At Jerusalem 'Hogwarts' Harry Potter enchants in both Hebrew and Arabic

“I thought, ‘what book is written in every language besides the Bible?’” said Etti Calderon, the administrative director of The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities.

November 14, 2016 17:45
2 minute read.
Israelis line up at midnight to buy new Harry Potter book

Israelis line up at midnight to buy new Harry Potter book. (photo credit: STEIMATZKY)


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Tucked away in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood, a group of students discussed the Arabic word for “transfiguration” as part of an Arabic and Hebrew Harry Potter reading group on Sunday.

According to Prof. Minerva McGonagall of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, transfiguration is “some of the most complex and dangerous magic” that Harry and his comrades would learn over their seven years at the fictitious wizard academy.

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About 10 students were in the first reading group held at Polis – The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Humanities – which was not about learning magic and spells, but arguably, the equally complex task of learning Arabic and Hebrew. Students of varying language abilities stumbled through the tricky Arabic vocabulary in the opening chapter of the first Harry Potter book. The next hour, a Hebrew session was held.

“I thought, ‘which book is written in every language besides the Bible?’” said Etti Calderon, 27, the administrative director of the Polis Institute, in reference to looking for the right book to start an Arabic and Hebrew reading group. “Harry Potter immediately came to mind.”

Calderon hopes to continue the reading group on a weekly or bimonthly basis, depending on demand.

More than 450 million copies of the seven-part Harry Potter series have been sold since the first book’s release in 1997. The books have been translated into 73 languages, inspiring a generation of young-adult readers.

The historic Polis Institute building, with cavernous stone walls and a narrow staircase, slightly resembles the fictional Hogwarts school.

There is even a roaming cat, like Hogwarts’ unofficial cat, Mrs. Norris, who keeps a watchful eye on the students.

“I think this is very important if you want to fit into the surroundings,” Jerusalem native Ben Maman said regarding Arabic study. “We have to fit into this area.”

Nevertheless, Maman conceded that while he had developed friendships with Arab-Israelis in university, Arabic language study had yet to open any new relationships with Arab-Israelis or Palestinians.

Situated between the predominantly Arabic-speaking east Jerusalem and Hebrew-speaking west Jerusalem, the Polis Institute forms a natural meeting zone for people of both languages.

“People who want to learn, seek out opportunities,” said Calderon.

“Being on the border of different neighborhoods makes it an easy and very comfortable place to ease into language.”

Juhan Luomala, 27, from Finland, said it was the perfect place to focus on the constructive aspects of the city.

“Jerusalem is a mix. Many Israelis feel pressure [in the city], but I try to focus on the positive – culture, language, and people,” he said.

Luomala is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Near Eastern languages at the Polis Institute. For Loumala, the fantastical fiction language of Harry Potter poses difficulties in Hebrew and Arabic, despite his experience with both languages.

“It’s challenging because these are new words that are invented,” he said.

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