Eastern Promise

By Meredith McGroarty

Damascus

With the end of the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the prospect of peace talks regarding the conflict in Afghanistan, the fluid (and tenuous) relationship between the United States and the Middle East has the potential to change greatly in the years and decades to come. To better understand the opportunities and challenges ahead, the next generation of American diplomats, scholars, artists, and citizens will need to have a better understanding of this complex and ever-changing region.

To that end, UT is working to create a new Arabic studies program designed to give students more in-depth instruction on the politics, history, languages, and religions of the Middle East. Titled “Arabic Language and Culture Across the Curriculum,” the program has begun to introduce a broader range of topics related to the Arab world in existing classes in various disciplines, such as law, sociology, history, language, religious studies, and political science.

“In this day and age, we’re missing out on a vehicle to educate our students, faculty, and administrators if we don’t have a program focusing on both Arabic language and the cultures connected to it,” says Gilya Schmidt, co-PI, professor of religious studies, and director of the Fern and Manfred Steinfeld Program in Judaic Studies. (The other co-PI for the project is Gregory Kaplan, professor of Spanish.)

Initially, funding for the project is coming from a grant from the US Department of Education. That money allowed the university to hire an Arabic instructor and to train faculty in various departments on ways to infuse their courses with content related to the Middle East. UT is also developing a gateway course for a potential minor in Arabic.

“It makes sense that a program that is as broad as Arabic civilization—and this also includes Arab Christians—should have its own area of study,” Schmidt says.

While discussions to create a separate minor are under way, the program is currently working on boosting the amount of Arabic-related material in the general curriculum, whether through incorporation of such content into existing courses or the creation of classes focusing solely on topics related to the Middle East and North Africa. Three new faculty members—Hassan Lachheb, Douja Mamelouk, and Youshaa Patel—are teaching or will soon teach classes focusing on Arabic language, Franco–Arabic literature, and Islam, respectively, and existing professors in the religious studies, sociology, English, and history departments, as well as the College of Law, have all added course content related to Middle Eastern studies.

Moving Beyond Politics

The importance of UT’s Arabic program is certainly underscored by recent political and religious developments, but the project also comes at a time when Americans are increasingly curious about the Middle East and Islam outside of the context of current conflicts.

TLC’s reality show All-American Muslim aimed to introduce viewers to the everyday lives of several American Muslim families living in the Detroit area. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, launched four years ago and styled after the famous Man Booker Prize, is one of several concerted efforts to bring more Arabic-language literature to Western readers through translation. And with eleven movies from Middle Eastern countries, this year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival is making the region its focus.

Gerard Cohen-Vrignaud, assistant professor of English, recently taught a course on Muslims in literature, which focused on representations of Muslims by Western writers from Chaucer’s time through today. He’s also interested in creating a complementary class that looks at Muslim authors and their works.

“For a lot of students, that region of the world is rather unknown, and most of their experience has to do with the recent political climate,” Cohen-Vrignaud says. “I think literature provides access to worlds that are sometimes far away from the students; as we offer students different realms of experience, they’ll increasingly see the world as a patchwork of cultures.”

Mamelouk is teaching courses about Middle Eastern and North African novels and film, and she says her students have loved seeing a different, artistic side of those cultures.

“There’s such a hunger here among students to learn more about the Arab world,” she says.


Photo by jemasmith through flickr Creative Commons.

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