At a time when Arabic language training lags at many universities, the Arabic summer school at Middlebury College in Vermont retains its reputation for quality language instruction. Indeed, it could be said to define the gold standard of Arabic language training programs. But even as students leave Middlebury with better Arabic, they also leave indoctrinated with a tendentious Arab nationalist reading of Middle Eastern history. Permeating lectures and carefully-designed grammatical drills, Middlebury instructors push the idea that Arab identity trumps local identities and that respect for minority ethnic and sectarian communities betrays Arabism.

Conflating Language and Identity

Historically, defining who was an Arab was easy: until the early twentieth century, scholars from both the Middle East and the West considered an Arab to be a person whose ancestry was in the Arabian Peninsula or the Fertile Crescent. Someone from Jeddah was an Arab, a Cairene was not. Indeed, historian Bernard Lewis has shown that the Middle East was a mix of cultures, particularisms, nationalities, and self-perceptions that never enjoyed a single uniform collective identity, let alone an exclusively Arab one.[1] This began to change in the early twentieth century when Arab nationalist elites began superimposing a new overarching national identity on preexisting group affiliations. In the 1930s, the idea that one is an Arab if one speaks Arabic came into vogue.[2] However, this definition of identity in linguistic terms was a borrowed European concept reflecting uniquely European circumstances with no parallel in the Near East. Indeed, this new linguistic parameter of identity, so favored by the Arab nationalists, was the result of the post-World War I concept of "self-determination" of European communities, all of which had languages with long literary traditions, which could be billed as the emblem of specific national identities.[3]

The Middle East had no such "tribal" languages possessing the requisite literary and cultural tradition upon which to base a specific identity. Rather, the Middle East was, and remains to this day, a paradox of multiple identities based on religion, sect, town, village, family, and other group associations and interests, the majority of which, until the emergence of Arab nationalism, did not involve the Arabic language. When the modern Egyptian poet Luwis ‘Awad wrote about his homeland, he did so in colloquial Egyptian, not modern standard literary Arabic. When the Lebanese-American thinker Gibran Khalil Gibran yearned for his native Mount Lebanon, he did so more comfortably in English than in Arabic.[4] When the fifteenth century Maronite bishop of Cyprus, Gabriel Alkilai, wrote his history of Lebanon, he did so in Karshuni, his local Lebanese dialect written in Syriac characters.[5] Even some Bedouin poetry is, likewise, recited in a number of colloquial variants.[6]

The Arab nationalist-inspired shift in ethnic identity was easier said than done. In a sense, Arab nationalists assigned identity to an arbitrary language that, like Medieval Latin, might have been the language of officialdom but was not used colloquially. Even today, modern standard Arabic remains the domain of newspapers, not conversations. Arabs themselves speak a multiplicity of languages "which are downgraded to dialects" but which, in the words of Harvard linguist Wheeler Thackston, "resemble [modern standard Arabic] as much as Latin resembles English."[7]

Ideology became an important component in this shift. Arab nationalists used linguistic definition of Arabism to deny the cultural claims of ethnic or sectarian minorities. Sati' al-Husri (1880-1967), a Syrian writer who played an important role in the crystallization of Arab nationalism, maintained that "under no circumstances should we say: ‘as long as [a user of the Arabic language] does not wish to be an Arab, and as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab. He is an Arab whether he wishes to be so or not. Whether ignorant, indifferent, undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without feelings, or consciousness, and perhaps even without conscience."[8] Michel Aflaq, an apostle of Husri's and founder of the Baath Party, promoted violence and cruelty against those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform to an overarching Arab identity.[9]

Later Arab nationalist figures like Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser or Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein found the linguistic definition of Arabism convenient in order to neglect, if not completely reject, the reality of ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East. This view—also adopted by a number of social scientists and post-Edward Said Middle East scholars—holds that the Middle East is populated by a breed of culturally and linguistically homogeneous Arabs. Assyrians, Berbers, Copts, Chaldaeans, Kurds, Maronites and many other millions of Middle Eastern peoples who possess their own distinct cultural and historical heritage and who disapprove of their ascribed latter-day Arabness, are nevertheless anointed as Arabs. If they do not embrace their Arabness, they are dismissed as traitors or isolationists.

