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Smith’s Growing Opportunities in Middle East Studies

By Eric Sean Weld

As American-led wars rage in Iraq and Afghanistan, as conflict roils among Israel and its neighbors, and as the world watches in trepidation, those in the Smith community and Americans in general are grasping for a better understanding of the Middle East.

“I think there definitely has been an overwhelming interest in Americans taking Arabic and becoming interested in the Middle East,” says Noura Jebara ’07, a Syrian-American student who is completing course work to fulfill the Five College Certificate in Middle East Studies, a program that combines courses from the five consortium campuses.

A growing desire to learn Arabic has motivated students like Sarah Karol ’08 to enroll in the yearlong introductory Arabic language course, which has been split into two sections because of increased enrollment.

“There’s never been such a determined interest to learn Arabic and to fully understand that part of the world,” avers Donna Divine, the Morningstar Family Professor in the Field of Jewish Studies, professor of government, and a 35-year member of the Smith faculty who teaches popular courses in Middle Eastern politics.

As a result, opportunities to study the Middle East (as well as North Africa), Islam and Arabic are expanding at Smith. The history department has nearly completed a search for a Middle East specialist, a position that will be shared with Mount Holyoke College. Last year the Department of Religion also added a faculty position, now held by Suleiman Mourad, assistant professor of religion, who teaches courses on The Islamic Tradition as well as Islamic Thought, and a colloquium titled “The Holy Land.”

Mohamed Hassan, a lecturer teaching Arabic language courses at Smith, hopes that expanded Middle East and Islamic studies curricula will lead to deeper understanding and mutual cooperation among cultures.

Mourad, who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, and taught in Middlebury College’s religion department before coming to Smith, explains that before, “There was no real excitement about understanding the Middle East. Now all of a sudden, there is a huge need.”

Meanwhile, the yearlong introductory Arabic language course, taught by Mohamed Hassan, has been split into two sections because of increased enrollment.

Of course, the Middle East is a vast region, points out Hassan, who moved to the United States from Egypt, the most populated Arab country, three years ago. Arab countries span a region from Morocco to Oman, some 22 nations in all in Africa and Asia, and the Arabic diaspora has spread worldwide. The Middle East encompasses diverse peoples, languages, religions and opinions. And though Islam is the most pervasive belief system across the Middle East, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism are also represented in the region.

For Muslims at Smith, some of whom are from Middle Eastern countries, spiritual opportunities have expanded alongside curricular ones, says Khalilah Karim-Rushdan, Smith’s Muslim chaplain, who was one of 100 leading Muslim women invited in November to attend the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equity in New York City. “The Muslim population has changed here,” said Karim-Rushdan. “The college has certainly opened up to the deen, the Muslim way of life. Now, it’s much easier to live freely as a Muslim at this college. I think we are making progress.”

While Smith and other institutions among the Five Colleges have responded to the rising general call for Middle East and Islamic studies, more must be done, faculty members agree, to present a suitably broad pedagogical palette.

“We’re building on our curriculum,” says Divine, who hopes the college will eventually introduce a minor in Middle East studies. “It’s very important to offer the types of courses that can provide students with informed views. With a few more resources, we could offer flexible programs, with diverse experiences in the Middle East, and with strong language skills, as well as good knowledge of that part of the world.”

Lise Bradford ’07, who spent last summer studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, says Americans are starting to realize the importance of the Middle East. Photos by Jim Gipe.

Americans are “starting to realize that that part of the world is important,” notes Lise Bradford ’07, who spent last summer studying Arabic in Amman, Jordan, on a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship. Bradford studied introductory Arabic last year through the Five College Center for the Study of World Languages, which also offers language courses in Farsi, Turkish, Urdu and Hindi. “But we’re just now opening up to a part of the world that has been trying to speak out for a long time.”

Although curiosity about the Middle East has increased, Smith scholars emphasize that the interest in that region and the need for curricular enhancement are longstanding and transcend recent events. Still, since the morning of September 11, 2001, Americans have become more aware of and curious about the complexities of the Middle East.

“You can’t just ignore 9/11,” says Divine, “People saw it as a wake-up call. This [heightened interest in the Middle East] isn’t going to go away so quickly.”

Divine and her colleagues are careful to present Smith’s curricular explorations of Islam and the Middle East impartially, she says, without ideological agenda. “The great strength of the Smith program is that we’re not politicizing it here,” she explains. “We try to give our students the information they need to have informed views.”

Providing more information and context, better communication between cultures and broader understanding among the world’s people—those are the goals of Smith’s faculty who endeavor to expand the Middle East and Islamic studies curricula to accommodate the growing demand for knowledge.

“The benefit of this increased curiosity is that it will lead to generally deeper understanding and enhanced mutual cooperation,” says Hassan. “It will bridge gaps and help people come together more. It’s one of my personal objectives.”

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