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Volume 30, Number 3May/June 1979

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A Scattering of Scholars

Last year in Washington, the Egyptian embassy awarded Egypt's Order of Merit to Princeton's Philip K. Hitti and cited him as the "cornerstone of Arab culture in America." At the same ceremony Egypt also honored two other eminent Arab scholars, Majid Khadduri and Aziz S. Atiya, for "their contribution to learning" and for "strengthening the bonds of friendship between the Arab world and the United States.''

Individually, those honors were well merited. Dr. Hitti, who died shortly afterward, had been the prime mover in the establishment of Princeton's Department of Near Eastern Studies, the first in the United States. Dr. Khadduri, once an adviser to Iraq's delegation at the founding of the United Nations, began teaching at Indiana University in 1947 as a visiting lecturer, and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins. He is also the man who taught the first U. S. course in Islamic law. Dr. Atiya, who once taught in Europe and Egypt, was co-founder of the Coptic Institute, has been a history professor at the University of Utah since 1952 and still, at 82, produces important papers and advises a half-dozen doctoral candidates.

But the honors were collectively merited too. For together, Hitti, Khadduri and Atiya were trailblazers. Born, raised and educated in the Arab world, they were among the first scholars from the Arab East to teach their own culture in America. Until they, and a few others like them, appeared on the scene, Arab culture was not taught by Arabs - or even Americans. In those days the foremost experts in Middle East studies were European.

It was, for example, a British scholar, Sir Hamilton Gibb, who set up Harvard's Middle Eastern Center. And it was a German scholar, Dr. Gustav E. von Grunebaum, who did the same at UCLA.

Today all that has changed. According to one estimate - by the Association of Arab-American University Graduates - there are more than 2,000 professors from the Middle East teaching in America now. Some are naturalized Americans, some are not, and some have gone into fields as diverse as anesthesiology, insurance and urban planning. But they all share a common heritage: an intimate knowledge of their own language, history and civilization. And some 200 to 300 of them are directly involved in teaching some aspect of that culture.

This change still astonishes at least one of the trailblazers: Charles Issawi, a Cairo-born economist who is now the Bayard Dodge Professor of Near East Studies at Princeton and head of the Middle East Economic Association.

Dr. Issawi, who once taught at the American University of Beirut and at Columbia University in New York, is credited with giving the first course in Middle East economics at an American university. While working for the United Nations, in 1950, he participated in a summer institute at Harvard and introduced the subject for the first time - and has been teaching it regularly since, first at Columbia and now at Princeton.

Remembering his early Columbia days, when he taught a one-evening-a-week course for graduate students after a day's work at the U.N., Dr. Issawi marvels at the number of out-of-the-way places where Arab professors now teach - some of them in the field he introduced: Abbas al-Nasrawi at the University of Vermont, Abdeleem Shar-shar at Virginia Commonwealth in Richmond and Ibrahim Oweiss, the Egyptian economist at Georgetown, credited with coining the term "petrodollar." Dr. Issawi mentioned too Regaei El Mallakh at the University of Colorado in Boulder - where he founded the International Research Center for Energy and Economic Development.

Some Arabs coming to the States to fill non-academic positions were, like Issawi, lured into academia. Others, trained in one field, have branched out into another. Edward Jurgi, a Syrian, initially taught the course in Islam at Princeton Theological Seminary and ended by being Professor of Religions there.

In academia, however, where professorships are in short supply, some Arab scholars must compete with their American colleagues in order to teach their specialty. Some, like Abdulhamid Sabra, have no trouble. An Egyptian, Sabra occupies Harvard's chair of the history of Islamic science. There is also Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, a much respected Palestinian professor of political science, who is Director of Admissions of Northwestern University's graduate program, and Jihad Racy, a Lebanese professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, who teaches Arab music and gives instruction on traditional Arab instruments.

On the other hand, many able scholars - like Dr. Fauzi M. Najjar, a Lebanese at Michigan State who specializes in Islamic political theory, and Dr. Najm A. Bezirgan, an Iraqi at Texas trained in Islamic logic - are able to give only occasional courses in their field. Instead, they must answer the demand for general courses in the Middle East or in beginning Arabic.

