By Aliza Rosen
“I went to Egypt for personal reasons, as a means of escape. I needed a break. But little did I know that my experience there would completely alter my academic plans for the future, and my already-set pre-med major would change into a lifelong passion for Arabic and the Middle East.”
Born into a time in which Middle Eastern issues are at the forefront of American politics, Michelle Lee ’14 has recently realized the strategic necessity of studying Arabic in today’s politically complex world. Thousands of others are following suit.
Ever since the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, there has been a nationwide surge in college-student enrollment in Arabic and study abroad in the Middle East. According to a study by the Institute of International Education, the number of American students spending their junior year in Arabic-speaking countries has increased six-fold, from 562 in 2002 to 3,399 in 2007.
Khalil Barhoum, the coordinator of Middle Eastern and African Languages and Literatures at Stanford, notes that according to a recent survey conducted by the Modern Language Association, “Arabic enrollment at the university level has more than doubled nationally between 2004 and 2008, and so has the number of institutions offering programs over the same period, with 23,974 students currently enrolled in 466 programs around the country.”
This upward trend of interest in Arabic and the Middle East exists at Stanford as well, though the University has no formal Middle Eastern studies department.
“We have seen our numbers often triple and quadruple each fall quarter over the last few years,” Barhoum said. “It is not unusual for us these days to have over 120 students enrolled in Arabic classes each fall quarter since Sept. 11, 2001.”
Arabic instructor Khalid Obeid agrees, noting that students are attracted to Arabic for a variety of reasons.
“We’ve seen in many articles and studies that the number of students interested in Arabic increased after 9/11,” Obeid said. “But I’ve seen a genuine interest in students learning Arabic for the culture and language away from the conflict. Many of them are taking it for themselves. They just want to learn a foreign language and enhance their language skills.”
Lee concurs, insisting that learning Arabic and understanding culture go hand in hand.
“Learning a language is more than just learning the words and definitions,” she said. “It’s more about understanding the cultural paradigm and ideology. In the little subtleties in which Arabs communicate, we get a glimpse of their culture.”
The students in Obeid’s Level I Arabic class come from a variety of backgrounds. Some focus their studies in history, international relations and political science, but a growing number of them hope to major in engineering, law, anthropology and archaeology.
“What all of my students have in common is interest in the Middle Eastern region and culture,” Obeid said. “I have archaeology students who are interested in studying sites in the Middle East and engineering students who believe that having a strong foundation in Arabic will help them in finding future employment. The motivation is not always politics.”
History professor Joel Beinin noted that there is a “clear difference at Stanford between students taking classes in Arabic and students taking classes in Middle Eastern politics.”
While the number of students signing up for Arabic has grown in the years following 9/11, the number of students expressing interest in taking his Middle Eastern politics classes has dropped.
“I teach a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict in winter quarter,” Beinin said. “In the past, my course has been very difficult to get into. I would have to turn students away. But this year, I don’t even know what enrollment’s going to be like. I’m sure that a freshman could even get in this year.”
Political science Prof. Lisa Blaydes believes that there is room for development and expansion in the realm of Middle Eastern politics. Blaydes just returned from two years at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies
“I think when it comes to the Middle East, there is enough student demand, and it’s sufficiently important that the University does need to provide coursework and advising for students who are interested in the area,” she said. “We’re not talking about a small university. I think Stanford is large enough to handle that kind of diversity of scope.”
Meredith Wheeler ’14 came to Stanford with a strong background in Arabic and Middle Eastern politics. In the summer before her senior year of high school and again during her gap year, Wheeler participated in the National Security Language Initiative, a project within the State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program that encourages college-age students to study Arabic. She believes that the upward trend of students studying Arabic is “to an extent targeted toward the State Department initiatives, because the government benefits if there are more Arabic speakers in the world.”
After living in Jordan and Egypt, Wheeler gained interest not only in the Arabic language, but also in Middle Eastern culture and politics, so she was somewhat disappointed that Stanford lacks formal programming in this area.
“I hope that the University will start to invest more in Middle Eastern studies in general,” Wheeler said. “The Middle East is currently one of the most politically volatile and socially complex regions in the world, and while there is sufficient coursework dealing with the Middle East, Stanford lacks a synthesized program and major to unite these classes for students like me.”
It is unclear if the inverse relationship between students taking Arabic and those interested in Middle Eastern culture and politics will remain.
“As a third-year Arabic student and someone who is passionate about Middle Eastern politics, I hope that this growing trend is just the beginning for Stanford and that we will be able to push for new infrastructure in academic programming before we graduate,” Wheeler said. “If every class could be like my intro seminar, Everyday Political Life in the Authoritarian Middle East, my life would be complete.”