Conflating language and identity
Harold F. Schiffman
haroldfs at ccat.sas.upenn.edu
Wed Aug 9 12:49:24 UTC 2006
Arabist Indoctrination at Middlebury College
By Franck Salameh
The Middle East Quarterly | August 8, 2006
[The following article is reprinted from the current edition of the Middle
At a time when Arabic language training lags at many universities, the
Arabic summer school at Middlebury College in Vermont retains its
reputation for quality language instruction. Indeed, it could be said to
define the gold standard of Arabic language training programs. But even as
students leave Middlebury with better Arabic, they also leave
indoctrinated with a tendentious Arab nationalist reading of Middle
Eastern history. Permeating lectures and carefully-designed grammatical
drills, Middlebury instructors push the idea that Arab identity trumps
local identities and that respect for minority ethnic and sectarian
communities betrays Arabism.
Conflating Language and Identity
Historically, defining who was an Arab was easy: until the early twentieth
century, scholars from both the Middle East and the West considered an
Arab to be a person whose ancestry was in the Arabian Peninsula or the
Fertile Crescent. Someone from Jeddah was an Arab, a Cairene was not.
Indeed, historian Bernard Lewis has shown that the Middle East was a mix
of cultures, particularisms, nationalities, and self-perceptions that
never enjoyed a single uniform collective identity, let alone an
exclusively Arab one. This began to change in the early twentieth
century when Arab nationalist elites began superimposing a new overarching
national identity on preexisting group affiliations. In the 1930s, the
idea that one is an Arab if one speaks Arabic came into vogue. However,
this definition of identity in linguistic terms was a borrowed European
concept reflecting uniquely European circumstances with no parallel in the
Near East. Indeed, this new linguistic parameter of identity, so favored
by the Arab nationalists, was the result of the post-World War I concept
of "self-determination" of European communities, all of which had
languages with long literary traditions, which could be billed as the
emblem of specific national identities.
The Middle East had no such "tribal" languages possessing the requisite
literary and cultural tradition upon which to base a specific identity.
Rather, the Middle East was, and remains to this day, a paradox of
multiple identities based on religion, sect, town, village, family, and
other group associations and interests, the majority of which, until the
emergence of Arab nationalism, did not involve the Arabic language. When
the modern Egyptian poet Luwis Awad wrote about his homeland, he did so in
colloquial Egyptian, not modern standard literary Arabic. When the
Lebanese-American thinker Gibran Khalil Gibran yearned for his native
Mount Lebanon, he did so more comfortably in English than in Arabic.
When the fifteenth century Maronite bishop of Cyprus, Gabriel Alkilai,
wrote his history of Lebanon, he did so in Karshuni, his local Lebanese
dialect written in Syriac characters. Even some Bedouin poetry is,
likewise, recited in a number of colloquial variants.
The Arab nationalist-inspired shift in ethnic identity was easier said
than done. In a sense, Arab nationalists assigned identity to an arbitrary
language that, like Medieval Latin, might have been the language of
officialdom but was not used colloquially. Even today, modern standard
Arabic remains the domain of newspapers, not conversations. Arabs
themselves speak a multiplicity of languages "which are downgraded to
dialects" but which, in the words of Harvard linguist Wheeler Thackston,
"resemble [modern standard Arabic] as much as Latin resembles English."
Ideology became an important component in this shift. Arab nationalists
used linguistic definition of Arabism to deny the cultural claims of
ethnic or sectarian minorities. Sati' al-Husri (1880-1967), a Syrian
writer who played an important role in the crystallization of Arab
nationalism, maintained that "under no circumstances should we say: as
long as [a user of the Arabic language] does not wish to be an Arab, and
as long as he is disdainful of his Arabness, then he is not an Arab. He is
an Arab whether he wishes to be so or not. Whether ignorant, indifferent,
undutiful, or disloyal, he is an Arab, but an Arab without feelings, or
consciousness, and perhaps even without conscience." Michel Aflaq, an
apostle of Husri's and founder of the Baath Party, promoted violence and
cruelty against those users of the Arabic language who refused to conform
to an overarching Arab identity.
