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Volume 30, Number 3May/June 1979

In This Issue

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Arabic, Arabists and Academia

About the time students from the Middle East were beginning to study in and about America, Americans were also beginning to study about and in the Middle East. Today, some 30 years after emerging as an accepted academic discipline, Middle East studies are suddenly and widely, popular at American colleges and universities. Courses in Arabic and other Middle East subjects - once tailored for diplomats and missionaries - now draw students who plan careers in banking, business, law, public health, education and urban studies. More surprisingly, perhaps, university "outreach" programs are developing and providing courses on the Middle East for both high school and adult-education programs.

Some American universities, certainly, have included Middle East courses in their curricula for years. Harvard introduced Arabic - as an adjunct to Biblical studies - in 1754 and Yale has offered Arabic since 1841. But as late as the 1930's only a dozen or so universities offered courses in Arabic - and at the graduate level only. More extensive scholarship in the field was limited to a handful of Orientalists who pored over classical Islamic texts or traveled abroad to dig up the ruins of ancient civilizations. In fact, neither Arabic literature nor Islamic culture was accepted as an academic discipline until 1947 when the late Philip K Hitti finally persuaded Princeton to establish its Department of Near Eastern Studies.

Hitti (See Aramco World, July-August 1971) had been pushing for formal recognition of Middle East studies since 1927 and had, in 1935, pioneered summer institutes in Arabic and Islamic studies. But today's proliferation of Middle East studies is more the result of key historic events: World War II, the post-war expansion of American international interests and responsibilities, the Soviet Union's launching of Sputnik and, in 1973, the beginning of the energy crisis. Those events, together with developments related to them, slowly persuaded foundations, universities and governments to back programs of instruction in Middle Eastern languages - especially Arabic - and in Islamic culture and history.

The first development - World War II - created a demand for experts in areas of the world previously of no interest to the U. S. - areas such as the Middle East. To meet that demand the U.S. Army recruited and funded a few men like Hitti to set up crash programs in Arabic. Next came the post-war growth in America's international interests - which brought a measure of support from foundations and corporations such as Aramco. Then, a turning point, the Soviet Union successfully launched Sputnik, the first space satellite, in 1957.

That achievement, a cold war coup that alarmed the United States, triggered a reappraisal of American education, galvanized the U.S. Congress into action and led to passage of Title VI of the National Defense Education Act (NDEA) - which authorized support for strategic language and area studies. Under Title VI the U. S. Office of Education has subsequently allocated nearly $13 million to centers at qualifying universities to create or expand such programs. In the 1978-1979 academic year, for example, Title VI funds allocated $1,850,000, the largest sum ever, to 14 universities: Harvard, Princeton, Michigan, Chicago and Pennsylvania, long-time ivory towers for Orientalists, and to the universities of Arizona, Texas (at Austin), Utah and Washington, Portland State, Georgetown, New York University, UCLA, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

In addition, Title VI money provided 142 graduate fellowships in Middle East studies, 109 of them for the Arabic-language area. The most recent of nearly 2,500 awarded since the passage of NDEA, those fellowships will help provide a continuing flow of qualified instructors for 123 American universities and colleges that now offer graduate and undergraduate programs in Middle East studies.

The energy crisis, which intensified American interest in the Middle East - and subsequently generated additional funding - stimulated another wave of interest in Middle East studies. But by then the approach to such studies had begun to change. Where Orientalists of the Hitti era once pursued knowledge for its own sake and concentrated on linguistics, today's Middle East specialists advocate a more utilitarian approach. As Walid Khalidy put it, "It is a pity that so many Middle East centers are still housing classical Arabic and pre-Islamic odes when, next door, nuclear proliferation is being discussed." Khalidy a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut and recently a visiting fellow at Harvard, says that today's needs are more topical and urgent. "Today there is much interest from many quarters which reach deeply into academia, and everyone has become more intellectually inquisitive about the Arab world."

Universities which continue to emphasize the roots of Islam and medieval studies - notably Princeton and, to a lesser degree, Harvard, Chicago, Michigan and Pennsylvania - argue that the modern "area studies" approach is too broad, and not demanding enough, to produce professionals with an adequate historical perspective and language ability. And even those in the utilitarian camp admit that they have a point. "No doubt about it," admits a professor who teaches interdisciplinary courses, "the narrow philological basis of the Orientalists was thorough."

