Arabic Event Finds Hope Despite National Division

James Fleming

Oberlin’s Arabic program, which in recent years has made strides toward expansion following a troubled infancy, hosted its third annual Arabic Language Day Tuesday evening. This event is one of several additions Arabic professor Mahmoud Meslat has pushed for since taking over the program in 2014. Other additions include creating opportunities for students to speak Arabic outside of class and, most recently, the hiring of Professor Basem Al-Raba’a. For Meslat, who described the Arabic language as a “soul to soul” experience connecting people of numerous cultures from all across the Middle East and North Africa with a common tongue, events like the Language Day and the Poetry Night on Thursday exist to celebrate Arabic language and culture, as well as the beauty in cross-cultural communication. Such gatherings have also taken on deeper meaning in light of recent events.

“The Arabic language, it has nothing to do with politics,” Meslat said. “It’s not about nationalities and authorities. … It has nothing to do with your religion, … [or] your color. … We have different backgrounds, different traditions, but we communicate in language,” Meslat said.

After an introduction by Meslat, students of the program delivered presentations on topics ranging from the scope of the Arab and Islamic worlds to the culture and traditions of the region, including its music and significant sites. The Arab world extends from the Mediterranean to the Sahara to the Fertile Crescent. Among its many significant landmarks are the Egyptian pyramids, as well as sites important to Islam such as the Kaaba in Mecca and Mount Arafat, where it is said the first Revelation of the Qur’an was received.

Cultural descriptions also included Arab food culture, which contains adoptive favorites of many Americans such as hummus, baklava, stuffed grape leaves and falafel, as well as lesser-known cultural staples like kibbeh, a fried bulgur wheat and meat pastry of which Aleppo, Syria, alone has more than twenty local varieties.

The program also included an acoustic rendition of Egyptian pop star Amr Diab’s song “Tamally Maak”, or “Always With You,” and a collaborative translation of “Zina,” by Algerian group Babylone. Students displayed an impressive level of linguistic competency throughout, especially considering that many of them have yet to complete their first semester of Arabic study.

After the presentations came perhaps the most important — and certainly the most anticipated — event of the evening: dinner. Participants and attendees gathered around tables of traditional Arab dishes prepared at home by the Meslat family. The food and friendly conversation enhanced the welcoming atmosphere set by the previous cultural activities. The informal environment was welcoming to everyone in attendance, many of whom were not directly involved with the Arabic program.

College senior Sophie Pierson, who studied Arabic while abroad in Cordoba, Spain, reflected that she wished she had the time to continue language study on campus, but that events like this are great for bringing people like her who are still have a personal interest in Arabic language and culture together into one space.

“I thought it was very inspiring to see such a large group of students come together and speak Arabic,” she said. “In Spain … we focused more on writing and less on speaking. … I would like to improve now that I have seen a group of college students engage in conversation in Arabic.”

College junior Hassan Bin Fahim, an Arabic student who attended the event, found the evening similarly enjoyable.

“It was generally a nice, homey environment,” he said. “It was like a mini trip to the Middle East while being at Oberlin, experiencing … Arabic culture first-hand.”

The Arab world has been especially relevant in the United States and around the world for many years for more reasons than intellectual curiosity and personal heritage. The increasingly polarized social and political environment of the Middle East is focused largely on acts of violence and prolonged U.S. military interventions, which many believe to be a factor in regional instability. The significance of positive and celebratory Arab cultural events therefore extends past the immediate community for many students and faculty, especially in the uncertainty following the election of Donald Trump, who has spoken enthusiastically in favor of banning Muslim refugees from entering the country and increasing surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods and mosques.

Pierson expressed that her curiosity regarding Arabic, originally due to the number and diversity of Arabic speakers in the world, has been elevated since the election. She emphasized the importance of solidarity and the role language can play in learning about other cultures to prevent irrational misunderstandings and to protect the safety of other Americans.

“Learning a language is a concrete and effective way to stand in solidarity with minority and immigrant communities,” she said. “Especially now when we as a country and a world have to embrace the … cooperation that democracy supposedly stands for.”

Bin Fahim also expressed increased interest in Arabic study after recent developments. A Muslim from Pakistan, he grew up with Arabic as the language of prayer and the Qur’an. As Arabic is used mainly in religious contexts by most Pakistanis, he decided to take an elementary class to learn the requisite language skills for more general application.

“I think the world is progressing. Arabic is becoming more and more relevant to my experience as a human being in a global world, and … I’d love to continue my study of Arabic,” he said, also emphasizing the importance of self-definition and not “[letting] go of your identity in the face of opposition and fear.”

“Yeah, we don’t eat the same food, but we can communicate and learn and introduce ourselves to this new culture through language, and this a lot he said.”

Meslat, a native Syrian and permanent U.S. resident, stated that he has faith in the Constitution to protect communities that feel endangered.

“[Diversity] makes America great, that’s why we love America,” he said.

Meslat is a passionate proponent of Arabic culture, and is inspired by sociopolitical setbacks to do more as he continues his work here. With the probable trajectory of U.S. foreign and domestic policy over at least the next four years, Arabic programs and multicultural community events like these are more important than ever.

Arts editor Victoria Garber contributed reporting.