Later Arab nationalist figures like Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser
or Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein found the linguistic definition of Arabism
convenient in order to neglect, if not completely reject, the reality of
ethnic and cultural diversity in the Middle East. This viewalso adopted by
a number of social scientists and post-Edward Said Middle East
scholarsholds that the Middle East is populated by a breed of culturally
and linguistically homogeneous Arabs. Assyrians, Berbers, Copts,
Chaldaeans, Kurds, Maronites and many other millions of Middle Eastern
peoples who possess their own distinct cultural and historical heritage
and who disapprove of their ascribed latter-day Arabness, are nevertheless
anointed as Arabs. If they do not embrace their Arabness, they are
dismissed as traitors or isolationists.
Robert Kaplan expressed this negative slant against Middle Eastern
minorities in the conclusion of his remarkable book The Arabists, which
examined the history of State Department experts on the Arab world. These
experts, the so-called Arabists, he argued, quoting a U.S. Foreign Service
official, "[h]ave not liked Middle Eastern minorities. Arabists have been
guilty in the past of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which
roughly translates as Arabism.' I remember once going to a Foreign Service
party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians in Lebanon as
fascists.'" Lebanese commentator Michael Young adds, "What pro-Arab
Americans couldn't stomach was that the [Middle East's] Christians were
often estranged from [the Muslims] and from the Arab nationalism the
The Middlebury Program
Arabic language proficiency is necessary not only for scholars seeking to
conduct original archival research and more contemporary sociological
studies but also for policy practitioners and security specialists who
face increased deployment and interaction in Arabic-speaking countries.
Recognizing Arabic language deficiency among U.S. government personnel, on
January 5, 2006, President George W. Bush launched the National Foreign
Language Initiative. This initiative built upon the so-called Title VI
programs, established by a 1988 amendment of the 1965 Higher Education
Act. While Title VI language study programs provide universities with
US$92 million per year to promote language instructionnot only in Arabic,
but also in Russian, Chinese, and a number of other languagesmany
Title VI programs have failed to provide proficiency and train those
pursuing a government or military career.
As many Title VI programs failed to produce proficient Arabic speakers,
the Middlebury College Summer Arabic program appeared to have a magic
formula. Every summer, it draws approximately 100 students, diplomats,
professionals, and academics from across the United States, the Middle
East, and Europe to rural Vermont to undertake a nine-week intensive
full-immersion course. "No English Spoken Here" is its basic principle.
Students sign a pledge in which they vow not to speak, or expose
themselves, to any language besides Arabic for the duration of their stay
at Middlebury on the penalty of expulsion. Classes, which consist of five
contact hours five days a week, are conducted strictly in modern standard
Arabic. Modern standard Arabic is the sole medium of communication on
weekends, at study and meal times, and during outings, cocurricular,
extracurricular, and even private activities. What initially appears to be
a daunting and discouraging enterprise to most students fast becomes
But, unlike Middlebury's French, Spanish, and other language programs, its
Arabic course goes beyond language instruction and subtly works to
inculcate an Arab nationalist ideology. This takes two tacks: first, the
school infuses its academic program with Arab nationalist content. Second,
it constructs an atmosphere that replicates Arab nationalist hostility
toward minorities and the United States.
When I worked as an instructor at Middlebury in 2004, students arrived at
Hepburn Hall, their home for the nine-week program, and were greeted not
only by Ahlan wa Sahlan (Welcome) posters but also colorful and smartly
outlined maps of the Middle East adorning the hallway bulletin boards. In
these, Israel is absent, replaced by Palestine stretching from the Jordan
River to the Mediterranean Sea. The border between Syria and Lebanon was
labeled a temporary frontier, a designation consistent with the refusal of
Arab nationalists in Syria to recognize Lebanon as a separate entity.
The Persian Gulf had morphed into Al-Khalij al-Arabi, the Arab Gulf. The
term is anything but innocuous. While Arab nationalists first sought to
rename the Persian Gulf after Arabs in the 1960s, the change in
terminology is unscholarly and unrecognized. Arabs and Arabic maps
referred to the Persian Gulf by Al-Khaleej al-Farsi for centuries, not
bothered by the term Persian. In 1917, the U.S. State Department's Board
of Geographical Names designated the Persian Gulf as the sole official
name. The United Nations followed suit in 1975 and 1984. Middlebury's
endorsement of the Arab nationalist discourse is far from innocuous,
especially after Saddam Hussein adopted the region's Arab identity as a
justification for invading Iran.