Because of this conflict, Georgetown has developed still a third approach by establishing a new center for concentrated area study, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, to answer a need for Arab studies as distinct from Middle East studies. The reason, says Professor John Ruedy, chairman of the program, is that the utilitarian approach made the same fundamental error as the Orientalists, "in assuming that all the people of the Middle East could be studied as 'the other' just because they were different. This does not solve modern problems - economic, social or developmental. We hope to produce experts who will be functional in the Arabic language as well as professionally functional."

Despite their differences, however, Middle East specialists remain allies and together grapple with the problem of determining how a university can best teach, back research, maintain high academic standards and, at the same time, graduate men and women qualified for diverse careers and roles in a changing world.

Another change in approach - arising from a scarcity of professorships and other doctoral-level positions - involves a new emphasis on master's-level programs for those who are career-oriented. Some of these are in Islamic studies or Arabic literature and linguistics, some are an interdisciplinary concentration on the Middle East. The University of Chicago, for example, now awards an M.A.T. degree to teachers with a sub-speciality in the Middle East. And Michigan has established a unique master's program for teaching Arabic as a foreign language; not only Americans have enrolled but also Arabs sent by universities in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria.

Other new programs provide joint training with a university's professional schools: business administration, law, public and urban policy, public.health, diplomacy and communications. Pennsylvania's law school now offers a diploma in Islamic law, while Harvard, Pennsylvania and the University of Washington offer graduate courses in Middle East economic systems. One of them, a graduate seminar on the economics of oil - open to students from the Harvard Business School, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Tufts' Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy - recently included four Japanese, one Pakistani and the public relations director of the Yemen Arab Republic.

Undergraduate courses in Middle East studies have also proliferated. In many universities undergraduates can include a concentration on the Middle East in their major, and some, like Texas, UCLA and Arizona, award an interdisciplinary degree in Middle East studies. Ricker College in Houlton, Maine has since 1969 offered a B.A in Muslim world studies, and gives academic credit for a junior year abroad at a college or university in a Muslim country. (See Aramco World, March-April 1975). Funded by the late King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, the government of Kuwait and Aramco, this program is intended to provide background to students who plan further specialized study and careers in fields dealing with the Middle East.

At the undergraduate level there are even students studying in Arab countries full-time. An estimated 50 American Muslims, for example, have been admitted to Saudi Arabia's universities - including the Islamic universities at Mecca, Medina and Riyadh - some with the help of the Muslim World League and the Muslim Students Association, others on their own. And in the 1970's two American graduate students who were not Muslim also studied in the kingdom. One was James Piscatori, now assistant professor of government at the University of Virginia. He says that he was the only Westerner among thousands of students on the Riyadh campus in 1974, where he lived in a youth hostel while working on his dissertation. More recently, Philip Suse, now completing his master's degree in international studies, attended the Arabic Language Institute in Riyadh.

In the U.S., so far, Portland State's is the only undergraduate program funded by NDEA, but recently some other U.S. grant money has been made available. The National Science Foundation, for example, has given a grant to the University of Chicago to locate and classify texts and translations - in the university's own collections - that are literary classics of Islamic civilizations. And John Marks, the program's administrator, hopes that translations of Islam's "50 great books" may some day be available to undergraduates. Another grant, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, will help a committee headed by North Carolina history professor Herbert Bodman to produce an updated atlas of Islamic history plus a microfiche collection of printed materials, slides, syllabi and teachers' guides - the beginning of a data bank from which instructors can draw materials they need to teach undergraduate courses.

Middle East studies are also filtering into secondary schools and adult-education programs through what are called "outreach" programs - an attempt to offset what Arab-Americans see as cultural bias and ethnic stereotyping. Funded by the U.S. Office of Education, "outreach" centers tailor their programs to the needs of their communities, holding workshops for teachers and providing teaching materials. Arizona's center has outfitted a van with colorful photographs and artifacts which goes around to Tucson schools - sometimes accompanied by one of the university's Arab students. Harvard and the University of Utah have sent teachers, administrators, librarians and media specialists abroad for a first-hand view of the Middle East. It's expensive, but important, says Barbara Aswad, anthropology professor at Michigan's Wayne State. "How can a teacher generate enthusiasm in the classroom when all his knowledge comes from books? When you see a culture whole then you can revise your ideas and understand it better."

