The Tufts IR Program sat down with Professor Kamran Rastegar, head of the new Arabic Department at Tufts, to discuss the new Arabic major, study abroad, and the evolving situation in the Middle East.
I have a few specific questions, but first why don't you tell us about your academic interests?
I am an assistant professor of Arabic, and my interests are mostly in contemporary literature, visual studies, and cinema. Although my appointment is in Arabic, I study both Arabic and Persian, so I do research on Persian literature and Iranian cinema as well.
What brought you to Tufts? How long have you been here?
This is my second year at Tufts; I arrived last September. I had been teaching for a few years at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, after I had completed my Ph.D. at Columbia. Although I found the experience of living in the UK very interesting, I wasn't really sure that I wanted to stay there for the rest of my life. So I was interested in finding a good position in the U.S. Tufts is an excellent university for my interests, and most of my family is on the East Coast, so there were a lot of different reasons why I came here.
Congratulations on establishing the new Arabic major. Can you give us some background on the new major and your vision for its future?
Although we have had an Arabic minor for some time, previously there was no Arabic major, only the Middle Eastern Studies major. There is a lot of complementarity between the two majors. Our interest with the Arabic major is to offer a degree that allows students to focus more on the language side. A lot of students are keen to gain a very strong grounding in the language. Middle Eastern Studies is a broader interdisciplinary degree, so the new major gives interested students a chance to focus on studying Arabic, with a stronger basis in the Arabic literary and other traditions, and really engaging deeply with the Arab world.
What advice would you give students who are considering the Arabic major?
Sign up for Arabic 1! However, I usually counsel students who are interested in the major to wait until the end of the second year to make certain that they are doing well in the language. For different reasons some students are better at the historical and cultural courses than at learning the language, and at the end of the day they may do better with a Middle Eastern Studies degree.
What has been the response of students and faculty members about the formulation of this new major?
It's been quite positive. The university administration and colleagues across the university were very supportive when we first proposed the major. To adopt a new major does require a commitment, not only in an economic sense, but also in terms of a broader vision. We received very useful and constructive feedback from colleagues and from the deans when we sent out our proposals for the major. Since the major has been instituted, the student response has been very strong. We actually have had five or six seniors just this year who have added the major as one half of a double-major. That seems to indicate that we're going to have a healthy number of students majoring in the subject in upcoming years – I hope this will be the case.
You recently traveled to Cairo to explore setting up a Tufts study abroad option there. What were your impressions of the city at that time? Could you sense that protests of this magnitude were on the horizon?
I was in Cairo with Dean Jim Glaser, Associate Dean Sheila Bayne and Professor Greg Crane. It was a coincidence that we were there just a few days before the outbreak of the recent protests. While we were there the Tunisian revolution was underway, so there was talk of those events. I think we speculated about whether the Tunisian events would have an effect across the Middle East, but no one had any idea of much of an effect they would have on Egypt. I lived in Egypt in 2001-2002 for a year, and I follow the political developments there pretty carefully. I'm certainly not alone in having sensed that the situation under Mubarak was untenable, but I never could have imagined that it would turn out the way it has. I think I would have sooner conceived of ten other scenarios before imagining the events that we've seen. So in that sense I was completely surprised.
Why do you think Cairo might be a good choice for Tufts undergraduates looking to study abroad? Are you having second thoughts about establishing a program there?
We're going to monitor the situation, but I think we all hope that the outcome will be very positive for our study-abroad plans. Before we went, I think I was the one in our group who was most apprehensive about the idea of a Tufts program in Cairo. There has been an observation about students who study abroad in Egypt as opposed to other parts of the Arab world, which is that they don't tend to do as well in their language studies. Cairo is a fairly cosmopolitan city, and there are a lot of foreign students there who are able to mingle among themselves. Also we are interested in the American University in Cairo, which is an Anglophone university that brings a lot of great things to the table, but for language teaching may not be the ideal situation. So I went there feeling a little skeptical, but now everything that is happening has made me much more enthusiastic. Of course we have to see where it goes, but I think possibilities are opening up in a way that they couldn't before, and Egypt may play an important role in shaping the future of the region.
What do you think is the most important element of a student's study abroad experience?
Language isn't always what pushes students to go abroad. With intensive summer programs and other programs, language training here can be quite good, and there are certain problems with studying abroad that are out of your control. So if you're just intending to get to a certain level of language acquisition in an academic sense, you might not even want to go abroad. However, study-abroad is invaluable for other reasons: my own predilection is really towards an experience that allows students to see how another society functions, to really come to terms with the fact that out there in the world there are other ways to see things, other ways that things may be done. And that gives students a great opportunity to think about their own societies, as well.
Where have you lived abroad or in other parts of the US?
I grew up in Iran, and I have a lot of family on the East Coast. In the U.S. in the place I've lived the longest is New York City. Also, as I mentioned earlier, I lived in the UK for four years. And finally, I've spent a fair amount of time in Egypt, Lebanon, and in Israel and Palestine, mostly for my research and studies.
What are some of your hobbies and interests outside the classroom?
Mainly I play music. I play an instrument called the oud, which is an instrument common from North Africa all the way to Central Asia. It's a popular instrument in Arabic and Turkish music, and a little less so in Persian music. So music is my main extra-curricular interest. I'm also an avid cyclist – that is, when the weather allows, of course.