Bridging Cultural Divides

Colleges and universities across the country are seeing an overwhelming interest among students in learning about the Middle East and Arabic languages.  Is this a passing fad, or is it here to stay? 

By Peter Galuszka

Tyler Golson was an undergraduate at Yale University on Sept. 11, 2001. When he heard the news that terrorists had destroyed the World Trade Center in his hometown of New York City, he was so moved that he switched his major from classical literature to Middle Eastern studies and began learning Arabic.

Soon, he realized just how wise that decision was. “I fell in love with the subject matter from an academic standpoint,” says Golson. “This was a subject that was immediately accessible, dealing with a deeply rooted civilization in transition. I was tired of dead White males.”

Now a graduate student at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Golson is part of a recent wave of students being drawn to Middle Eastern studies and languages. Some of the newfound popularity for the programs can be traced to the terrorist attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but those are not the only factors. The increasing interest in the Middle East also reflects the region’s growing economic, political and cultural importance. And according to Dr. Amy W. Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, the wave of interest is stretching the capabilities of universities nationwide.

The University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA, for example, are having trouble meeting student demand for their Middle Eastern programs. New York University’s three Arabic instructors teach six courses each, says Dr. Zachary Lockman, chairman of the university’s Middle Eastern and Islamic studies department. Georgetown’s Arab studies center has seen a “quite overwhelming” increase in interest, says Dr. Judith Tucker, a professor of history and director of the university’s Master’s of Arts in Arab studies program. The center has 17 full- and part-time Arabic language instructors and has upped its sections on Arabic study from three to nine. Competition for the 26 slots each year in the center’s two-year master’s program has become highly competitive. About 220 well-qualified candidates applied for those positions last year, Tucker says.

“Absolutely, there is more interest in Middle Eastern studies,” says Dr. Amaney A. Jamal, an assistant professor of politics at Princeton University. Jamal, who is of Palestinian descent, tries to take a personal approach in bridging cultural divides.

A major plus is that with more students excited about the Middle East, some fundamentally flawed points of view are being changed, he says.
“Many students arrive on campus thinking that what CNN or Fox tells them about the Middle East is true,” says Dr. Diana Abouali, an assistant professor in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern languages and literatures at Dartmouth College. “If they’re lucky enough to take a course with a good professor, they can gain a more nuanced understanding of the Middle East.”

According to a recent Washington Post poll, American opinion of the Islamic world has turned increasingly negative in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Jamal says the change is due in part to consistent coverage of violence in Iraq and the continued threat of terrorist attacks in the United States.

“The current environment juxtaposes everything Western and everything associated with democracy versus the Muslim world,” she says. “If you look at American culture, when is the last time you saw a positive image of an Arab or a Muslim?

Jamal says such narrow viewpoints often morph into a deeper and more realistic worldview after students take Arabic studies courses. The most popular courses, professors say, are Arabic language, Middle Eastern politics and the dynamics of the Israeli and Arab relationship. Also in demand are courses on comparative religions and gender issues. Courses in Arab film have also enjoyed renewed popularity, reflecting an ongoing renaissance in cinematography in Iran, North Africa and Israel.

In the fall of 2002, more than 10,000 students were enrolled in Arabic courses in the United States. By comparison, almost 24,000 studied Russian and 50,000 took Japanese. Nearly 750,000 students studied Spanish during that time as well, according to a recent survey by the Modern Language Association.

The growing popularity of Arabic studies programs have left universities scrambling to find people to teach the classes, says Newhall of the Middle East Studies Association, based at the University of Arizona.
“The growth in Arabic is at 100 percent, with some reports as high as 400 percent,” she says. “We don’t have enough qualified instructors and there’s always a lead time in getting them.”

Some institutions, such as the University of Michigan, are responding to the shortage by offering courses in teaching Arabic as a foreign language, hoping to boost the pool of language instructors.

Adding to the bottleneck, there are a fairly small number of top flight programs in the country. Of the 125 National Resource Centers in the country, only 17 are devoted to Middle Eastern studies. The designation was established by the federal government to indicate programs that offered a course of study comprehensive enough to be of special value to the United States. The institutions that claim that status include Arizona, Georgetown, Michigan, NYU and The Ohio State University. Harvard has possibly the most comprehensive Middle Eastern studies curriculum of all, offering scores of courses ranging from Old Uighur and Coptic to regional medical issues.

In the Name of National Security
The surging interest in the Middle East is at least partially tied to post-Sept. 11 national security concerns. Investigations by the U.S. Congress and the national security agencies themselves identify the lack of Arabic-speaking analysts and spies as a major intelligence shortcoming. According to a story published in USA Today, only 10 of the 34,000 employees of the U.S. State Department were rated as completely fluent in Arabic. A lack of knowledgeable specialists has hamstrung the nation’s ability to recognize security threats and spot political and economic trends.

Consequently, Bush is calling for $114 million in the 2007 federal budget to boost foreign language education. Most of the funds will be dispensed by the Departments of Education and State. While the U.S. Department of Defense will administer some of the funds in that program, the Pentagon is also considering spending up to $750 million through 2011 to upgrade its own foreign language instruction programs.

Although the new federal funding could be a boon to Middle Eastern studies programs, many academics have expressed concern about blurring the line between educational and government policy objectives. Some have worried that the programs will turn into nothing more than spy pipelines for the various national security agencies. Others say that once the close association between the schools and the government becomes common knowledge, American students may come under suspicion as they travel and study in the Middle East. According to Newhall, such travel is an essential part of the educational experience.

The government has made no secret of its interest in employing more Middle East specialists, a move that reflects the nature of modern global conflicts. During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency frantically recruited students who spoke Russian or had Eastern European studies backgrounds. Now, the agency is seeking people who speak Arabic or more obscure languages like Uzbek.

According to the CIA’s employment Web site, all of its major operating sectors — including intelligence analysis, covert field operations and science and technology — have a “critical” need for speakers of Arabic, Dari, Pashto, Farsi and Turkish. And the CIA is prepared to pay top dollar for that language expertise. One job listing for a Middle Eastern language specialist capable of reading and translating Arabic, Dari or Pashto pays up to $70,000 a year.

But just learning the basics of the language isn’t enough. Proficiency in Arabic takes years of difficult study, says Georgetown’s Golson.
“I used to see people swarming all over trying to take Arabic after 9-11,” he says. “But they take one course and drop out. You just can’t pick it up that easily. You can’t really know the basics in less than a year.”

Before Georgetown, Golson spent a year teaching English and studying Arabic in Syria, but even that intensive experience makes him only a “proficient” Arabic speaker, he says. He believes that he would earn a “Level 3” on U.S. State Department language tests. The tests are based on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being complete fluency. Some sources claim that a student needs to study five hours a day for two years to develop even a basic understanding of the language.

Making things even more difficult, the Arabic taught in school may only take students so far in the real world. Most institutions teach traditional, formal Arabic, which is consistent throughout the Arabic-speaking world. But in less formal settings, local dialects dominate.

“This is a huge issue in Arabic,” says Tucker. “It’s a situation where the spoken language is extremely different than the written.” Thus, he says, students who really want to be versatile must spend significant time studying in various parts of the Middle East.

While Middle Eastern studies programs have exploded in popularity in the past six years, whether they will remain in the national spotlight remains to be seen. According to Newhall, interest in the programs appeared to begin to flatten in 2005, but it’s still too early to draw any conclusions. The continued fighting in Iraq, the escalating conflict with Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict suggest that affairs in the Arab world will continue to make national headlines. As a result, many professors have reason to believe that interest in Middle Eastern studies will also continue to grow.



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