Palestinian poet Salma Jayyusi is in a similar situation. Because there is not yet enough demand for modern Arabic literature - her field - most campuses cannot justify the cost of full-time professors, so she must move from one Middle East center to another as visiting professor or research fellow. Luckily Dr. Jayyusi likes the changing scenery, but she does decry the lack of courses in her field. Literature, she believes, whether studied in the original language or in translation, is "the best communicator of the Arab experience and perspective.''

Some professors, responding to the increasing demand for Arab studies, have expanded their expertise to teach outside their original speciality.

Hisham Sharabi, Palestinian professor of European intellectual history at Georgetown for more than 25 years, now occupies a chair of Arab culture and gives courses in the history of Arab society. In addition, Sharabi, whose teaching load is still 90 percent European history, writes extensively on the Middle East, edits the Journal of Palestine Studies and serves as president of the National Association of Arab-Americans - the only Arab-American group registered as a congressional lobby.

There is even one Arab, Edward W. Said, Parr Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, who has never taught about the Middle East. But he has written a book called Orientalism. Published in the U. S., England and France, and slated for Arab translation, Orientalism is being argued about and applauded on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Orientalism" is Professor Said's term for the Western conception of the Muslim East as mysterious, sensual, unchanging and ultimately inferior - a view which has been conditioned by Western cultural hegemony fostered by two centuries of Western scholarship, and popularized by romanticized visions of the East - such as Edmund Dulac's once-famous Art Nouveau treatment in numerous books in the early 20th century. Far from experiencing the reality of the Arab world, he asserts, Westerners view the Middle East through a framework of ideas promulgated and perpetuated by past and present Orientalists.

Arab students in the States will affirm at least part of Said's thesis. Adel Al-loughe, a Tunisian doctoral candidate, digging into original sources on microfilm in the University of Utah library, says: "When you have studied some of these manuscripts, you realize that most of what is over there on the shelves is superficial - a rehash of famous Orientalists quoted over and over again''

Saad Sowayan agrees. A Saudi anthropologist who has been studying in the U.S. over a period of 13 years, he maintains that he has heard teachers of Islamic civilization give evaluations that are both "untrue and counter-instructive" As a result, he adds, "I have come to think the most qualified teachers are native Arabs. We may be subjective but at least we are recognizable as such."

According to Said, however, even "native Arabs" can be affected by "orientalism." As many of them have received their doctorates in the States, or at least in the West, they too have fallen under its spell.

On the other hand, Said says, modern scholars - both Americans doing research abroad and Arabs teaching their own culture - can, if they're wary, overturn the tradition of "orientalism." And Hussein Fahim, a visiting professor of anthropology from Egypt at Utah, asserts that the Arab-born professor, in providing a native's perspective, may or may not contradict a former point of view but can surely qualify it and put it into an appropriate context. "Our objective" he says, "is to get students...to raise questions... challenge the professor and make us rethink our own views concerning issues, questioning what we may have taken for granted.''

Besides, says Amal Rassam, professor of anthropology at the City University of New York, many Arab professors serve not merely as "informants" but as "culture brokers'' A naturalized American born in Iraq, Professor Rassam says that "when we are here, we interpret Arab culture to Americans. When we go back home we are asked to make sense of American culture. We have access to both and stand apart from both - not being truly of one or the other."

But what happens, she adds, is that the accelerating rate of change in the Middle East, although uneven, is such that an absence of a few years puts her out of touch. "The culture in which I was brought up has already become history."

Still, with jet travel, most Arab professors do get back to their homelands often, sometimes on sabbatical leave during which they do further research, sometimes on short trips. Either way such visits strengthen the ties between native land and adopted country.

Nazli Choucri, for example, a professor of international political economy at MIT and one of the few tenured women professors there, flies to Egypt every six weeks. Associate director of a research program on technology transfer and development problems - co-sponsored by MIX Cairo University and the Egyptian government - Dr. Choucri feels she has a mission: to bring the dimension of social issues to students of engineering.

But not all the Arab scholars in America go back simply to strengthen ties, says Adnan Aswad, Syrian chairman of the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Michigan's Dearborn campus. "Arab professors" he says, "have their minds in the United States but often their hearts are in their homeland..."

On the other hand, he continues, too few go back for more than a visit - and they should. Whether Arab professors are "culture brokers" or not - as Professor Rassam believes - Dr. Aswad would like to see more professors who know the two cultures return to their countries to teach or at least to lecture. His theory is that just transferring the educational technology which most Arab professors admire - libraries, laboratories and computers - is not enough. "The investment must be in...brains. Brains are the investment for future generations."

