During fall registration this year, a number of students wishing to take Arabic language courses were pushed away. They were told that they could not be accommodated, even after this year's addition of two sections and the hiring of a new adjunct professor. A decade ago, this level of interest would have been nearly unthinkable at Columbia.
Many people have speculated that this increased interest came about suddenly, due to the magnified focus on the Middle East and Islamic world since Sept. 11, 2001 and the Iraq war. And while faculty members in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures admit that recent political events could have played a role, they dismiss the link, saying that politics provide too narrow and simplistic an explanation.
According to Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies Hamid Dabashi, the chairman of MEALAC, increased enrollment in Arabic courses has resulted from students taking a genuine interest in languages at Columbia, instead of placing out of the Core Curriculum requirement upon matriculation. Dabashi also cited graduate student interest as a reason for the addition of more Arabic sections.
Andrea Mancuso, a part-time General Studies student, said she enrolled in Elementary Arabic I for personal reasons. She converted to Islam in November of 2001 and has an Egyptian fiancé. "I wanted to start learning to read the Koran," she said.
The need to accommodate graduate students from the School of International and Public Affairs has led to less room in Arabic sections for undergraduates. SIPA students concentrating in Middle Eastern studies are required to take at least two years of a Middle Eastern language, and since they cannot pre-register for Columbia College courses, MEALAC prioritizes their enrollment in the fall.
Increased SIPA student interest may result from a greater demand for Arabic speakers in the working world. The Central Intelligence Agency, for instance, will recruit more fervently potential employees with fluency in Arabic.
Chloe Oudiz, a SIPA student in the process of earning her certificate in Mid-East Studies, said her motivation for taking Arabic had nothing to do with political events or employment opportunities. Coming from an Egyptian background, Oudiz said her interest in the Middle East "started before 9/11 and before the whole Iraq thing."
MEALAC faculty members agree that political events cannot be ignored. "It's on everybody's mind, everybody's TV. The region has come to a forefront right now," said Taoufik ben-Amor, an Arabic professor.
General statistics kept over the past decade have shown a gradual rise in the number of students enrolled not only in Arabic language courses, but also in Arabic culture courses and the other languages MEALAC focuses on: Hindi, Urdu, and Hebrew. "[But] interest in Arabic has been particularly acute," Dabashi said.
Nevertheless, Professor George Saliba, director of graduate studies at MEALAC, said there was "a little bulge in the curve after September 11th."
Saliba said that since the number of students had already been increasing, interest in political events could not have accounted for more than 10 percent of the total enrollment.
In 1990, Columbia College added the Major Cultures requirement to the Core Curriculum, which led to the increased enrollment of classes focusing on Islamic civilization. And as more students developed a personal interest in the Middle East and Islamic culture, they were more likely to take a corresponding language course, and vice versa, Saliba said. Saliba teaches Introduction to Islamic Civilization and Contemporary Islamic Civilization, classes in which enrollment has jumped from 35 students to just under 200 over the past five years.
Changes in the structure of the language courses also led to the need for more sections and professors, Saliba said. A few years ago, classes began to be capped at 15 students, with eight to eleven students per class being the ideal in order to provide focused attention to every student. As a result, Saliba said, pressure on MEALAC to offer qualified professors has increased significantly.
MEALAC hopes that increased awareness and interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies will lead to efforts on the part of the University to tenure professors who are currently adjunct. "The number [of students] is increasing and that number needs to be met," Saliba said.