en zh es ja ko pt

Volume 16, Number 4July/August 1965

In This Issue

Back to Table of Contents

Arabists In The U.S.A.

From Michigan to Texas, from Harvard to Stanford, interest in the Middle East soars to new levels . .

Written by John R. Starkey

In 1939 a professor from the American University at Cairo spoke before a group of Baltimore businessmen. After his talk, entitled "Islam's Impact on the Middle East," a man raised his hand. "Professor," he asked, "can three hundred million Muslims really live in a desert?"

The question may sound naive in 1965, but actually that businessman was far more sophisticated than many Americans of his day. That was the era when numerous Americans thought that the "Middle East" was somewhere near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or equated "Middle East" with "desert" and "Arab" with the "sheikhs" of the Valentino tradition—robed raiders carrying maidens off to silken tents or swarming wildly over the parapets of Foreign Legion forts.

Today, less than three decades later, this has changed. There is a new image of the Middle East in the United States, still blurred perhaps, but getting clearer every year. It is an image in which the bewildering complexities and contradictions of the region are beginning to assume a semblance of clarity in which neither camel nor Cadillac predominates but in which each has begun to assume its proper perspective.

Much of the change is due to the efforts of American journalism, which has begun to take a sharper look at all of the formerly "exotic" regions of the world, and to the enthusiastic help given by experienced government officials, military officers and businessmen who have backed, promoted and even taught in special programs on Middle East affairs. Above all, it is due to the efforts of able, dedicated educators who have developed programs of research, study and instruction that rank with the best in the world.

It is probably true that there are more distinguished concentrations of scholars in certain universities in Europe, especially in France, England and Germany, where great Arabists have been trained for centuries. But the list of scholars at what are generally considered as America's five major centers of Middle East studies—Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Michigan and the University of California at Los Angeles—is unsurpassed anywhere. It includes, for example, Sir Hamilton A.R. Gibb, the West's foremost Islamic scholar and authority on Arab society, of whom a colleague said recently: "He's 70 and sick and he's still worth six of us." It includes also Dr. Gustave E. von Grunebaum, rated second only to Gibb in the West, and Philip K. Hitti, who has spent nearly 40 years prodding Princeton to improve and expand its Middle East programs.

No one list, of course, could begin to include all of the top Arabists in the United States, nor even all the universities, colleges and special institutes and societies which have played an important role in the promotion of understanding of Middle East affairs, but their impact is undeniable and can be measured by this significant statistic: the number of colleges and universities offering courses in Middle East subjects has risen from 10 in 1939 to nearly 300 today.

This change is all the more astonishing in the light of America's historic lack of interest in the Middle East. It was not until 1841, nearly a century after Europeans had begun serious study in the field, that the first course concerning the Middle East was offered. That was a course in Arabic at Yale University. Harvard followed Yale's lead—but not until 1880, nearly 40 years later. The University of Michigan—curiously, since it is in the heart of the generally conservative and isolationist Midwest—was third, in 1894, and by the turn of the century a student wishing to learn Arabic could still only choose from among six universities: Yale, Harvard, Michigan, Columbia, Chicago and Pennsylvania. Even as the 20th century got underway, progress was far from swift. Although the United States did take a few tentative steps into Middle Eastern affairs during and immediately after World War I, they were quickly retraced in the 1920's, as the country withdrew to its traditional position as a spectator of world events rather than a participant. For the country's few Arabists the outlook was so discouraging that at the University of Chicago Professor Martin Sprengling felt obliged to advise students against seeking doctorates in Arabic studies. "There's no academic future in it," he would tell them. And for most there wasn't. As late as 1939 the 10 universities which did offer Arabic—the original six plus the University of California in Los Angeles, Catholic University, Johns Hopkins and Princeton—still offered nothing but languages—and minimal courses at that.

This was the situation when World War II erupted and the United States, confronted with the need to keep the Middle East out of enemy hands, turned to the academic world for expert information and advice. Officials quickly discovered that there was virtually no sound knowledge of the area, only a handful of specialists available and no facilities for training personnel. In no other area of the world was the United States so poorly prepared to play a strategic role.

In the emergency, however, the government had to act and so it recruited men like John S. Badeau (later to be American Ambassador to the United Arab Republic) from the American University of Cairo, Lewis V. Thomas from Roberts College in Istanbul, and T. Cuyler Young from Toronto. They, along with Sydney N. Fisher of Ohio State University, Richard N. Frye and Derwood W. Lockard of Harvard, and many others who later would become big names in the field of Middle East studies, helped to fill huge gaps in such agencies as the Office of Strategic Services, the Office of War Information, the Office of Naval Intelligence and the State Department itself.

Filling the gaps on campuses proved to be even more difficult and it was with considerable gratitude that the government discovered that there had been at least one American Arabist who for 13 years had stubbornly refused to accept the prevailing disinterest: Princeton's Professor Philip K. Hitti.

