Focusing on the Arab World

Despite upheaval in the Middle East, Harvard continues to lack regional experts

Media and public attention centered on the demonstrations that swept the Middle East in the past months, which toppled two regimes and inspired hope for democratic change across the region.

But at the College, students have had limited opportunities to take up the recent upheaval on an academic level.

This spring, however, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations announced the first undergraduate degree offering focusing exclusively on the modern Middle East—as a secondary field.

The gap in contemporary Middle East studies became evident in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when the Faculty of Arts and Sciences struggled to accommodate the spike in student interest. At the time, Harvard committed itself to taking bolder steps to meet its shortcomings in course offerings.

But some professors say that more than ten years later the College is still ill-equipped to offer a comprehensive undergraduate education on the modern Middle East.


“The University has been trying to increase Middle East studies since 9/11,” says NELC Director of Modern Languages William E. Granara. “It hasn’t been that successful because it hasn’t made the best effort possible.”


Professors say that the recent upheaval has only served to renew the rising student interest in the contemporary Middle East that dates back to the September 11 attacks.

At the time, professors recognized that the faculty resources and course offerings did not match student demand.

“For the last ten years, there has been a lot of interest,” says Ali S. Asani ’77, chair of NELC. He says that there was a spike in Arabic-language course enrollment in the years following the attacks.

But the school failed to retain some experts in the field and was slow in creating an academic path for undergraduates interested in studying the modern Middle East.

Last fall, FAS brought in Malika Zeghal, a scholar in contemporary Islam, in an effort to remedy curriculum gaps.

But Granara says that the appointment serves immediate needs but is not indicative of a larger commitment on behalf of the University to hire scholars specializing in contemporary Middle East studies. He says that potential positions will instead likely be allotted to openings in the study of other regions.

“They may be trying to replace professors, but they are not adding,” he says. “Although it is a wonderful appointment, in light of recent events, and in light of student demand, one appointment is unsatisfactory.”



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