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Omar Matadar '00: Immersing Himself in Arabic Language

Every semester, Omar Matadar '00 stands at the lectern and speaks in flawless Arabic to the new crop of students at the Qasid Arab Institute in Jordan. He greets diplomats, journalists and many other Westerners who have traveled here to immerse themselves in a language that is soaring in popularity.

A few minutes into his speech, he switches from Arabic to American English. He watches the students' eyes widen in surprise as they realize he is not from the Middle East. "I bet you didn't expect an accent like this to come from this beard," said Matadar, an Indian-American who blends in well with the Jordanian crowds.

As the director of the Qasid Arab Institute, Matadar switches effortlessly from Arabic to English, from Middle Eastern to Western customs. His job is to develop teaching strategies and shape the curriculum for the institute, which specializes in Arabic language studies. Matadar, a Pittsburgh native who has lived in Jordan for the past eight years, is also the liaison and first point of administrative contact for 150 to 200 students, many of whom are American or European.

Matadar, after all, knows what it is like to get off the plane in Amman. He knows how daunting it is for a Westerner to learn Arabic, a language with its own script and regional dialects. He knows the culture shock of living in a country where water is rationed, bureaucracy is often glacially slow, and dress and social customs are starkly different than those in Western culture.

From 2004 to 2006, he studied at the Qasid Institute and remembers the puzzled stares he drew back home when he told people he was journeying to Jordan to study Arabic. "Jordan? Where's Jordan?" They would say. "Why do you want to go to Jordan? Isn't it dangerous over there?" His students have dealt with the same incredulous looks.

From this unconventional path, Matadar forged a distinguished career. He was such a standout student that he was hired as part of the institute's administration and serves on the board. "I can say, without qualification, he is far and away the most beloved director the staff has ever had," said the school's founder, Mohamed Marei. "He is liked and respected, not because he is a pushover, but because he is fair. He has created a culture that many Jordanians simply don't find in other companies — very progressive and family-friendly."

His command of the language often astounds his colleagues, many of whom are native speakers who hold doctorates in Arabic linguistics.

"When I have a conversation with Omar, he will quote to me some Arab proverb I am not familiar with," Marei said. "And I grew up in a household where Arabic was spoken. Here is an American-born kid of Indian ethnicity telling me Arab proverbs, and it is always appropriate. You don't often come across someone who has gotten beyond using it in a thoughtful, communicative way to being almost poetic with it."

Mastering a foreign language — let alone Arabic — wasn't on Matadar's radar growing up. He aspired to more conventional professions such as lawyer and doctor.

The second son of parents who emigrated from India, Matadar was born in Morgantown, W.Va., but lived in Fox Chapel and Nevillewood outside Pittsburgh as a child. His father, Akbar, said his son was an especially big-hearted boy, who even at the age of 4 would help a frail, elderly person out of a car and perform other kind deeds. As Matadar grew older, he would be the one inquiring about people's health, offering rides to friends. "He was always caring about other people's needs first," Akbar said. "He put human values over material ones."

Matadar attended Shady Side Academy starting in first grade and boarded there during high school. He was member of the lacrosse team, president of his freshman class and the lead in the school musical, Little Shop of Horrors. He also served as the Shady Side Academy Class of 2000 representative to the office of Allegheny County Executive Jim Roddey.

He developed an interest in philosophy, thanks to the engaging teaching style of Dr. John Sutula. "The personal attention he gave to his students was remarkable," Matadar said. "He would make an appointment with students, walk around campus and talk to them as part of the final exam. He was an amazing man." Matadar would remember the importance of that personal connection with his teacher years later when he became an instructor of Arabic.

Upon graduating from Shady Side Academy, Matadar attended George Washington University, majoring in art history and philosophy. The seed that Dr. Sutula planted in high school only deepened there. "Plato and Socrates and the big questions appealed to me," he said. "Philosophy, more so than other majors, was a place I could grow as a person."

In time, studying Arabic would serve the same purpose, allowing him to grow as his knowledge of the language and culture deepened. But his first Arabic class was an afterthought, just something to fulfill a curriculum requirement. As a college freshman, he signed up for Spanish, the language he had studied at Shady Side. But the section was full. He scanned the course offerings. There was an Arabic class. Why not? he thought.

He didn't take to Arabic right away and even fell behind in his studies that first year. But his professor must have seen something in him. She recommended that he attend an intensive summer program in Arabic at Middlebury College in Vermont. He excelled. The spark was ignited.

Matadar threw himself into the challenge of learning a language that is so labor-intensive that one government report showed it takes 2,000 to 2,200 contact hours to achieve fluency, compared to 1,000 to 1,200 for Spanish. The thrill of discovering Arabic gave Matadar a deeper appreciation of other languages. In fact, he started to learn some of the Urdu his parents spoke at home.