Dr. Aswad himself - who has returned to Syria, but not often enough to suit him - is very much established in the United States. Like many Arab professors, he is married to an American: Barbara Aswad, professor of anthropology at Wayne State. But Barbara is so actively involved in Detroit's Arab-American community, and in writing and teaching about it, that she is described as "more Arab than Adnan."

These two professors have found that their Arab colleagues are models for young Arab-American students, who have become increasingly interested in the Middle East and are proud to have their roots there.

In addition to the expatriate Arab scholars in the U.S., numerous Arab academics and other Arab alumni - to whom America is alma mater - are turning up in the U.S.A. too. They come as visiting fellows, guest lecturers and featured speakers.

Recently, for example, Dr. Abdullah Masry, director of Saudi Arabia's Department of Antiquities (See Aramco World, March-April 1979) lectured on campuses all across America on the subject of archeology. And last year in Santa Barbara, Saudi Arabs were prominent among the 200 scholars, diplomats and officials who gathered in California to hold a three-day seminar on the impact of the late King Faisal on the history of the Middle East. Among them were Dr. Ghazi al-Gosaibi, Saudi Arabia's Minister of Industry and Electricity, Dr. Abdulaziz Sowaiyyagh, and Dr. Abdullah Sindi from King Abdulaziz University at Jiddah. Also taking part was Dr. Fouad al-Farsy, an assistant deputy minister in the Ministry of Information who had, earlier, lectured at Duke University, his alma mater.

Because of the demands of its own expanding universities, the Arab world's representation on American campuses - other than the expatriates - is necessarily limited to what, numerically, is a mere scattering of scholars. But as the Arab countries are sending an increasing number of graduate students, as well as undergraduates, to the U.S., one result has been an increase in dissertations, theses and special research papers. According to one survey Arab students in the U.S. have turned out more than 150 such studies since 1960 on Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries alone.

The addition of such studies is helpful. Although dissertations in general are rarely major works, they do add information about areas not thoroughly covered by scholars. Dr. al-Farsy for example, developed his doctoral dissertation into a book: Saudi Arabia: A Case Study in Development. Published in 1978, it may be the first publication in English by a Saudi on his country's development.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia was known largely through the books written by Burckhardt, Doughty, Philby and other Western travelers, and through such works as a history of 19th-century Arabia by R. Bayly Winder, now professor of history at New York University; still an important text, it is to be republished this year. Other Western research in Saudi Arabia includes The Oasis of al-Hasa by Federico Vidal - now professor of anthropology at the University of Texas - carried out while working for Aramco. The field, consequently, is still wide open to the new scholars.

The new scholars, in both American and Arab universities, will also supplement the ranks of those now coping with U.S. needs for more courses in Middle East studies and, at the same time, help change the distortions of what Dr. Said calls "orientalism."

Already, in fact, the Arab professors, scattered throughout the States, have begun to break down the stereotypes and to bring East and West closer. More and more are publishing papers, research and books on the Middle East, and others are publishing articles in magazines and newspapers. One example, and there are many, is Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese professor of political science at Princeton, who writes regularly for Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and the op-ed page of the New York Times.

In addition, some translations of modern Arabic literature are beginning to appear - poetry and novels like Sabri Musa's award-winning novel, to be published by Houghton Mifflin under the title In the Wilderness of Corruption and translated by his Egyptian compatriot, NYU professor of Arabic Mona Mikhail. More and more Arabs, furthermore, are heading university departments and Middle East programs. Today's leaders in the field include Muhdin Mshfi of Iraq, at Harvard, Farhat Ziadeh, a Palestinian, at the University of Washington, Wadi Jwaideh, an Iraqi, at Indiana University Anees Haddad, a Lebanese, at Loma Linda University in California, Issa J. Khallil, a Palestinian, at San Diego State, Ayad al-Qazzaz, an Iraqi, at California State in Sacramento and Salah El-Shakhs, an Egyptian, at Rutgers.

All are directors of programs at those universities, all serve on committees and some serve on the board of the Middle East Studies Association. MESA's president, in fact, is an Arab woman: Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid-Marsot, professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern history at UCLA. Like their eminent predecessors and colleagues Hitti, Khadduri and Atiya, such scholars are also making contributions to learning and strengthening the bonds of friendship between the Arab world and the United States.

This article appeared on pages 20-25 of the May/June 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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