A well-attended teach-in, a student paper series and a packed panel about Israel-Palestine are just three of many events put on by the newly expanded Middle East Studies Initiative. The initiative has doubled in size since last year's appointment of Beshara Doumani as the program's new director.
"(The initiative) has grown because we have wonderful faculty and students," said Doumani, who is also a professor of history.
Through the numbers
There were only 14 to 16 Middle East Studies concentrators upon Doumani's arrival at Brown in July 2012, but by the end of the last academic year that number had grown to 38 students, he said. This semester 28 students are concentrating in Middle East Studies.
Though 80 percent of Middle East Studies concentrators also concentrated in another subject last year, now at least 60 percent concentrate in Middle East Studies alone, Doumani said, adding that the difference could be attributed to the initiative's growing strength.
The program has also sponsored more events than it did previously. Last year, the initiative sponsored more than 70 events and activities, Doumani said. This year, it will facilitate eight conferences and numerous events, including a film series, a distinguished visiting lecturer series, a student paper series and various luncheon seminars, he added.
"Brown University is a great place to build something new," Doumani said.
Middle East Studies grew under the provision of resources allotted by the dean of the faculty and the provost, he added.
Along with new funding, new hires such as Associate Director Anthony Watson and Program Manager Barbara Oberkoetter have been central to the initiative's growth. Doumani headed a search for a new assistant professor of history, which led to Faiz Ahmed joining the program. Ahmed is an "expert" in general Middle East history, with a special focus on Afghanistan, and speaks several languages, including Arabic, Urdu, Turkish and Farsi, Doumani said.
Doumani also had the opportunity to add two "fantastic" postdoctoral fellows who are "very popular with their students," he said. One is Sa'ed Atshan, who has a PhD from Harvard and curates the initiative's film series, Doumani said.
Next semester, Iranian pop singer Mohsen Namjoo, a political advocate who puts his own twist on traditional Persian music, will be a visiting professor, said Nasim Azizgolshani '14. Doumani said the singer will be here for a year and will teach two courses and give three concerts. Namjoo is one of Doumani's favorite artists and has a large following among young people in Iran, he said.
Students and faculty members expressed different opinions on whether the political climate of the Middle East has contributed to the initiative's increased popularity.
"If you care about peace and you care about prosperity in the world, you've got to really understand the Middle East," said Richard Locke, director of the Watson Institute for International Studies. He added that upheavals in the region have piqued student interest, and Azizgolshani called the Middle East the "new hot, sexy topic."
But Doumani disagreed.
"The conflicts in the Middle East that have dominated headlines … and that concern many Americans — whether it's the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or the Gulf Wars or Iran — … they've been going on for a long time," he said, indicating that these events are not responsible for the recent growth of Middle East Studies. Instead, Doumani cited student and faculty commitment as the reason for the initiative's success.
Locke attributed much of the program's growth to Doumani, whom he called an "extremely talented scholar" and a "gifted and creative administrator."
Azizgolshani, a Middle East Studies concentrator, described the program as "Beshara's baby." Azizgolshani founded the Middle East Studies student departmental undergraduate group and is now a student organizer. The DUG had its second event last week, she said.
When she arrived at Brown, the Middle East Studies program was "really small" and "lackluster," Azizgolshani said.
"Suddenly by junior year … it was an explosion of … events and classes and professors and all these new opportunities," she said, adding that it became "exactly what (she) wanted." Azizgolshani added that she likes the enthusiasm of those involved with the initiative and concentrators' high levels of extracurricular involvement.
Since coming to Brown, Azizgolshani said she has seen an increase in the variety of Middle East Studies classes offered. For example, classes on Israel-Palestine were previously very "limited" and only offered by the Department of Judaic Studies, but now they show a more "diverse perspective," Azizgolshani said. There were also no classes about Iran, but now there are professors like Shiva Balaghi, visiting professor of Iranian Studies, whose classes fill up every semester, she said.
Reva Dhingra '14, who serves as a student assistant for the Middle East Studies Initiative, said the program is much more "serious" and "organized" than it was her freshman year. The program's events are also more "visible" and "exciting," she said. For students, the program provides "a lot more mentorship and a lot more guidance," Dhingra added.
Azizgolshani said of Middle East Studies and its growth, "This was like my dream come true."