet, can read small texts and am getting better all the time. It is really helpful in the work I do in the Palestinian camps. But it is also a pleasure. I adore this magnificent language.”