After graduating from college, he advanced his studies by becoming a student at the Qasid Institute. His older brother, a 1997 Shady Side graduate, was in Jordan as a teacher at Qasid. So it seemed like a good destination. People looked at him strangely. Why Arabic? His father nudged him about his plans to go to law school — a plan he kept deferring.

The baffled looks from peers were hard to take sometimes. "It seemed strange," Matadar said. "It was not in line with what my friends were doing."

But he had the drive to master both formal Arabic and the many regional dialects. To learn a new language as an adult, a person has to be willing to go out on the streets and risk making errors. "One of the things that put Omar in an elite class of language learners is that he realized from day one that learning the language is learning the culture," Marei said. "He wasn't afraid of mixing it up and making silly mistakes, getting up and doing it again. I can't think of another student who has imbibed the language and made it part of himself like Omar."

After completing the program at Qasid in 2006, he took it upon himself to dive into an even deeper knowledge of Arabic. He spent a year in the United Arab Emirates, studying classical literature and poetry one-on-one with a scholar. Teacher and pupil would meet for 10 to 12 hours a day, reading and discussing great works written in standard Arabic, not the dialect Matadar had been exposed to on the streets of Jordan. "It was a real period of growth," he said. "When I came back to Jordan, they really saw a big change."

Equipped with enhanced language skills, in January 2007, he joined the staff of the Qasid Institute as part of the Student Services Department. In August of that year, he was made managing director of the institute until he was promoted to director in September 2008.

Even as a top administrator, he tries to do some teaching. He also gives students advice and encouragement as they deal with the culture shock to changes such as weekly water rations. "They get frustrated by the fact that they are frustrated," he said. "They thought they would be able to handle it better than they are handling it. I tell the students that is all part of the experience. I still have culture shock to this day."

He tells them about his own frustrations. For example, once he and his wife, Meher Shaikh, went to the Ministry of Health to make a photocopy of a document she needed. The bureaucrat eating lunch explained that the paper was in the folder behind him, but only a vacationing coworker could handle it.

"When will he be back?" Matadar asked. "In four days," the man replied. "Can't you just get it?" Matadar asked. Despite repeated pleas, the answer was no. They had to wait four days for the employee to return from vacation and retrieve the document.

Matadar also has learned social customs that he passes on to his students. A Jordanian employee who sits down to eat his lunch in front of coworkers has to offer everyone his food before he takes the first bite. Just tearing into your lunch is considered a faux pas.

Other cultural differences have changed him for the better. As a manager, he has learned that you cannot hand out direct, cut-and-dried criticism to employees the way an American boss does. "Culturally that is not acceptable in the Arab world," he said. "You make the interaction more personal, as opposed to putting them in a system and have them adjust to the system." He said he is incorporating that philosophy when parenting his toddler son, looking at him more as an individual.

Matadar advises students on more than just customs. Marei recalls the time a prospective student came to Matadar's office and told him he had a learning difficulty. Some educator had tested him and told he was not capable of learning a foreign language, but the boy was determined to study Arabic.

Marei said Matadar spoke to the student for an hour and a half to ascertain how the school could help him fulfill his personal challenge: "He just asked questions. He let the student guide the process." The student is now enrolled in the program, defying expectations and learning Arabic.

Matadar also has sought out Fulbright Scholars whose language training has been cut short by the unrest in neighboring Syria, Yemen and Egypt. After their language programs were cancelled, they received invitations from Matadar to study at the Qasid Institute. "He took a leadership role," Marei said. "He made sure there was a safe space for them academically, and they had counseling available once they arrived in Jordan."

If Jordan is a safe haven for western scholars in the Middle East, it also has been a safe place for Matadar, his wife Shaikh (a native of Pakistan) and their two-year-old son, Mohammed.

"It is funny. Jordan is one of the safest countries I have ever lived in," Matadar said. "My wife and I go out all hours of the night, and we don't feel unsafe."

For all his scholarly qualities — Marei affectionately calls him an Arabic geek — Matadar also has a clever wit. "If he ever decides that education professional services are not for him, he could have an alternate career as a comedian," Marei said. "He is hilarious. There is a lightness about him. You know the layover test — who would you want to be stuck in an airport with during a layover – Omar would be at the top of my list."

Though he misses his family in the United States, Matadar is comfortable in Jordan and has regular contact with his brother, who lives in Northern Virginia and teaches Arabic through Qasid's online program.

Mastering a second language and living in a new culture has even added new dimensions to Matadar's personality. "My wife says I become a different person when I speak Arabic — open, louder, more outgoing."

by Cristina Rouvalis | Photography provided by Omar Matadar
Published in the Winter 2013-2014 issue of Shady Side Academy Magazine