Professor Hitti began his career at Princeton in 1926 as an instructor of Semitic languages. A year later he had organized an Oriental department and had set about making it grow. "The administrators cared nothing about Oriental studies," he said, "so I had to smuggle courses in the window."

About 1939 attitudes and conditions began to change. First came a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the instruction of Turkish. Then came the war and with it the formation of the Army Specialized Training Program, great infusions of money and a sudden, urgent interest. "Train us 150 men in Arabic and 50 each in Turkish and Persian," the Army told Hitti, "and do it in six months."

It was an almost impossible challenge. Arabic simply isn't a language that students master in six months—not, at least, when there are no experienced teachers, no books and no language laboratories. But Professor Hitti gave it a good, and at times ingenious, try. Mustering a group of students who spoke some Arabic, Turkish and Persian, he organized lessons for them that they could in turn teach others a day later. It was difficult, often chaotic and it didn't produce experts, but it did equip students with enough knowledge of the languages to carry out their assignments. Furthermore, it provided the foundation for the establishment of regular Turkish and Persian courses at Princeton at the end of the war in 1946.

From that time on, of course, the Middle East engaged the attention of the United States almost continually. As event followed event—the struggle over Palestine, the declaration of the Truman Doctrine, the upheavals in Egypt, the granting of aid to Iran, the Baghdad Pact, the landing of the U.S. Marines in Lebanon—interest in the Middle East soared and the nation's universities groped their way toward what eventually came to be known as "centers" of Middle East studies.

Centers of Middle East studies do not merely offer courses on Middle East subjects. To be rated as a center requires courses that lead to a doctoral degree, plus comprehensive programs including at least two languages and a wide variety of courses in history, literature and the social sciences. Most centers, moreover, participate in numerous related programs. Princeton's center shares its facilities with the Foreign Service and the Defense Department, training personnel on one-year study tours. It also participates in the national Critical Languages Program, under which top college students learn Persian and Turkish at an advanced level not offered on their campuses. Harvard, which has developed extensive research and publication programs around its library has, in 10 years, awarded 65 research fellowships and published 10 books and 14 monographs. Some centers have sponsored archeological expeditions such as U.C.L.A.'s in northern Sudan. U.C.L.A. has helped initiate the interuniversity center in Cairo and the American Research Institute in Istanbul. And all centers, of course, have accumulated great libraries—although few equal the size of U.C.L.A.'s which amassed 85,000 volumes in less than seven years.

The real strength of Middle East centers, of course, depends upon the men who staff them and in searching out top scholars the centers in the United States have added a remarkable number of able men to their rosters. Some, such as Gibb and Von Grunebaum, came from Europe. Others—economist Charles Issawi, law specialist Majid Khadduri, language expert Aziz S. Atiya and Hitti—came from the Middle East itself. Still others, like J.C. Hurewitz, came out of the ranks of the students who began to interest themselves in the Middle East and went on to become authorities.

The result of the great search, in any case, was the emergence on many campuses of first-class centers each staffed with some of the most eminent scholars in the field. A complete list of the top scholars would of course be too long, but even a sampling of those who staff the major centers suggests the quality of the men available. Harvard, for example, can boast not only Gibb, but Richard N. Frye, an authority on the history, folklore and languages of Iran, economist A.J. Meyer, and religion expert W. Cantwell Smith. Columbia has Badeau, returned from his ambassadorial duties to head up a center that already had Hurewitz, Issawi, Turkologist Dankwart A. Rustow and Joseph Schacht, an expert on Islamic law. In Princeton in addition to Hitti, Young and Thomas, there are Morroe Berger, America's leading Middle East sociologist and R. Bayly Winder, a specialist on Saudi Arabia. In the Midwest, Michigan has William D. Schorger for anthropology, George Cameron for pre-Islamic literature, George F. Hourani for Islamic history, Oleg Grabar for Islamic art and Herbert N. Paper for linguistics. U.C.L.A.'s leading figure is Von Grunebaum but it has also Andreas Tietze, a Persian and Turkish specialist, and Malcolm Kerr, a rising young political scientist.

At other centers, there's Professor Khadduri, heading the Middle East Program in the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Professor Atiya is the founder of the Middle East program at the University of Utah. The University of Chicago has historian Marshal G.S. Hodgson and political scientist Leonard Binder. George Lenczowski represents the University of California (Berkeley) and at Stanford University there's Dr. George W. Rentz, who spent 17 years in government relations work with the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) before becoming curator of the Middle East Section of the Hoover Institution at the university.

