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The Myth of Middle East Programs

Reader comment on item: Defund Middle East Studies

Submitted by Kaden Bryce (Saudi Arabia), Feb 24, 2004 at 12:51

The truth concerning Middle East programs has yet to be told. Most arguments I come across (on both sides) completely misrepresent the scope and objectives of these programs.

As a recipient of a 3 year scholarship to study the "Middle East" at a major US university under what used to be called the National Defense Foreign Language Fellowship Program (NDFL), I think I can clear up some of these misunderstandings.

NDFL scholarships were extremely generous. In a word, they paid everything and more. One clause in your "agreement" was that you were being given this award with the understanding that upon completion of your studies, you would "work for the government". However, the exact wording of the clause (as far as I can remember) was much vaguer than that and there was no hint that you might have to pay the fellowship back if you didn't comply with this clause. That never occurred. The clause was just another sentence in the "fine print", put there more as a suggestion of what you might want to do after you graduated rather than as a formal and enforceable part of the deal.

In fact, as a new student in the department, it quickly became clear to me that the last place the "government" would want to recruit was from the pool of scholars in the field, not only those studying at my campus but throughout academia, at least in Middle Eastern studies.

Now we come to the heart of the matter. It's not that there was anything "wrong" with my colleagues (or me). It's simply that they were *scholars*, not government types. Students in the field, especially at the graduate level, were dedicated to such arcane fields as the philosophy of Avicenna, the poetry of pre-Islamic Arabia, Cuneiform (!), the ribald ballads of Abu Nuwas, early Islamic texts and so on. To become a professional in the field (as an academic) you were expected to know all (!) the major European languages, at least at the reading/research level, not to mention at least 2 Near Eastern languages.

What's my point? My point is, departments of Middle Eastern studies were never set up (for the most part) to train future government "workers" to work in the Middle East. They were set up to develop academics in arcane sub-fields requiring years and years of almost monastic dedication. Few were called and even fewer made it.

Even more important was the reality that these academic departments hardly ever considered the "modern" Middle East as a subject of *academic* study. If they ever did, it was done as a "side-show" kind of thing, but the emphasis was definitely not on the modern period. Nor should it have been.

As a student, you might very well have wanted to emphasize this area and also develop a language skill that might be vocationally rewarding. But if so, you were in the wrong place and those who came with those intentions quickly exited. They realized that to learn one of the Middle Eastern languages au fond and to be able to maneuver successfully in the Middle East, you simply had to go to that part of the world and live there for years. One couldn't become a Middle East expert in *that* sense through formal study in the US. It was simply impossible.

Edward Said once castigated us "Orientalists" because he found that few could actually speak a Middle Eastern language fluently or had even lived for an extended period of time in that part of the world. That was one of the few times he was correct. But then, you don't become an expert on ancient Greece by going to live in Greece, necessarily.

The bottom line? Middle Eastern "experts" that can actually show up in the streets of Cairo, for example, and immediately start living in the community and making contacts are not now and never have been available at US universities. Those kinds of experts have to be found elsewhere or trained elsehow.

In the meantime, my dwindling contacts with my illustrious professors at my college bemoan the fact that they and their work has been so completely misunderstood and that they are now in the limelight. That's the last thing they ever wanted.
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