The "outreach" programs are also helping American businessmen in their quest for needed export markets. Traveling to the Middle East for the first time, many businessmen have learned how little Americans know of foreign language and culture - particularly in the Middle East. Today, therefore, they gratefully pack outreach-sponsored elementary grammars into their attache cases, and, at the University of Pennsylvania, take televised instruction in a language lab. At the University of Arizona, the Thunderbird School of International Management offers two-week seminars led by American experts and the cultural attaches of Arab embassies.

Some universities have also instituted lecture series and mini-courses, both credit and non-credit, and mounted exhibitions in university museums. Others have turned to television. Professors from Princeton and New York University, for example, have offered courses on the Middle East on "Sunrise Semester/' an early-morning, nationally televised production.

According to some of the professors, the response has been astonishing. Frank Peters, an NYU professor of Islamic philosophy and theology, offered lectures on Muhammad and the Koran and found that "there are an enormous number of people who can't sleep or else get up early to learn something." A similar response was reported by Bernard Lewis, Princeton's eminent professor of history who breezed through his series, and also by Peter Chelkowski, director of NYU's Near Eastern center, who didn't. He was so nervous on his debut before the cameras that he lapsed into Polish - a switch the control room did not notice but which delighted his Polish-American viewers.

American academics, these days, are also traveling more. Involved in burgeoning cross-cultural exchanges, some are on the road constantly, one day reading papers - in Arabic and English - at a University of Riyadh conference on history, the next attending a USC conference on the life of King Faisal. They attend such gatherings as Utah's international conference on comparative law (Islamic, Talmudic, Roman and British), Georgetown's on U.S. - Arab commercial and financial relations, and the University of Petroleum and Minerals' conference on solar energy.

They also undertake research projects - like UCLAs two-year study of the economic relationship among states in the Middle East - and manage to attend the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). A three-day convocation of some 700 academic, business, and government people, MESA offers panel discussions, workshops and papers on every aspect of Middle East studies.

Academia is also providing professors for Arab institutions of higher learning. Some 100 Arabic-speaking Americans now teach in Saudi Arabia. Most are specialists in such fields as engineering, computer science, and the humanities - but some, in a coals-to-Newcastle situation, are even involved in Arabic. One example is Dr. Zaki Abdel Malek, assistant professor of Arabic and linguistics at Utah, and director of a new program for teaching Arabic to Americans at Dhahran. Other American professors are teaching Arabic at Riyadh's Arabic Language Institute.

America's corps of Middle East specialists, moreover, has pushed far beyond the groves of academe. In what are clearly examples of the utilitarian approach, some specialists virtually commute between their campuses and Arab countries.

This is particularly true of those at universities with alumni in Saudi Arabia, many of whom now head university departments and government ministries. Economists from Harvard and MIT, for example, advise Saudi Arabia's Ministry of Planning on the country's third Five Year Development Plan, while specialists from USC help Bahrain tackle its problems of growth. They make surveys and evaluations on subjects as varied as nomadic response to irrigation development and the progress of family planning programs.

Despite that, however, the ivory tower contingent has by no means given up; indeed it seems to be making a comeback. Even as social and economic problems seem to be absorbing the attention of American Arabists, some universities have quietly begun to re-focus their attention on subjects dear to the Hitti-era Orientalists. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, a series of summer institutes on medieval studies recently brought together international Latinists, Byzantinists and Arabists to study the interaction of those cultures. It is not, obviously, a topical or urgent problem. But it is, says George Makdisi, Pennsylvania's professor of Islamic studies, important.

"We can no longer study these medieval cultures separately," Dr. Makdisi insists. "What we learn on one side of the Mediterranean throws light on the other. If there is so much of Arabic Islamic culture in medieval Latin culture, that means our culture in the West has been formed by many elements, among them, and very strongly among them, the Arab Islamic elements. We all belong to the same culture. Muslims are not Oriental in the way the Far East is Oriental. They are more like us."

Of Catalogues and Computers

In the ivy-covered Gothic fortress that houses the University of Washington's classics department, Professor Pierre MacKay sits in an office crammed with books and monographs and festooned with yards of green and white computer printouts.

The books and monographs are Greek, Latin and Arabic classics, and obviously belong in a classics department office. But the green and white printouts? They're part of an experiment: Professor MacKay's attempt to perfect a system of transliterating Arabic by computer.

