The sixth floor of Kent Hall, the present home of the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, is a warm corridor, a Columbian Babel. Old-school classics-obsessed Indologists and Arabists pore over 20-volume printings of the Mahabharata, postmodern theorists apply lit crit to Persian epics, and neophyte undergrads wait to enter offices festooned with trinkets and tomes. In the hall, yellowed maps of the Holy Land and loving portraits of the late Edward Said—whose influential theory of Orientalism extends far beyond the MEALAC department—hang alongside postings for State Department fellowships.
MEALAC is booming: By next semester, it will increase the number of sections for its major languages (Arabic, Hindi, and Persian), add African studies, and appoint several significant chairs--and, according to faculty, still not meet student demand. And due to that growth spurt, the department will forfeit its haven in Kent. Soon—perhaps this summer or fall—as sub-Saharan African studies joins the ranks of the Middle Eastern and Asian languages and cultures, the whole operation will move into more spacious quarters in Knox Hall on Claremont Avenue. Scores of beginning Arabic students will make the trek each day to learn their alif, baa, taas, and dozens more to train in Hindi, Urdu, Persian, Hebrew, Bengali, Turkish, Tamil—and perhaps, soon enough, Swahili or Xhosa.
With growth, however, comes the burden of choosing a future for the department and field, buffeted as it is by the winds of both pragmatism and postmodernism, of social science and humanities. Each semester, dozens of students come to MEALAC to learn "skills" that will allow them to engage in the business and governments of America's latest interest overseas. Dozens more come—and often stay—with the hope of reading Naguib Mahfouz, Premchand, or Sadegh Hedayat in their original tongues. Students who want to work for the C.I.A. and students who find the idea repugnant coexist in the same creaky classrooms. But their different motivations have deepened a long-simmering existential crisis within the department.
SIGN OF THE TIMES
MEALAC is a comparatively small department. It currently has only 25 full-time, exclusive professors (the History Department, for example, boasts 60) and 65 majors. It bills its degree as an "interdisciplinary major." In other words, MEALAC relies heavily on comparative literature, anthropology, history, and other departments to supplement its offerings. Currently, five lecturers are responsible for instructing approximately 130 Arabic students, two lecturers oversee more than 60 students in Hindi-Urdu, and more than 170 students are enrolled across other MEALAC-affiliated languages, not to mention the department's 65 majors and nearly 50 graduate students. Professor George Saliba's survey course on Islamic civilization is among the most popular in the College—drawing upwards of 200 students each semester—and others like Topics in the Middle East and India have become popular ways of fulfilling the Major Cultures requirement.
Columbia students are not unique in their growing fascination with the Middle East and Islam. The Modern Language Association (MLA) reported in November 2007 that Arabic enrollment in American universities increased by 126.5 percent between 2002 and 2006. Other major languages saw a comparatively more modest increase—enrollment in Chinese, for instance, grew by 51 percent, the MLA reported.
But MEALAC's most significant boom may be on the horizon: As of next fall, there will be 15 beginning and intermediate Arabic sections, including heritage and colloquial sections, in addition to, according to director of undergraduate studies and Assistant Professor in South Asian Literature Allison Busch, new appointments in Hindi-Urdu, Persian, Indo-Islamic civilization, and Islamic law.
"It's driven by student demand," said Busch. "When we show the administration we have overflowing classes or we're turning students away, we can tell our chairman we need to start a new section of 'X', and they see it's important."
And at least one other professor cited Vice President of Arts and Sciences Nicholas Dirks—a scholar of South India who studied Asian and African culture as an undergraduate at Wesleyan—as an ally of the department.
Some faculty, such as Professor of Islamic Science George Saliba, see the rapid growth of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies as reflecting greater diversity among students and the institution of requirements such as Major Cultures.
"What you are witnessing now is the harvest of about 15 years," he said. "As of '92, '93 and beyond, we began to phase in a lot of culture courses, of content courses... That was the turning point. There is no student on campus who does not know what we do here at MEALAC. The networking is exactly like water breaking through a dike."
There is a significant population of students who, in their words, see Middle Eastern languages as opening "opportunities" and "doors"—vague terms that imply career advancement, travel, and excitement. And the growing sense of the "usefulness" of Arabic, Persian, and Hindi-Urdu, in particular, seems to correspond directly to the re-emergence of government funding to study "other" cultures with whom we are currently at war—or of which we are simply wary.
The last great era of language funding from the State Department during the Cold War initiated the massive programs of Area Studies—regionally-based institutes and departments—that are primarily credited with producing a bloc of Slavic experts who went on to populate political science departments (at Columbia, Robert Jervis and Jack Snyder) and government (Madeleine Albright).
As an intellectual endeavor, Area Studies has long been linked to the Eurocentric aim of studying non-Western cultures for political gain.
