MENA Studies are Stalled
Three years into America’s war in Iraq and a year after College President Nancy Dye expressed that “we have to do something quite serious” about Middle Eastern studies, Oberlin College is not offering any social sciences courses focusing on the Middle East this year.
“This is a very depressing time to be a student of the Middle East at Oberlin,” said College senior Rehan Jamil of the Middle Eastern Students Association, which has advocated for Middle Eastern and North African studies since its founding in 2004.
Part of the problem is bad luck. The departure of Politics Professor Khalid Medani for McGill University in 2005 was a major blow to MENA studies at Oberlin.
“Khalid was offered a research position which was very important to him personally,” said Associate Dean of the College Nicholas Jones.
Additionally, French Professor Ali Yedes and Gender and Women’s Studies Professor Frances Hasso, both of whom taught courses on the MENA region, are on leave this semester. Religion Professor Anna Gade, whose “Introduction to Islam” is the only MENA-related course offered by the College this semester, will leave at the end of this semester.
“There’s actually been a decline [in MENA-centered courses],” said College senior Ozlem Gemici, who advocated for MENA as a student senator last year. “Part of it is bad luck but the school is not taking enough initiative. When Medani was here there were enough classes to put together a concentration, but now there’s almost nothing.”
As for Arabic instruction, last year several students took advantage of a private reading offered by Yedes and College senior Adi Dajani. According to Dajani who, along with Jamil, served on an ad hoc committee dedicated to MENA studies, the president’s office has offered to fund a permanent Arabic instructor, and interviewed two candidates last year but found neither satisfactory.
“Part of the problem is that there is such a dearth of qualified Arabic professors at the college level,” said Dajani.
While Oberlin’s study-away office continues working to foster cooperation with institutions in the region to educate interested Oberlin students in Arabic and Middle Eastern culture, recent events have made this more difficult.
“Recently, more Oberlin students [began attending] the American University in Beirut, as well as the American University in Cairo, but Beirut is now no longer an option,” said Gade.
Still, Jamil is optimistic.
“We’re getting closer to having Arabic,” he said. “This is actually a positive time. But Khalid’s position has still not been filled and the ad hoc committee needs to be given more power.”
Jones said that the MENA position Medani occupied will be reviewed by the Educational Programs and Plans Committee this semester, and he acknowledged that the process of building Mideast Studies at Oberlin had been complicated by the ongoing reductions to faculty.
“All positions are being reviewed right now,” he said.
Gade feels that the reinstatement of Medani’s old position is critical.
“A lot rides on the outcome of this request,” she said. “Until we can know the results, it will be extremely difficult to try to predict the future for the study of MENA at Oberlin.”
Hasso feels that the current situation in the faculty is not conducive to the establishment of a new program.
“At Oberlin, I believe that initiative on MENA studies needs to emerge from the faculty and be supported and encouraged by administrative leaders and trustees,” she said. “Currently, however, most departments and faculty members are worried about losing what they have in terms of resources and positions and thus unlikely to be visionary in the establishment of or support for new areas.”
Jones added that as part of a Ford Foundation grant, a consultant might be visiting campus this fall to advise on a host of MENA-related issues.
But for College senior Azadeh Pourzand, who served on Senate along with Gemici and helped draft the student referendum calling for a MENA studies department, these College initiatives are too little, too late.
“I think the College is not working enough,” she said. “Everyone has been very nice to us but there is no plan in the administration to address this issue. The interest in this area has been demonstrated. We’ve had petitions. We’ve had referendums. It’s time for them to take some concrete actions.”
With her well-publicized trips to Iran, Dye has been a vocal advocate for greater education on the Islamic world at Oberlin — a fact not lost on the students campaigning for MENA studies — and Jones said that there would be no change in the College’s commitment after her departure.
“We will remain committed to expanding our program on the Middle East,” he said.
But Pourzand, who grew up in Iran, felt that Dye’s notoriety cut both ways.
“In Iranian academic circles, Nancy Dye’s name is very well known and it’s very embarrassing to tell people that our college doesn’t have one class on this region,” she said.
Hasso agreed that the absence of MENA reflected poorly on Oberlin.
“[MENA is important] because ignorance of the politics, cultures and histories of the region is deep and widespread in the U.S. Because the pain, death and destruction [that] U.S. weapons, money and foreign policy helped to create and continue to create in the region are legion and we are all implicated in this. Because it is glaring in its absence as a curricular area compared with all the institutions Oberlin likes to compare itself to.”
Dajani feels that students need to do more to demonstrate the need for a MENA program. Among the ideas he discussed was a public demonstration similar to the one held last year after an Asian American studies position was cut.
“Students have to become more active in expressing a need for this,” he said. “When you have a revolution of sorts [things] become very difficult to ignore.”