Talking to Dina Rubey ‘09 is like talking to a textbook on recent Middle Eastern history, but that wasn't always the case. "I grew up in New York City, and I probably couldn't have told you where the Middle East was on the map," she said. "But then 9/11 happened. It's so easy to be totally oblivious about what's going on around you, let alone across the ocean." As a freshman, Rubey took Introduction to Peace and Conflict Studies, which included an online-facilitated discussion between Arab students and American students called "Soliya"; since then she says she hasn't looked back.
Rubey has focused on the Middle East as a political science major, complemented by her own version of an independent major in Mideast Studies—a concentration in comparative politics, minors in Peace and Conflict Studies and developmental economics, and a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo. "I thought I would study abroad in Paris, major in English," she said. "I never would have expected I would go to Cairo."
There is currently no Middle East Studies major at Bryn Mawr, nor is there a minor, concentration, nor a department, but there is an initiative. The Middle East Studies Initiative was so named five years ago, according to Professor Deborah Harrold, who teaches many of the Initiative's classes, and its goal is to bring more classes on the Middle East into the Bryn Mawr curriculum. But as more students enter the College with an interest in the region, their lives shaped by 9/11 and the events that followed it, the current Middle East Studies Initiative may be forced to assume greater clout than its name implies.
"Bryn Mawr has been hiring more professors who teach about the region, offering more classes, and especially considering our new president is a Qur'an scholar, it seems like a good time to do it," said Jesse Solomon '11, referring to her plans to design an independent major in Mideast Studies. Unlike many students who study the Middle East in the context of a specific discipline, Solomon feels that she will learn the most about the region by getting as much background as possible—background that is inherently interdisciplinary.
"I'm not sure exactly what the major will look like, except that I like being able to get so many perspectives," she said. When she entered in the fall Solomon assumed she would major in political science, but as she explored the curriculum within the Tri-Co and Penn, she started to consider how her interest in the Middle East could turn into a major. "Between the Tri-Co and Penn, there will be enough classes for me to take," said Solomon. "But the only problem is that they tend to be very similar."
For Rubey, the requirements of a political science major have allowed her to view her specialty in the context of a larger and highly connected world. "Right now I'm taking a modern Latin American history class, and it's infuriating how similar it is," she said. This summer she will travel to Nicaragua for an internship, where she sees blatant parallels to current events in the Middle East. "Twenty years ago, the whole world was falling down in Nicaragua, with America playing the same role—with some of the same last names as the people who are making the same mistakes now."
To avoid mistakes when it comes to the Middle East, be they in diplomacy or literature, one of the first steps to understanding the region is understanding Arabic; currently at Bryn Mawr, however, many feel there is a disconnect between the two. Though as of last year Bryn Mawr and Haverford students have finally been able to take Arabic classes on their own campuses, the Arabic program is still based out of the modern languages department at Swarthmore and students have experienced the problems inherent in participating in a program from forty minutes away.
Solomon says that although her Arabic professors and drill instructors are brilliant, the program at Swarthmore restricts how they are able to teach. "We learn from a very old book that relies on wrote memorization," she said. "Swat's program drills in this idea, and it's hard for professors who want to bring culture into it." Solomon thinks Bryn Mawr could do much better by overseeing its own professors and in general, running its own program.
"This is the first year of the tri-co program, and it's still going through growing pains," said Professor Kim, who teaches Arabic at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. He sees that many of his students want to supplement their language study with other courses about the region, and he hopes that the Arabic program can be more integrated with the Middle East Studies Initiative in the future. "If there is a concentration in Middle East Studies there would be better integration between language and the content classes," he said. "Right now, in many ways, the Arabic program is a separate entity."
He says that problems associated with teaching Arabic are not just unique unto the Tri-Co, however. "Recently there has been a lot of student interest in the country, but there are just not enough qualified teachers out there," he said, explaining why Bryn Mawr and Haverford have had to piggyback onto Swarthmore's program.
There is also a challenge that has to do with the language itself; in the Tri-Co and wherever Arabic is taught, one learns Modern Standard Arabic, the strict, formal dialect that is rarely actually spoken in the Middle East. Though newscasters broadcast in Modern Standard, only colloquial dialects are heard in the streets; in other words, though Professor Kim thinks language training is essential to non-western studies, studying Arabic at Bryn Mawr and then in the Middle East is very different from studying French in Paris.
Rubey admits that taking Arabic in the U.S. would not have necessarily helped her get by on a day to day basis in Egypt. "It's very rare that people use Modern Standard in their daily life. It's like if someone addressed you using Shakespearean English." Regardless, she wishes that she had had some background before she left. "I wish I had taken Arabic before, and I wish that Bryn Mawr and Haverford made it easier for people to take Arabic."
Mawrtyrs interested in Middle East Studies currently have to be creative with their curriculum, but from a westward angle, creativity is often essential when talking about the Middle East. "If you want to know what's going on, it doesn't mean just reading the New York Times," said Rubey. "It means reading Al-Jazeera, and it means actually talking to people from there."
Whether motivated by current events or simple curiosity, student interest is forcing the Arabic program at Bryn Mawr to find its roots in the bi-college community. "So many people ask me how Arabic is and say they want to take it next year," said Solomon. At the same time, the Middle East Studies Initiative will have to turn the mirror on itself to see how it can be a home for those who want to know exactly "what's going on over there."