The Middle East is perpetually in the news. Between countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Syria, it's hard to get through a day without hearing at least one mentioned. The United States government always seems to be asking how we can remake these countries in our image, when we should be asking a different question: "How can we understand these countries' points of view?" That's exactly the question that the burgeoning Arabic club Yalla Bina and the developing Arabic Studies program (currently housed in the Classics Department) want to help Connecticut College students answer.
Yalla Bina, which was created in the fall of 2009 by students in the Arabic 101 class, celebrates the cultures of Middle Eastern countries. Through events such as last year's Middle East Week and the dinner to support Syria, members educate the student body and work to dispel stereotypes associated with the region. They also hold fundraisers to support the Syrian American Alliance, and work closely with other student groups on campus, such as Connecticut College Hillel. Susanna Mathews '16, a Government major with a self-designed focus on homeland security, decided to join Yalla Bina because the Middle East is a huge item on the United States' foreign policy agenda. She explained that, "for someone who's never been to the region, [the club is a fantastic way] to learn from people who have [been]."
As an Arabic Studies major doesn't currently exist, many of the students in the club are either Arabic Studies minors or are self-designing an Arabic Language and Culture major. There is a strong interest among students for both the option of an independent Arabic department and a major in the near future.
Both the minor and the self-designed major include two years of language study. The minor requires one additional course in the literature, politics or culture of the Middle East, while the self-designed major requires at least four additional content courses, plus a research component.
Kaitlyn Garbe '16 plans to overlap her Arabic Language and Culture major with her International Relations major to study the Levant, a region that includes the eastern part of the Mediterranean, its islands and the adjoining countries. Vanessa Correia '16, a Biology major, explained, "I fell in love with Arabic and the Middle East first semester of my freshman year, and felt I had to incorporate it into my future, despite my pre-health focus." Correia plans to work with Doctors Without Borders after college.
One of the most appealing aspects of Conn's Arabic Studies program is its summer session in Jordan. Last summer, ten students traveling with Professors Waed Athamneh and Muhammad Massud (both of whom are from the country) spent six weeks studying intensive Arabic at Jordan University of Science and Technology in the city of Irbid, in northern Jordan. The students took classes – conducted entirely in Arabic – in spoken Arabic, reading, grammar, media and writing. They also had the opportunity to travel around the country, visiting Petra, Wadi Rum, the Red Sea and the Dead Sea. Of the experience, Correia said, "I have never learned so much before in my life. It was absolutely incredible, and I'm already planning on returning."
While talking to students in these programs, what struck me most was the enthusiasm and passion each felt for the Arabic program and the experiences it has given them. Eager to share their knowledge and love of the language, both Garbe and Correia tutor first-year Arabic students through the new Academic Resource Center. Through her tutoring, Garbe has loved being able to "create friendships and relationships throughout the entire department." She's been "amaz[ed] how each of [the students] has been able to help [the others] out." She added that, "even after one year, I have made so many valuable friendships." Garbe has also enriched the larger New London community as the coordinator for the Arabic Language Program for the Extended Learning Time program, an initiative in all of New London's public schools. Each school day, she works at Jennings Elementary School with her fellow Arabic students, exposing children in kindergarten through second grade "to regions of the world and language they may have never even heard of before."
With all that has happened in the region in recent years, I don't think there's ever been a better time to build up an Arabic program that exposes both Conn and the larger New London community to the culture of the Middle East, and, to quote Mathews, its "beautiful language."