Robert Kaplan expressed this negative slant against Middle Eastern minorities in the conclusion of his remarkable book The Arabists, which examined the history of State Department experts on the Arab world. These experts, the so-called Arabists, he argued, quoting a U.S. Foreign Service official, "[h]ave not liked Middle Eastern minorities. Arabists have been guilty in the past of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as ‘Arabism.' I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as ‘fascists.'"[10] Lebanese commentator Michael Young adds, "What pro-Arab Americans couldn't stomach was that the [Middle East's] Christians were often estranged from […the Muslims] and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered.[11]

The Middlebury Program

Arabic language proficiency is necessary not only for scholars seeking to conduct original archival research and more contemporary sociological studies but also for policy practitioners and security specialists who face increased deployment and interaction in Arabic-speaking countries. Recognizing Arabic language deficiency among U.S. government personnel, on January 5, 2006, President George W. Bush launched the National Foreign Language Initiative.[12] This initiative built upon the so-called Title VI programs, established by a 1988 amendment of the 1965 Higher Education Act. While Title VI language study programs provide universities with US$92 million per year to promote language instruction—not only in Arabic, but also in Russian, Chinese, and a number of other languages[13]—many Title VI programs have failed to provide proficiency and train those pursuing a government or military career. [14]

As many Title VI programs failed to produce proficient Arabic speakers, the Middlebury College Summer Arabic program appeared to have a magic formula. Every summer, it draws approximately 100 students, diplomats, professionals, and academics from across the United States, the Middle East, and Europe to rural Vermont to undertake a nine-week intensive full-immersion course. "No English Spoken Here" is its basic principle. Students sign a pledge in which they vow not to speak, or expose themselves, to any language besides Arabic for the duration of their stay at Middlebury on the penalty of expulsion. Classes, which consist of five contact hours five days a week, are conducted strictly in modern standard Arabic. Modern standard Arabic is the sole medium of communication on weekends, at study and meal times, and during outings, cocurricular, extracurricular, and even private activities. What initially appears to be a daunting and discouraging enterprise to most students fast becomes second-nature.

But, unlike Middlebury's French, Spanish, and other language programs, its Arabic course goes beyond language instruction and subtly works to inculcate an Arab nationalist ideology. This takes two tacks: first, the school infuses its academic program with Arab nationalist content. Second, it constructs an atmosphere that replicates Arab nationalist hostility toward minorities and the United States.

When I worked as an instructor at Middlebury in 2004, students arrived at Hepburn Hall, their home for the nine-week program, and were greeted not only by Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome) posters but also colorful and smartly outlined maps of the Middle East adorning the hallway bulletin boards. In these, Israel is absent, replaced by Palestine stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. The border between Syria and Lebanon was labeled a temporary frontier, a designation consistent with the refusal of Arab nationalists in Syria to recognize Lebanon as a separate entity.[15]

The Persian Gulf had morphed into Al-Khalij al-‘Arabi, the Arab Gulf. The term is anything but innocuous. While Arab nationalists first sought to rename the Persian Gulf after Arabs in the 1960s, the change in terminology is unscholarly and unrecognized. Arabs and Arabic maps referred to the Persian Gulf by Al-Khaleej al-Farsi for centuries, not bothered by the term Persian. In 1917, the U.S. State Department's Board of Geographical Names designated the Persian Gulf as the sole official name. The United Nations followed suit in 1975 and 1984.[16] Middlebury's endorsement of the Arab nationalist discourse is far from innocuous, especially after Saddam Hussein adopted the region's Arab identity as a justification for invading Iran.

The Middlebury Arabic language school also exerted subtle religious pressure upon its participants. During the first week, a posted handbill announced the formation of a Muslim prayer group. It encouraged interested parties to contact the faculty members coordinating the group's activities and invited them to join in weekly Friday prayer (jum‘a) rituals. Soon after, another flyer announced the formation of a Christian Sunday prayer group. Both congregations were sponsored by the Arabic School administration.

I queried Ken Habib, assistant director of the Arabic program, about whether there would be a Shabbat group for the school's many Jewish students. He replied that while the Middlebury Summer Arabic School had never had such a group in years past and it was not a school tradition, he would raise the issue with Mahmoud Abdalla, the program's director. Abdalla said he did not object to the formation of a Shabbat group but insisted that interested students petition him. I passed word to the Jewish students, but they said they preferred not to ask the director. Because of the maps promoting Israel's elimination, they did not want to advertise their Jewishness. They instead formed an unofficial group.

Only after the conclusion of the program, after all exams were graded, did one Israeli student complain about the maps to Abdalla. The director said he was unaware of the problem, and the maps promptly came down. Nevertheless, the incident showed how with subtle provocations and discrimination, the Middlebury Arabic program brought the dhimmi (second-class citizen) experience to Vermont.

The narrow world-view espoused by Middlebury's Arabic language school manifested itself in other ways. The Arabic school was alone among Middlebury programs to ignore Fourth of July festivities. Why does attaining proficiency in Arabic mean disdain for American culture?

