Arabic Department Severely Underfunded, Overlooked

In the last decade, students seeking to learn Arabic at Oberlin have been met with a disorganized program that, at various points, has offered and then retracted intermediate courses, shifted online, and generally suffered from a lack of funding. In 2019, Oberlin changed the Arabic course offerings for all intermediate and advanced classes to digital courses offered exclusively through the Shared Languages Program, an act that was met with student and faculty protest when introduced but that is ultimately still in place today. 

Currently, the only Arabic courses offered in person through the College are Arabic 101 and 102, both of which are taught by Visiting Instructor of Arabic Mahmoud Meslat, who has been with the College intermittently for the past 11 years. This lack of opportunity to study the language on campus beyond the introductory level has left many students unsatisfied as they look to continue their Arabic education. 

College second-year Noa Shapiro-Tamir recalls observing the 2019 Save Arabic campaign as a prospective student, an experience that ultimately contributed to her decision to commit to the school. 

“That was pretty influential as I was deciding whether or not to come to Oberlin,” she said. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is something that students value here, and that I value.’ So that was really exciting for me, and it’s really interesting to come full circle and be doing this again now.” 

Shapiro-Tamir, an Environmental Studies major, spent the last two semesters completing the two in-person courses. 

“It’s been a great experience,” she said. “We’ve all gotten to know each other and our professor pretty closely. It’s a beautiful language and is really exciting to learn.” 

That love of the language seems to be a common trend among Meslat’s students. College first-year Asquith Clarke II shared his experience discovering the Arabic 101 class in the fall. 

“That very first day of class, I just remember thinking to myself, ‘I have no clue about this language, about the different letters and sounds,’” Clarke said. “But then I met Professor Meslat, and he started off by telling us how to say good morning, and we just spoke to each other. We introduced each other, and it was really awesome.” 

Clarke went on to take the 102 course this semester, but is now feeling stifled as he seeks to further his Arabic skills. 

“Now that we’re at the end of this semester, it’s difficult realizing there’s not another in-person class to advance to,” he said. “It’s really hard hearing my professor talk about how difficult it is to teach this language with the lack of support here at Oberlin.” 

For his part, Meslat — currently the only instructor of Arabic at the school and only employed on a part-time basis — believes that the key to strengthening Arabic at Oberlin is to support consistency within the program’s structure and to offer in-person, upper-level classes. 

“We cannot manipulate the program like this — you know, one time we hire, one time we let people go, one time we have a full program, one time we just have part-time teachers,” he said. “I want them to maintain a full Arabic program like any other language. I think Arabic is as important as the German language, as the French language, as English, as Chinese, as Japanese, as Russian. We should have that. There is no excuse.” 

The common explanation given by the College for the current lack of course offerings is that there is not enough demonstrated interest in the language. But College second-year Kiyan Fawaz, another student in Meslat’s Arabic 102 course, feels that this claim is not truly representative of the student perspective. 

“People are interested!” Fawaz said. “The amount of initiative that there’s been by students at the College in the last 10 years is significant. There was an entire Save Arabic campaign in 2019, and my class right now has set up a meeting with [Associate Dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences] Elizabeth Hamilton about getting intermediate Arabic classes again. So there have been multiple campaigns over the years to sustain a more formal Arabic department.” 

As true as it is that students are passionate about the Arabic program, the current registration rate is not as high as the administration feels it should be to warrant new courses. However, Meslat asserts that if a more consistent and firmly structured program is put in place, more students will become familiar with what is offered and registration will increase. 

“We have to build the foundation and then wait,” he said. “We cannot expect that from the first year when we have a plan, everybody is going to enroll. If we just build it, then they will register. That’s a promise.”

Thus far, the College has made no clear steps toward introducing upper-level classes in Arabic. However, a new learning community is being introduced next semester by StudiOC in the hopes of drawing more attention to Arabic at Oberlin. The community, designed by Meslat and Professor of History and Chair of International Affairs Zeinab Abul-Magd, is called Arab and Islamic Historical Memory: Cinema, Language, and Museums. It will include both Arabic 102 and a history course on Egyptian Cinema, which will be thematically connected through the learning community. 

College first-year Zane Badawi has completed both Arabic language courses and intends to register for Abul-Magd’s course next semester. He expressed his hopes for what this learning community will bring to the Arabic program. 

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the Arabic program to receive the support it needs without being too reliant on institutional funding,” Badawi wrote in an email to the Review. “Professor Abul-Magd’s class provides a previously absent incentive for students to enroll in Arabic, which I think will drive up the number of people in the program and lead to a spotlight on Arabic that hasn’t been there before.” 

Funding has been a big issue for the Arabic program, which is a part of the Middle East and North Africa Studies department. 

“Unlike a lot of programs and committees on this campus, MENA doesn’t actually have its own budget, so it’s hard to get programs created that have to do with the MENA department,” College second-year Lulu Chebaro said.

Still, the students and faculty have not given up in their fight to establish a strong Arabic program at Oberlin. 

“We have obstacles, yes,” Meslat said. “Is it perfect? It can be. We can do a lot better if they give me the tools that I need for that program.”

For Meslat and his students, that means introducing upper-level classes on campus, increasing funding for the MENA department, and giving professors full-time positions that will compensated them accordingly in order to establish a solid foundation on which an Arabic department at Oberlin may thrive.