MENA Students Seek Space, Recognition on Campus Dual-degree

Amid potential budget cutbacks, students are joining together to create a union that both supports students of Middle Eastern and North African descent and advocates for the expansion of MENA studies at Oberlin. Two groups of students, one geared toward creating a space for people of MENA descent and another aimed at developing the MENA Studies department, are taking action to make the region more visible on campus.

College senior Aatifah George is the co-chair of the new Middle Eastern and North African Students Association.

“It’s needed for a lot of reasons,” she said. “We are a community of color, but we’re not treated that way; we’re basically invisible.”

In the United States, the government’s classification of the Middle Eastern racial identity has been changed frequently. Since 1943, the federal government has included Middle Eastern and North African people into a broader “white” grouping. In 2014, the Census Bureau announced a proposed separate MENA racial category to be included on the 2020 census. However, this plan was halted in January 2018.

“It is very important to me to talk about how Arabs and Middle Easterners are truly their own ethnic or racial group,” George said. “We are often put in categories that don’t accurately depict our group, and frankly that’s kind of sad.”

Accurately representing the diversity within Middle Eastern identities will be one of the group’s main goals.

“A lot of people use Arab, Muslim, Middle Eastern interchangeably,” George said. “[Although] a lot of people who identify with the Middle East are not Muslim [or Arab], especially in America.”

The organization’s proposed name, MENASA, mirrors the wide range of people it seeks to represent.

“[We want] to try and be inclusive as possible,” George said. “Basically any student that identifies with the Middle East, whatever that means to them, we want [them] to be a part of this group.”

For George, the group is also a response to a lack of institutional support for students in the MENA Studies program.

“The fate of the Arabic [program] is kind of up in the air at the moment,” she said.

Two of the MENA Department’s six faculty members are currently on sabbatical and only one professor has been hired to teach Arabic. There is currently no major offered due to a lack of faculty. Despite the demand for higher-level language classes, the department is only able to offer students 100 and 200-level Arabic classes.

College junior Antonia Offen is a MENA studies student who wanted to continue Arabic at the 300 level.

“There wasn’t an Arabic class being offered, so I talked to my professor and other students about what we could do to get a class,” Offen said. “Through that conversation, I kind of stumbled into the fact that there [was] … either nothing being offered for various things involving Middle Eastern studies and Arabic or that [there were] very disjointed things … occurring on their own.”

Together with Leo Hochberg and Sophie Drukman-Feldstein, two College juniors, Offen began to advocate for expanding the MENA Studies department.

“The East Asian Studies department, the Russian [and East European Studies] department, the German [Language and Literatures] department have all of these classes being offered that would be a dream for us,” Offen said. “We would never get them; it’s impossible with the current number of faculty.”

Professor of Arabic Basem Al-Raba’a agrees.

“I’ve been asked many times to give private readings, but I’ve had to say no because I cannot meet all the demand here by myself,” he said.

According to Al-Raba’a, the problems the MENA department is facing are not unique to Oberlin.

“At most peer institutions there is only one Arabic professor,” he said. “But now there is also the language sharing program.”

Several Great Lakes schools have begun to share language professors and organize higher level classes online in order to supplement courses that may not be offered at an individual institution.

“The language sharing program would be better than nothing, but it’s not perfect,” Offen said. “That being said, it’s not even being offered. [The administration is] saying ‘we have this opportunity, maybe you won’t like it, but you should try it out,’ but then it’s not really an opportunity. Even if I wanted to take the online class, there’s no telling when it will be offered next.”

Offen is not alone in feeling that the College doesn’t do enough to support the department and its students.

“Although the number of faculty has increased since I came in 2008, the previous administration didn’t really support MENA Studies,” said Zeinab Abul-Magd, associate professor of Middle Eastern History. “Arabic was never stabilized and always ran on visiting professors who were here for one year. Professor Al-Raba’a is the best that we’ve had, but he is three years into a four-year contract, and we haven’t been told if it will be renewed.”

Both Professor Abul-Magd and Al-Raba’a agree that very little can be done for students without hiring additional faculty.

“There is very high demand,” Abul-Magd said. “Our classes would always be full even if we weren’t good teachers. Despite this, we have very little financial support.”

Offen and her informal teammates have continued to organize and meet with the administration in the hope of preserving access to Arabic and other courses.

“The administration has been open to hearing what we have to say, but hasn’t implemented anything,” she said. “If students want to have their voices heard on this issue they have to enroll in classes and tell the College that the department deserves more support.”