Visiting faculty from the Middle East treated with noticeable coolness older students sporting closely cropped hair, courteous manners, and discipline suggesting membership in the U.S. armed forces. Students eager to curry favor with Arabist professors would contribute their own suspicions, snide remarks, and cynicism. As if beholden to the Arabist atmosphere, most students and faculty avoided contact altogether with those dubbed hukuma (government) or jaysh (army). While it was an Arabic school policy not to allow faculty and students to bunch up in permanent cliques and faculty had an obligation to engage those who remained aloof, these "suspect" students were, like the Jewish students and self-effacing dhimmi faculty, forced to huddle together during mealtimes and breaks.

Another example of the Arabic school's restricted definition of Middle Eastern culture was its ban on alcoholic beverages during school events and student parties. While Abdalla explained the ban to be "Middlebury College policy," beer and wine flowed as freely during cookouts and gatherings organized by the Middlebury German, French, and Spanish schools as such beverages do at parties in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Bahrain.

The prohibition on alcohol is a matter of Islamic religious practice and personal interpretation, not accepted practice across the Arab world. Arabism and Islam should not be conflated. They are not the same thing. Had Abdalla wanted to avoid insulting observant Muslim faculty members, he should have said so openly.

Likewise, Middlebury instructed the Arabic school dining services to conform to the halal dietary restrictions of Islam. This implied all Arabic speakers to be Muslim and all Muslims to be observant. But less than 20 percent of the Arabic school community was Muslim. No such accommodations were made for the Jewish students who kept kosher, even though their numbers exceeded those of the Muslims. Some students who wanted to uphold their dietary restrictions made private arrangements for meals to be delivered through a service unaffiliated with Middlebury. The few students who sought to observe halal standards could have made similar accommodations.

Indoctrinating Arabism

Aside from atmospherics, the Middlebury program reinforces the Arab nationalist view of a monocultural "Arab world extending from the [Persian] Gulf to the [Atlantic] Ocean" in more substantive ways.

A case in point is the Wednesday lecture series. In its choice of both lecture topics and lecturers, Middlebury encouraged disdain for minorities. Topics ranged from the history of Turkish baths in Damascus to the image of Arabs in Hollywood. Permeating the lectures was a wholesale condemnation of Orientalists and non-Arabs. No visiting lecturer portrayed Arabs or Muslims as masters of their own destiny. Not once was the notion entertained that Arabs and Muslims could be oppressors and victimizers as well as victims. Indeed, both the lectures—and a weekly Arabic movie series billed as part of the program's curriculum—took pains to depict Arabs and Muslims as powerless and abused victims of Western imperialism, Zionist rapacity, modern-day Crusaderism, and a medley of foreign interventions and conspiracies. From the Orientalist bent of an insidious Hollywood, to the wickedness of the U.S. war on terrorism, to the vilification of Middle Eastern minorities as imperialist agents and Western moles bent on the destruction of the Arabs and their culture, these lectures and films went to great lengths to malign outsiders and dismiss dissent as product of local quislings.

One talk, for example, touted as a scholarly discussion of the "Dilemma of Identity in Lebanon" degenerated into a festival of scorn at Lebanon, the Lebanese, and their "artificial" culture of upstarts. In his lecture, Mahmoud al-Batal, the director of the Institute for Comparative and International Study at Emory University, declared that Lebanon had no specific culture beyond its Arabic accretions. Most students left the lecture with tainted conclusions and caricatures of the Lebanese as culturally bankrupt French wannabes who denied their Arabness, preferred French to Arabic, but nevertheless remained Arabs.

Chris Stone, an associate professor of Arabic at Hunter College, delivered another lecture in which he addressed popular song in Lebanon. During the course of his lecture, he poured scorn on Lebanese folklore and the similes—and imageries of cedars, snows, harvests, and mountains—used in the music of Fayrouz, Lebanon's foremost diva. His subtle prescription was that Lebanon should conform more to the landscape of its Arab surroundings. Fayrouz should instead have sung of the beauty of her neighboring desert-like scenery—not an ostensibly alien Alpine topography, evidently pilfered by Lebanon's Christians. According to Stone, the music and metaphors of Fayrouz were seditious not only to Arab unity and uniformity, but also to Lebanon because they reflected the imagery and assumptions that led to the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.

Within the classroom, the Middlebury program inculcated Arab nationalism in other ways. In one exam, I had used the Arab nationalist slogan, "from the Gulf to the Ocean." To prompt my students to use the Arabic verb yamtadd (to extend/stretch), I had written a fill-in-the-blank sentence where the use of that verb would have been suitable. The sentence, incorporating that familiar Arab nationalist catch phrase, which I qualified with "according to Arab nationalists," read as follows: "According to Arab nationalists, the Arab world ______________ from the Gulf to the Ocean."