There are, of course, also specialists at institutions not classified as centers—Hisham A. Sharabi of Georgetown is one—and experts not necessarily attached to any institutions. Among the latter group, for example, would be men like-Dr-Saba Habaehyy-a lawyer who lectures in international and Islamic law at the Parker School of Foreign and Comparative Law in Columbia University; Sami Fahmi, Aramco Government Relations employe, also a lecturer at the Parker School; Col. Charles W. Hostler, U.S.A.F. (Ret.) and Kerim Key of the U.S. Department of Commerce, who lecture on Turkish affairs at the American University in Washington, D.C.; Robert Sethian of the U.S. Department of Commerce, a lecturer on Middle East economics at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins; Richard Ettinghausen, a linguist and art historian, and William F. Allbright, an orientalist, archeologist and writer.

The contributions of such notables, however, tend to be restricted to the graduate levels at the centers. But the new surge of interest in the Middle East has occurred at the college level too, where, on scores of campuses, students curious to know more about an area that suddenly—after the Suez crisis—had begun to absorb a large measure of the world's attention and concern, began to demand courses. Like the graduate schools, colleges had paid scant attention to the Middle East; in 1950 fewer than six colleges had courses in Middle East studies. After "Suez," however, many schools introduced courses on Middle East affairs on their own initiative—courses which in some cases were taught by nonspecialists who just briefed themselves on the Middle East and began to teach. Then, with the launching of Sputnik by the Soviet Union in 1957 and the searching reappraisal of American education that followed, the federal government also took a hand. Under the language provision of the 1958 National Defense Education Act, for example, the government authorized the expenditure of funds to encourage the organization or expansion of courses in uncommon languages—which included Arabic.

The major effect of the NDEA was to bolster programs already in existence. Only eight schools qualified for federal support and seven of them had programs in operation before the act was passed. But NDEA money did provide a shot in the arm where it was needed: a significant percentage of the funds financed fellowships. Last year at Harvard, for instance, 18 out of 43 students had NDEA fellowships. Ford, Fulbright and other fellowships financed a year's work for 14 students, leaving only 11 who had to pay their own way. In the first year the aid took effect, the availability of fellowships helped boost enrollment at Harvard's center from 31 to 43 students. The pattern has varied only slightly at six of the seven colleges, the exception being Portland State College, the only Middle East center exclusively devoted to undergraduate training in the country. Portland's center was established with NDEA funds in 1959 and enrollment is already up to 94 students. Its influence extends down to precollege level, too. Under its auspices, 20 high schools in the Portland area began senior courses in Arabic last fall. The first such high school program was instituted in Salt Lake City by the Middle East Center at Utah.

Counting the high school students, it is estimated that about 3,000 young men and women were taking Middle Eastern courses in the United States this year. Of that 3,000 approximately 30 to 35 will earn doctorate degrees in the field, proportionately a small number, but actually a surprisingly large number considering the rigorous requirements.

At Harvard, for example, the M.A. alone requires two years, the first devoted exclusively to Islamic history and culture and intensive language training in classroom and language laboratory. It is only in the second year that students turn to modern area studies—the raison d'etre of the center, since most American courses are oriented toward the modern Middle East rather than to the classical periods. And even that program, geared for the training of business and government personnel, offers no more than a broad, general background in Middle East studies. For those who want a deeper knowledge, or who aspire to an academic career, the road is even longer. The Ph.D. usually requires three to four years of study beyond the M.A. and is conferred by an entirely separate department, rather than the center, to insure that the graduate will not be only a Middle East specialist but a disciplined scholar as well.

For that reason, Ph.D.'s can be sure of being absorbed. Says the acting director of the Harvard center: "There are still not enough competent academics. A rosy future awaits anyone who wants to take the arduous route to the doctorate."

The same can be said for those who are interested in government—a field in which the demand for Middle East specialists has continued strong since World War II—but not for those interested in business. Opportunities in business are narrowing because jobs filled by Americans in the Middle East are dwindling. For the most part, U.S.-owned companies have been responsive to the nationalist feelings of their host country. Where possible, they replace American employes with native-born personnel. Aramco, for instance, employed 3,400 Americans in Saudi Arabia in the late 1950's. The number now is 1,475 and is still going down.

The significance of the new interest in the Middle East, however, is the impact it has had upon American viewpoints with regard to this area. It has contributed to a new understanding of the Middle East—of its history, its religion, its people, its hopes, aspirations and problems. The expansion of knowledge touched off at the university level has changed the outlook of educators down the line. The number of schools with Middle Eastern curricula is growing—and no longer merely in the wake of wars, crises or emergency government aid programs. The schools are establishing courses because they themselves recognize the importance of the Middle East, and because today's equivalent of the Baltimore businessman has come to realize that his image was not only false but dangerous. For the United States and the Middle East it is a meaningful change.

John R. Starkey, Producer of News at Channel 13, New York's educational TV station, is a former writer and producer for NBC-TV, a former reporter for the European Edition of the New York Herald Tribune and one of the first Ford Fellows in Columbia University's Advanced International Reporting Program.

This article appeared on pages 16-25 of the July/August 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 1965 images.