The state of Middle Eastern Studies at Grinnell

The Middle East has captured international attention due to the United States’ current involvement and the revolutionary events occurring there. Currently, Grinnell offers some Arabic language instruction and several courses specifically about the Middle East. A Middle Eastern Studies Concentration could be a next step for this topic that has come to demand the attention of students and faculty alike.

“Given enrollments in Middle East related courses, we’ll be able to make a pretty strong case for adding resources to help make a concentration possible,” said Professor Caleb Elfenbein, History.

According to Elfenbein, Mervat Youssef, Arabic, Kathy Kamp, Anthropology, and Susan Ireland, French, are currently working to develop a program where the College would hire a recent graduate of the Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language program at the American University in Cairo to come here for up to two years at a time.

Typically, at the College, most Arabic classes fall under French, and the History or Religious Studies departments usually offer courses related to Middle Eastern studies. However, much like the rest of the Middle Eastern world, change is coming and new borders are being drawn.

“At present, there are two core faculty members and then there are a number people around the College who teach related courses,” Elfenbein said. “Beginning next year, there is going to be a second Arabic language instructor, so that’s going to allow for an expansion of current offerings.”

Jon Cohen ’14, who created an independent major in Middle Eastern Studies, thinks a concentration would help students get recognition for taking these classes.

“Given that there is emerging demand for this sort of skill, it would be great on your transcript [to say—] I have these skills, the College has recognized these skills and now I can sell them to you, my employer,” Cohen said.

Since few regions are as necessary to the continuation of the United States’ current economic success as the Middle East, much study focuses on energy issues and conflict. With growing immigrant populations, however, Middle Eastern Studies at Grinnell hit closer to home than one might first think.

“The immigrant community in the States from south Asia and the Middle East is quite significant,” Elfenbein said. “Understanding the history from which these communities are drawing and how they understand their new locations is pretty important.”

Elfenbein emphasized that jobs that would make use of a Middle Eastern Studies Concentration do not necessarily fall under the umbrella of the United States energy interests. Areas of work that combine a social justice-oriented yet profit-minded occupation exist in several forms.

“At this point, the halal meat industry is huge for people who are really concerned about questions of sourcing and animal husbandry more generally, [it’s] really thinking about the relationship between conceptions of humane slaughtering and food justice issues,” Elfenbein said.

However, for those less enthused about the prospects of a job in the meat industry, areas such as finance and law will soon be demanding those with skills pertinent to the Middle East.

“Someone who is going into international finance will be very well placed to serve as a link between
people who are advocating a kind of Islamic economics and other folks in the financial sectors,” Elfenbein said. “Having an awareness of particular concerns that people might have can only help someone.”

There are also those on campus who see the concentration as a way to bridge the knowledge gap between two inherently connected groups of people.

“Having the Middle Eastern Studies Concentration would be really helpful for not only Americans, but for international students as well, [especially those] who don’t know much about the Middle East and have prejudices and misinformed ideas and stereotypes,” said Sahar Jalal ’14, an international student from Morocco.

Though the discussion surrounding Middle Eastern studies is coursing around the school, students will have to wait for further developments before they will have the opportunity to declare this concentration.
“We have to get through strategic planning and have to know what post-strategic-planning Grinnell is going to look like before we can think specifically about formalizing a concentration,” Elfenbein said.