Transliteration, quite different from translation, is a difficult process; it is the attempt to spell the words of one language in the alphabet or characters of another. Professor MacKay's system is an effort to do it by computer - to program a computer to either swallow the Roman alphabet and print out a corresponding Arabic script, or accept an input of Arabic and disgorge a corresponding Roman-lettered output. Originally devised to edit and publish medieval texts inexpensively, Professor MacKay's system is now being adapted to produce business contracts, economic and statistical reports and - a particularly important use - library catalogues.

Rapid transliteration of library catalogues is important today, partly because of the burgeoning interest in Middle East studies, but also because library acquisitions of materials in Arabic have increased tremendously. Although authors' names and book titles are printed in Arabic script on the books, the catalogue cards are usually written in Roman letters. Harvard's library, for example, is the only one that has its Arabic collection catalogued entirely in Arabic script: more than 100,000 cards written by hand. Computerized transliteration of Arabic script into Roman letters, therefore, will be immensely helpful, particularly if introduced at the Library of Congress, which catalogues most American library materials.

The Library of Congress, in fact, has already begun to computerize its cataloguing. It is the only way, librarians say, to cope with today's avalanche of printed materials in all languages. The library has begun with the Near East National Union List, a compilation of Arabic, Persian and Turkish monographs and serials, although for now the list will be catalogued in the Roman alphabet. When the use of Arabic script will begin is anybody's guess; computerized transliteration is not simple. As Professor MacKay ruefully admits, "It's a good deal easier to teach the Arabic alphabet to undergraduates than to teach the same thing to a computer."

The dramatic increase in American acquisitions of Arabic materials - books, monographs and serials - is, curiously, the result of a law concerned with foreign sales of American agricultural products. Because that law - Public Law 480 - provides that payment for the sales be made in local currencies which, in turn, may be spent in the countries making payment, the United States has accepted, in lieu of cash, some 360,000 Arabic books, plus hundreds of magazines and newspapers. These have been given to 25 participating libraries: the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library and 23 university libraries, many of which rely almost entirely on PL. 480 imports for their Arabic materials.

Some universities, of course, have other sources. Princeton, which has been building its collection since the 1930's, leads the country with the largest number of catalogued Arabic volumes - approximately 60,000 titles - and both the University of Utah and UCLA have been compiling notable collections since the 1950's. Utah, already despite its late start, has more than 33,000 volumes. Some of the collection came through PL. 480 purchases, but the greater part is due to the tireless efforts of Dr. Aziz Atiya, founder of Utah's Middle Eastern program. For years Dr. Atiya has made trips abroad to acquire modern works and, in addition, a notable collection of Korans, manuscripts and Arabic papyri. And UCLA has a collection of nearly 3,000 Arabic manuscripts, including some rare 15th- to 18th-century medical and scientific texts.

While these holdings cannot rival those of the great Middle Eastern libraries, such as Cairo or Istanbul, the larger collections in American university libraries are greater than those of some Middle Eastern countries: Harvard, Michigan and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University each claims to have more than 100,000 titles in its Middle East collection in all languages.

The Arabic-language library holdings also serve an indirect and more subtle function merely by their presence – a function that Portland State University's Millar Library has chosen to emphasize. The library participates in the PL. 480 program and has acquired over 20,000 Arabic titles covering a tremendously broad range of topics. Unlike many other libraries, however, Portland's has integrated Arabic titles into the main collection of English-language works, along with books in German, French and other languages. As a result, a student. searching in the stacks for books on irrigation techniques, early childhood education or the nature of science is likely to see Arabic books alongside the English ones on the subject - and to realize, perhaps, what undiscovered treasures of knowledge and wisdom lie hidden in Islamic culture and its incomparable language.

To Learn the Language

We do not pretend," write the authors of an Arab-language primer, "that the would-be student of Arabic is confronted by an easy task" Yet Arabic is the official language of nearly every nation from Morocco to Oman, and is spoken as well in the southwestern corner of Iran, in parts of the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, and in some areas fringing the south Sahara. For many American businessmen and diplomats, therefore, some knowledge of Arabic is vital and today, as a result, thousands of students, in those fields and others, are taking Arabic in American universities and colleges.

Twenty years ago, this mass interest in one of the world's most difficult languages would have been inconceivable. There were, in fact, no more than 371 students enrolled in American university Arabic courses. But in the wake of the post-war and post-sputnik surges in international studies, Arabic language study has soared. By the opening of the 1977-1978 academic year, according to the Modern Language Association, 3,070 students were enrolled in Arabic courses in 105 colleges and universities and the number may even be higher now.

