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?

Article excerpt

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, she 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. …

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