"Area Studies is a glorified word for mediocrity all over...but, there was funding," Saliba said.
When Edward Said put his thoughts on studying "the East" to paper in Orientalism, he referred to Area Studies as the imperialist knowledge-gathering endeavor of the modern era.
"Oriental studies was to be thought of not so much as scholarly activities but as instruments of national policy towards the newly independent, and possibly intractable, nations of the postcolonial world," Said wrote in the final chapter of Orientalism in 1978. "Armed with a refocused awareness of his importance to the Atlantic commonwealth, the Orientalist was to be the guide of policymakers, of businessmen, of a fresh generation of scholars."
While Columbia still maintains an Area Studies section in the library system—in the basement of the Lehman Library of Social Sciences—its relevance has long been waning, and it faces a dim future, according to Africa Area Studies librarian Yuusuf Caruso. Undergraduate students who are interested in becoming regional experts study within East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALAC), MEALAC, Latin American Studies, and Slavic Studies. On the surface, these may appear to be transmuted versions of their previous Area Studies forms, but they all have the intellectual integrity missing from that field of scholarship.
Professor of Modern Indic Languages Frances Pritchett—whose work with Urdu literature is one of the primary reasons the study of South Asia has long remained a part of MEALAC—traced the development of culturally-focused programs like MEALAC from a natural outgrowth of Area Studies.
"Area Studies departments are irreducibly sustained by the language. You've got a nucleus, then there's a sense that something will grow up above that, like cultural studies... beyond that, you have to have something," she explained.
Yet, for all the increased emphasis on culture, the old paradigm of regional studies as a state-supported endeavor has not been abandoned.
"Arabic has become a commodity, as has knowledge of the region," said Marya Hannun, CC'09, a MEALAC major currently studying abroad in Jordan. Hannun is Lebanese and came to the University after reading the works of Rashid Khalidi. "I always feel at Columbia that I have to be an econ major or get a competitive internship with Goldman Sachs just because everyone around me feels that way," she said. "Here the equivalent of that for people studying Arabic is an internship with the State Department."
On examinations for the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Foreign Service, knowledge of Arabic or other "Critical Languages" results in the direct application of a bonus to the applicant's evaluation.
"Learning a Critical Needs Language is actually 100 percent the best thing you can do," said one recent Columbia College graduate who just matriculated to the Foreign Service. "If you pass the oral exam and the language test you're in almost without exception."
Other immediate benefits to studying languages offered through MEALAC include an array of fellowships, grants, and State Department-funded educational trips ostensibly for the purpose of field practice of a newly acquired tongue. The Critical Languages Scholarship Program, for instance—launched in just 2006 after President Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative—provides all-expenses-paid summer trips for students of Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Persian, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Punjabi, and Turkish to their respective countries of origin. According to Busch, most of Columbia's students who applied last year received Critical Languages funding, and this year, applications and competitiveness have increased dramatically.
"I don't have a problem with getting money from the State Department. After all, that's my tax money too," said Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature. "I'd rather have it spent on training a student in Arabic and learning culture than [spent] on bombs, guns, bullets, tanks."
Ari Sacks, CC/JTS '05, said he majored in MEALAC to get a better understanding of what was going on in the region and how it affected the world, a perspective that "greatly impacted" him and his understanding of the historical significance of current affairs.
He commented that he began to notice a correlation between news events and enrollment early in his college career. "My first semester of school was 9/11. I definitely got the feeling that there were a lot more people interested in [the department] because the material that you learn in MEALAC has a great role in the world today—it relates to things like al Qaeda, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the oil crisis."
For instance, Noah Schwartz, CC'08, came to Columbia with the intention of declaring a major in MEALAC, and studied Arabic for five semesters before opting out of the advanced track. He had attended a Jewish day school, "had a fair amount of Zionist indoctrination," and became interested in foreign policy and security issues during an 8th grade trip to Israel. He "totally fell in love with the place" and the region. "I thought I was going to move to Israel, and fix everything there, and save the world," he said.
But since then, he has become "burnt out" on the Middle East, and disillusioned with the MEALAC department's lack of courses on "history or traditional social science." Schwartz is now an economics major and will soon begin studying Spanish—he wanted something more practical.
Then again, not all of the useful applications of MEALAC languages relate to foreign policy or counter-terrorism.
Busch, for instance, said she hopes to introduce a new "flagship program" of Hindi-Urdu courses that would outfit students in the School of International and Public Affairs with skills needed for development work in India.
"They are enamored by the cultural literacy they gain, but really want to go to a village and help women set up smokeless stoves to save their health," she said. "I am a literature professor, so I value that, but I recognize that students have different needs."
And yet Busch expressed concern that students may be trading intimate knowledge of language for more practical tools. She articulated the central dilemma of the MEALAC debate: "How can we outfit our students without compromising our humanistic values?"
