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An Ancient Attitude on the Near East

By Hebah M. Ismail

What do 20th-century Israeli literature, medieval Arabic poetry from Andalusia, Farsi and the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem have to do with each other? Nothing, really, as far as I can tell. However, if you are interested in studying any of these diverse and eclectic topics at Harvard, you would turn in one direction—to the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department.

The department is based on a 60-year-old theory which Peter Machinist—the Hancock professor of Hebrew and other Oriental languages, who is NELC’s acting director of undergraduate studies and served in that position for five years in the mid-1990s—calls “reverse-ethnocentricity—studying the world from where you stand.” In Western terms, NELC’s structure is tantamount to putting what we know now as Romance Languages, Classics, Comparative Literature, English, History and Literature, Germanic Languages and History of Art and Architecture all into one department. No university in the West would dream of doing this, yet for the “Near East” (an antiquated term in itself) one department suffices at Harvard.

After World War II thrust the United States onto the international scene, the government started pouring money into universities to create area studies programs. Machinist recognizes that there were theories at the time that “areas had a cultural coherence”—and, he adds, “Harvard still has this theory.” The government encouraged studying these regions from a Western point of view. However, since the anti-colonial movement took hold in the late 1950s and 1960s, many academics have revised the way they study other cultures. They have come to accept that the divisions between regions were not made along cultural borders and include different societies.

What is puzzling is that Harvard has yet to update its views on area studies. Following a faulty, 60-year-old worldview is not the best way to structure a department at one of the top universities in the nation. By retaining a worldview that has Western cultural supremacy at its foundations, Harvard is limiting the value of studying the cultures of the Middle East. When people believe that all cultures in a certain geographic area are similar, the actual diversity of the region blurs together. I am not surprised when many people think Iranians are Arab: Iran is in the Middle East, after all. How can someone truly explore a culture in an unbiased way with this mode of thinking? With the College’s curricular review underway, University Hall should take a close look at the logic of organizing NELC this way.

Revamping NELC will not be an easy task. For one, it needs to be separated into at least five departments: Arabic and Islamic studies, Persian studies, Jewish studies, Turkish studies and Ancient Near East studies. While these departments would still share geographic proximity, they would have a coherence that the current NELC department lacks. Instead of focusing on geographic regions as their sole reason for existing, these departments would rely on culture.

New professors and lecturers should also be hired to fill the gaps that currently exist. Major weaknesses plague the modern Middle Eastern programs. Currently, there are no permanent professors who teach modern Israeli history, modern Arab culture, modern Middle Eastern politics or modern Middle Eastern economics—with the possible exception of E. Roger Owen, the Meyer professor of Middle East history, who is a member of the history department. Understanding the modern Middle East is essential to understanding many of the most important conflicts in the world today. That Harvard is not taking this aspect of the Middle East seriously is regrettable and needs to be remedied.

Another Achilles’ heel of NELC as it is currently structured lies in its Arabic language program. Currently, the Arabic program gives two options: Classical Arabic or Modern Standard Arabic. There are no classes taught in Arabic that are not philology or language classes. For those hoping one day to use their Arabic in the Middle East, that is not enough. Learning different dialects is just as important as learning the Standard Arabic form, but only one Arabic dialect is taught. If a student wishes to study abroad in Morocco, for instance, the Arabic he or she learned at Harvard would not be helpful.

These are just some of the issues that need addressing. There are many more that a thorough examination of the department would reveal. Of course, NELC is not entirely inadequate. There are currently more than a hundred students in NELC, with 19 undergraduate concentrators (including myself). However, the advantages I enjoy—small concentration size and flexibility in choosing classes—are more and more offset by the antiquated doctrine on which the department is based. Reexamining the department will allow for a better and more valuable academic experience for those interested in the Middle East and its many civilizations and cultures.

Hebah M. Ismail ’06 is a Near Eastern languages and civilizations concentrator in Quincy House.

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