Arabic, MENA Studies Should be Expanded

I studied Arabic for a year at Oberlin with Visiting Instructor of Arabic Mahmoud Meslat. I’d had a desire to learn Arabic for several years. Arabic hadn’t been offered at my high school, so I was excited for this opportunity. So when I learned that Oberlin’s program only offered beginner-level classes, I was understandably disappointed. 

Even more disappointing to learn was that there had been a recent proposal to eliminate Oberlin’s Arabic program in its entirety. I remember visiting Oberlin as a prospective student and seeing a banner raised above Harkness House that read “Save Arabic.” It wasn’t until I was enrolled that I learned that this had been part of a protest against the proposals from the College that hoped to eliminate the Arabic program.  

Despite the College’s best efforts, the Arabic program at Oberlin remained intact. Nevertheless, it remained small and only taught beginning-level courses. There has been a continuous movement by students to change the program. In the spring of 2022, there was a push by the students in that semester’s class to expand the Arabic program to the intermediate level. The expansion of the department would allow students to continue their studies for at least two years. Continued exposure over the course of multiple years is necessary for students to properly learn and retain a language.  

These 2022 efforts culminated in meetings with the administration, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences David Kamitsuka, President Carmen Twillie Ambar, and Professor Meslat. Professor Meslat supports the expansion of the Arabic program. He would like to see it included as a major and for Arabic to continue past Arabic 101 and Arabic 102 to the intermediate and advanced level (200- and 300-level). However, the meetings were unsuccessful, and the program was not allowed to expand. 

Though I was unable to continue learning Arabic at Oberlin, I found and participated in an intensive Arabic program at University of Maryland, College Park. This was a valuable and worthwhile experience, but it was costly. In addition, because of its intensive structure, it is not viable to work part time while participating in the program. I’m glad I was able to participate in this program, but it was a last resort solution that Oberlin students who wish to study the language might not necessarily be able to access. The lack of resources and opportunities given to professors and students within the department makes learning Arabic at Oberlin overly complicated.  

It is also apparent that Oberlin’s Arabic program is treated differently than many other language programs. Spanish, French, and Russian all offer opportunities to continue study beyond the beginning level. In each of these departments intermediate and advanced courses are offered.  

Oberlin has a strong commitment to providing students with a global education that reaches beyond Europe and the global West. Expanding the Arabic and Middle East and North Africa Studies programs would significantly help Oberlin in its endeavor to give students the diverse and global education it promises. This would further help Oberlin to move its educational focus away from being solely on the West and towards the rest of the world and the vast and diverse regions that encompass it.  

Expanding the Arabic program at Oberlin would be a major step for fostering a campus and academic environment that promotes diversity, equity, and inclusion. It would help Oberlin on the road to offer a more globalized education to its students. The Middle East is a culturally and historically important region. Arabic is the fifth-most commonly spoken language in the world, with over 100 million speakers worldwide. It is the official language of 25 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. If students were able to study Arabic beyond the beginning level, it would allow students to have opportunities to travel, study, or work in these regions. 

In addition, the Middle East is a region with significant international relations, with economic, political, and international security implications that make Arabic a language highly sought after by many employers. In particular, Arabic is also a language that is desired within the realms of national security, military, and international affairs.  

The lack of resources within the Middle East and North African Studies department is another issue. While there is a MENA minor and a few related courses offered in the Religion and Jewish Studies departments, there is only one professor of Middle Eastern history at Oberlin: Professor of History Zeinab Abdul-Magd. MENA courses are few and far between. Though the Politics department offers numerous other comparative and international politics courses — Post-Soviet Politics, Social and Political Change in Eastern Europe, Latin American Politics, Government and Politics of Africa, and Queer Comparative Politics — there are no courses currently offered on MENA politics, with the exception of one on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (POLT 224: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict).  These limit opportunities to study the politics and history of the Middle East and North Africa, which is a further loss for diversity, inclusion, and learning at Oberlin. In addition to Arabic, MENA studies and its coursework in MENA history and MENA politics should be included and expanded.

Arabic is a valuable language that is offered no further than the beginning level, unlike most other language programs offered at Oberlin. Expanding Arabic and MENA Studies would be beneficial to Oberlin College and its students as they seek to provide a diverse and global education to students. It would provide students with the opportunity to learn a new language skill and understand a very important region of the world, further opening up opportunities after Oberlin. There has been significant and repeated efforts by students and professors to expand both the Arabic and MENA programs in the College. When is the College going to step up and listen?

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