The realization of long-held plans to expand North Central College’s international program is underway with the addition of new faculty and courses in Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) studies partially funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The goal is to infuse the campus with a better understanding of this important region from a variety of perspectives.
“In Hollywood and in the media, there has been a lot of stereotyping about Muslims, so we need a much deeper understanding of this region,” says Esra Tasdelen, assistant professor of Arabic and MENA studies, who has been hired to develop and teach courses for the MENA program. “I believe this can be done through learning about the region’s languages and cultures.”
In the first offering of Elementary Arabic, a total of 17 students are enrolled to learn a language that ranks fifth internationally based on the percentage of speakers. Among them is Thomas Ragot, an international student from France. “I’ve always wanted to learn Arabic,” he says. “I feel it’s even more interesting when the culture is completely different from your own.”
Tasdelen, a native of Istanbul, Turkey, who completed her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Chicago, stresses that the MENA minor will be more than studying Arabic. “You cannot separate the language from the culture,” she says. “I’m a fan of interdisciplinary teaching and the winter course titled Introduction to the People and Cultures of the Middle East and North Africa will incorporate art, literature, gender studies, cinema, politics, history and geography.” Next year, the program will continue to become more robust with Intermediate Arabic courses and study abroad opportunities in Morocco, Jordan and Turkey.
“When we think about recent acts of violence around the world, it becomes even more clear that we need an understanding of the cultures of the Middle East and North Africa that goes beyond stereotypes and prejudices. To be able to break the cycle of hatred, we need to be much better informed about this region of the world and the history of its civilizations.”
Enriching the new development of the program is a one-year Fulbright Scholar-in-Residence Maha Mourad, an associate professor of marketing at The American University in Cairo. At North Central, she is sharing consumer behavior and marketing research expertise in courses that cross disciplinary boundaries of business and global studies. “One of my goals is to change the stereotypes,” she says. “You must understand the rituals, the religion and the customs in order to do business in this region.”
It’s a region that global business professionals need to comprehend, she says, because of the buying power of its population of more than 350 million consumers.
In classes across campus, Mourad has been sharing her knowledge of Muslim society, topics like music in Egypt and why women wear veils. She is advising a new club called the Muslim Association and helped prepare graduate students for a D-Term study abroad course in Abu Dhabi, led by Veselina Vracheva, assistant professor of management, and William Muck, associate professor of political science. Both Tasdelen and Mourad emphasized the value of studying the MENA region for professionals in business, government and the military. “There’s a great need for people who understand the culture and speak the language and who could work for employers in this region.”
A Two-Minute Lesson in Arabic
Ahlan wa sahlan, ya Alumni!
I’ve always enjoyed learning about languages, linguistics and cultures, so I was very excited by the opportunity to learn Arabic. As an English-speaker, learning Arabic has meant adding an entirely new alphabet to my lexicon. I began to associate sounds with different symbols and even learn new sounds that are not spoken in English.
On the page, Arabic can look intimidating to English-speakers. The language reads from right to left; therefore, all books—including my textbook—are printed from right to left. What’s more, many letters of the alphabet connect into a looping, artful script.
Learning the Arabic alphabet presented some challenges. The Arabic equivalent to “dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s” is critical to the meaning of the word. Forgetting the dot above, beneath or within a letter can entirely change the sound and meaning of a word. Certain letters in the Arabic alphabet can also work either as a consonant or a vowel, depending on context. The letter’s sound then changes entirely, and as a reader or speaker you must recognize that change.
Even the Arabic number system presents its own demands. Ironically, the numerals English-speakers use are derived from Arabic and are termed Arabic numerals; however, Arabs adopted Indian numerals instead and this system is referred to as Arabic-Indic numerals.
Thanks to Professor Tasdelen, in 10 weeks I learned to read and write a new alphabet and can now hold a small conversation in Arabic. With confidence I can say, “Shukran (thank you) North Central College!”