The phrase "according to Arab nationalists" caused controversy. Abdalla kept a close watch on how exams were written. He insisted on removal of the "irrelevant" clause on the grounds that "according to Arab nationalists" was "unnecessary verbosity irrelevant to the evaluation of the students' knowledge or the general meaning of the sentence" and "confusing for the student." But, by truncating the sentence, the Arabic school conveyed a distorted version of reality and suggested a partisan slogan to be unquestioned fact. Millions of Assyrians, Berbers, Copts, Chaldaeans, Jews, Kurds, and Maronites both in the Middle East and in the diaspora object to unqualified Arab nationalism.

Ironically, even as Middlebury indoctrinates a new generation of professors, government officials, journalists, and aid organization workers into a failed ideology of the past, many Arabs are charting a different course. Since 2002, Cairo University political scientist Nader Ferghany and a small team of experts have challenged in the Arab Human Development Report the outmoded discourse of Arab nationalism—and the social, political, and cultural failures it engendered.[17] It is all the more ironic, then, that as Arab intellectuals challenge the outlook that so long constrained Arab development, a volatile mix of Arab nationalism and dependency theory endures in Middlebury's classrooms.


Experts in the Arab world and cultures of the Middle East need not embrace the current state system in the Middle East nor must they accept standard geographical appellations. They need not like the fact of Israel's existence nor need they emphasize the cultures and narratives of the Middle East's non-Arab minorities.

But, by the same token, a leading Arabic language program should not tie language instruction to a political philosophy. Arabic language instruction should promote linguistic ability, not force area experts to march in ideological lock step. Rather than impose an Arab nationalist discourse, programs like Middlebury's should enable students and practitioners to realize that not all Middle Easterners are Arabs, that not all users of the Arabic language are Arabs, and that Arabs did not emerge out of nothing from an uninhabited Middle East.

Arab nationalists and Arabists hold the countries of the modern Middle East as illegitimate entities contrived by Western colonizers against the wishes and aspirations of indigenous Arabs, but that is simply untrue. While Western powers chose allies and interfered in local disputes, the shape of the Middle East was no less the result of local actors making their own decisions and pursuing their own local interests.[18] While Arab nationalists may dream of a united Arab super state, the fact remains that this was never a coherent political or geographical reality. Nor can its absence be blamed on outsiders.

Regrettably, the Summer Arabic School at Middlebury College is not alone in shirking its obligation to academic objectivity and a dispassionate approach to Arabic studies and Middle East history. Many area specialists continue to treat Middle Eastern minority narratives with derision. From the patrician colleges of Boston to the maverick academies of the West Coast, faculty lounges and arcane associations––all functioning outside of the "Arab world"––cling to the carcass of Arab nationalism.[19]

Foreign language experts like those at Middlebury are entitled to their own opinions and convictions and should be free to advance them openly. What is not appropriate, however, is for academics to intellectualize their ideological sympathies and disseminate them through the classroom in the guise of scholarship. By teaching the Middle East as Arab nationalist proponents wish it to be rather than as it is, Middlebury and its fellow travelers ill-prepare their charges and marginalize themselves.

Franck Salameh is adjunct assistant professor at Boston College, where he teaches Arabic studies in the department of Slavic and Eastern Languages.

[1] Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), p. 31.
[2] Martin Kramer, "Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity," Daedalus, Summer 1993, pp. 171-206.
[3] William Safran, "Nationalism," in Joshua A. Fishman, ed., Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 77-8.
[4] See, for instance, The Prophet (1923), Jesus, the Son of Man (1928), and The Garden of the Prophet (1931).
[5] Kamal Suleiman Salibi, Maronite Historians of Mediaeval Lebanon (Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1959), pp. 31-2.
[6] See, for example, Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2001), pp. 48, 57-8.
[7] Samar Farah, "So You'd Like to Learn Arabic. Got a Decade or So?" The Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 17, 2002.
[8] Abu Khaldun Sati' al-Husri, Abhaath Mukhtara fii al-Qawmiyya al-Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Diraasaat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, 1985), p. 80.
[9] Michel Aflaq, Fii Sabiil al-Baath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali'a, 1963) pp. 161-2; see also Kanaan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 206.
[10] Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists; The Romance of an American Elite (New York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 306.
[11] Michael Young, "Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans Abroad," Reason Online, Dec. 2003.
[12] American Forces Information Service, Jan. 5, 2006.
[13] "1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965," PL 105-244, Jan. 27, 1988. See also, "Detailed Information on the International Education Domestic Programs Assessment," White House Office of Management and Budget, Jan. 17, 2006.
[14] Kenneth D. Whitehead, "Learning the Language," National Review, Jan. 14, 2004.
[15] Michael Rubin, "Lebanon's Tenuous Transformation," Aspenia (Rome), Oct. 2005.
[16] Ali Mostashari, "Factsheet on the Legal and Historical Usage of the ‘Persian Gulf,'" Iranian Studies Group at MIT, 2004.
[17] "How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.
[18] Efraim Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp. 2-3.
[19] Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996), pp. 3-4.