Most American students study modern standard Arabic - the language of broadcasting, journalism, advertising, formal speeches, modern literature and scientific writing. Those who will work in Islamic studies go on to learn classical Arabic; others, especially those who will work in the Middle East, often continue with one of the Arabic vernaculars: the spoken Arabic of Egypt, Syria, Morocco or the Gulf countries. But none of the courses, as the textbook author said, is easy. As Philip Hitti put it, in introducing Arabic at Princeton, Arabic was the first really foreign language that his American students had encountered. He meant that most languages studied in America - such as Latin, French, German and Spanish - have common roots, as well as a common alphabet.

This is not true of Arabic. Learning Arabic involves not only an entirely new vocabulary and grammar, but a whole new system of grammatical concepts, as well as a new and difficult writing system. It is so difficult, in fact, that 20 years ago only half of each first-year Arabic class survived for the second year.

Today's attrition rates are much lower. Because of post-war progress in language instruction, afar larger percentage of beginning students perseveres through three or four years of study. Arabic students, moreover, reach a higher level of competence sooner than their counterparts of a generation ago.

One important element in this change is the purely audio-lingual approach to language study developed during World War II by the U. S. Army, when it became clear that traditional language-teaching methods were neither fast enough nor successful enough for the military's purposes. Although that approach has been modified for college use since the war - by reintroducing grammar and writing at early stages of instruction - it has also been expanded. Today the teaching of Arabic is no longer confined to the classroom and the language lab; it has moved into audio-visual and computer centers as well. At the University of Pennsylvania, first-year Arabic is taught with the aid of 46 hours of video tape and at Harvard, and at the University of Texas, with the help of a computer.

At Texas, Professor Victorine Abboud claims that students can now learn to write in Arabic with only four to six hours of computer-terminal instruction - while the classroom method took some 36 hours of instruction. At Harvard, the computer drills first-year and intermediate Arabic students on grammar and vocabulary, and its programmer, Wilson Bishai, hopes one day to be able to add a sound synthesizer so the machine can pronounce Arabic as well. Teachers of Arabic do not suggest that the computer will eliminate classroom teaching altogether, but they agree that the machine can give students a self-confidence rarely found in the ranks of beginning students of Arabic. A computer, Bishai points out, can call the student by name, reinforce correct answers with praise, and joke about errors. The computer, furthermore, never gets impatient and never has an off day - something the best professor can rarely claim.

For those who believe that no language can be learned ejccept in the country where it is spoken, two programs of intensive Arabic study abroad have been available for American students, one in Egypt, the other in Tunisia. The Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) at the American University in Cairo, begun in 1967 and administered by the University of Michigan, accepts 20 graduate and undergraduate students a year for an eight-week summer program of colloquial Egyptian Arabic and modern standard Arabic. Fifteen more students are accepted for a full academic year of advanced Arabic.

A similar program, instituted in 1971 and run by the University of Utah, formerly sent as many as 40 students a year to the Bourguiba Institute for Modern Languages at the University of Tunis, where study ranged from modem standard Arabic and conversational Tunisian to advanced grammar and phonetics. The Tunisian government also awarded fellowships each year to two summer program students, giving them the opportunity to continue their study for a full academic year, and to audit university courses.

Both programs provided "total immersion" in Arabic, and by the end of the summer, according to one of the Cairo students, "you have learned two or three thousand new newspaper words and are having intelligent conversations in Arabic" By the following spring, he added, "I was learning the meters of Arabic poetry and chanting the Koran with proper pronunciation." Still not an easy task, but no longer the discouraging challenge that it was for the American student two decades ago.

"I was working on my Ph.D. at the University of Michigan when I came home to attend my sister's wedding and gather data for my thesis on development and social change. Suddenly I found myself with an architectural office, which in just one year has grown to a staff of 40. It all sort of fell into place. I wasn't planning on it.

Saudi Arabia is undergoing change which I can actually see every day. It attracted me like a magnet. I found it super-exciting and I wanted to be part of it, be a part of building the country."

Zuhair Fayez
Architect Jiddah
B.A. and M.A., University of Colorado, 1971

This article appeared on pages 12-19 of the May/June 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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