Busch's query resounds through the rest of the department. Even as students are drawn to Arabic because of the Iraq War, or Critical Languages, or a keen understanding of globalization, Columbia's MEALAC remains uniquely resistant—even opposed—to the legacy of Area Studies. It receives no funding from the government, has a history of a strict humanities-based, critical-theory center—with roots in the comparative literature department—and requires that all majors take two courses steeped in Said and post-colonialism: Topics in the Middle East and India and Theories of Culture.
Many of the department's distinguished faculty speak of MEALAC as a bastion of values that speak truthfully to powerful figures within the University—some even imbue it with a sense of quasi-spiritual destiny. Busch, for instance, mentioned "core MEALAC values." Dabashi spoke warmly, in an office surrounded by shelves containing the complete works of Said and Rushdie, of the early connection MEALAC made to literary criticism and theory, thanks in large part to his work with individuals such as University Professor Gayatri Spivak and Comparative Literature and Society department founding director Andreas Huyssen. Saliba explained that MEALAC had resisted influences that might shift it away from its humanities roots.
"We're lucky. We survived the onslaught of Area Studies rather well because we are configured slightly differently" from other regional departments, he said with satisfaction. "We kept our department in what used to be known as the faculty of philology... We never felt intellectually committed to enhance the little bits at the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA)," he added, referring specifically to the regional institutes housed in that graduate school.
The Middle East Institute, for instance, which was founded in 1954 in the golden age of Area Studies, remains directly connected to sources of government funding, according to Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies in History and MEALAC and Director of the Middle East Institute Director Rashid Khalidi, who noted the institute receives money and distributes grants from the National Resource Centers (NRC) and Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships (FLAS) sponsored by the United States Department of Education.
Meanwhile, the MEALAC department's course offerings reflect a certain ideological bent. In the spring 2008 semester, for instance, courses that were offered included: Freud and Derrida, Reading Orientalism, Postcolonial Theory, and Orientalism and Islam.
In the words of the department's website: "Textual expertise, if deprived of intellectual history, literary knowledge, and social and cultural studies—three additional pillars of MEALAC—is crippled, just as the latter deprived of the former is blind."
"I did feel like most of the people interested in MEALAC were politically inclined," said Lucie Kroening, CC'07, who majored in MEALAC and is currently continuing her Arabic studies at a French school in Damascus. "So I felt like a bit of an outcast, being a literature person." She said that classes on the Arabic short story with Taoufik ben Amor, Coordinator of the Arab Language Program, allowed her to gain a grasp of Middle Eastern culture.
At the very least, many majors and most faculty view MEALAC as an important bridge between the West and non-West, between the Christian and Islamic worlds, between America and its current "enemies."
Laurel Ackerson, a 40-year-old General Studies student who came to MEALAC, which she calls "the center of the universe," from a job as a legal secretary in California, said she wanted definitive answers about the Middle East, information she wasn't getting from the media or other sources. She said after taking MEALAC classes, she realized how "ignorant" she had been of how "human" people from the Middle East truly were.
"I didn't know that I thought that way," she said ruefully. "And when I found out I did, I felt like I was covered in poo. It was like, 'Help, get this off me!' I was in a box my whole life and I didn't realize it."
Ackerson plans to study Arabic in Yemen next year, but, despite being more than $120,000 in debt, she refuses to entertain the notion of working for the government. "It feels to me like I'd be selling the soul of the people I'm studying. Especially because of the tenor of what's going on in the country right now."
She credits MEALAC courses on Islam and Arab society with "opening up a part of the world I felt like I'd never be able to touch."
When the MEALAC department moves from Kent to Knox, it will bring with it several decades of debate, development, and success. It will bring the legacy of Orientalism, of Area Studies, of philology, of Edward Said, of post-modernism, of over a century of controversy along the way.
But unlike other complex departments like History or English—which will surely be endowed and supported until Ivy League students are no longer interested in books—MEALAC operates within a niche, as a microorganism that must continually adapt to survive. Student enrollment dictates funding and hiring power, and the quality of courses and professors encourages more students to choose the department for their academic home-base.
The immediate future may depend on how the department defines its object of study--and if the addition of Africa studies is any indicator, professors will continue to emphasize themes of colonialism and modernity rather than regional specialization.
Professor Mamadou Diouf, hired by Columbia last November to direct the Institute for African Studies reflected on its responsibility in the central debate: "This is Columbia's response to the idea of fitting into a world defined by global flows and interactions"—read: globalization.
Four years ago, MEALAC became infamous because of allegations of anti-Semitism made by the David Project in "Columbia Unbecoming." Five years from now, the department could rival political science or anthropology in its popularity and prominence. But what it will look like and who it will serve when it gets to that point is anybody's guess.