The Middlebury Arabic language school also exerted subtle religious
pressure upon its participants. During the first week, a posted handbill
announced the formation of a Muslim prayer group. It encouraged interested
parties to contact the faculty members coordinating the group's activities
and invited them to join in weekly Friday prayer (juma) rituals. Soon
after, another flyer announced the formation of a Christian Sunday prayer
group. Both congregations were sponsored by the Arabic School
I queried Ken Habib, assistant director of the Arabic program, about
whether there would be a Shabbat group for the school's many Jewish
students. He replied that while the Middlebury Summer Arabic School had
never had such a group in years past and it was not a school tradition, he
would raise the issue with Mahmoud Abdalla, the program's director.
Abdalla said he did not object to the formation of a Shabbat group but
insisted that interested students petition him. I passed word to the
Jewish students, but they said they preferred not to ask the director.
Because of the maps promoting Israel's elimination, they did not want to
advertise their Jewishness. They instead formed an unofficial group.
Only after the conclusion of the program, after all exams were graded, did
one Israeli student complain about the maps to Abdalla. The director said
he was unaware of the problem, and the maps promptly came down.
Nevertheless, the incident showed how with subtle provocations and
discrimination, the Middlebury Arabic program brought the dhimmi
(second-class citizen) experience to Vermont.
The narrow world-view espoused by Middlebury's Arabic language school
manifested itself in other ways. The Arabic school was alone among
Middlebury programs to ignore Fourth of July festivities. Why does
attaining proficiency in Arabic mean disdain for American culture?
Visiting faculty from the Middle East treated with noticeable coolness
older students sporting closely cropped hair, courteous manners, and
discipline suggesting membership in the U.S. armed forces. Students eager
to curry favor with Arabist professors would contribute their own
suspicions, snide remarks, and cynicism. As if beholden to the Arabist
atmosphere, most students and faculty avoided contact altogether with
those dubbed hukuma (government) or jaysh (army). While it was an Arabic
school policy not to allow faculty and students to bunch up in permanent
cliques and faculty had an obligation to engage those who remained aloof,
these "suspect" students were, like the Jewish students and self-effacing
dhimmi faculty, forced to huddle together during mealtimes and breaks.
Another example of the Arabic school's restricted definition of Middle
Eastern culture was its ban on alcoholic beverages during school events
and student parties. While Abdalla explained the ban to be "Middlebury
College policy," beer and wine flowed as freely during cookouts and
gatherings organized by the Middlebury German, French, and Spanish schools
as such beverages do at parties in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Bahrain.
The prohibition on alcohol is a matter of Islamic religious practice and
personal interpretation, not accepted practice across the Arab world.
Arabism and Islam should not be conflated. They are not the same thing.
Had Abdalla wanted to avoid insulting observant Muslim faculty members, he
should have said so openly.
Likewise, Middlebury instructed the Arabic school dining services to
conform to the halal dietary restrictions of Islam. This implied all
Arabic speakers to be Muslim and all Muslims to be observant. But less
than 20 percent of the Arabic school community was Muslim. No such
accommodations were made for the Jewish students who kept kosher, even
though their numbers exceeded those of the Muslims. Some students who
wanted to uphold their dietary restrictions made private arrangements for
meals to be delivered through a service unaffiliated with Middlebury. The
few students who sought to observe halal standards could have made similar
Aside from atmospherics, the Middlebury program reinforces the Arab
nationalist view of a monocultural "Arab world extending from the
[Persian] Gulf to the [Atlantic] Ocean" in more substantive ways.
A case in point is the Wednesday lecture series. In its choice of both
lecture topics and lecturers, Middlebury encouraged disdain for
minorities. Topics ranged from the history of Turkish baths in Damascus to
the image of Arabs in Hollywood. Permeating the lectures was a wholesale
condemnation of Orientalists and non-Arabs. No visiting lecturer portrayed
Arabs or Muslims as masters of their own destiny. Not once was the notion
entertained that Arabs and Muslims could be oppressors and victimizers as
well as victims. Indeed, both the lecturesand a weekly Arabic movie series
billed as part of the program's curriculumtook pains to depict Arabs and
Muslims as powerless and abused victims of Western imperialism, Zionist
rapacity, modern-day Crusaderism, and a medley of foreign interventions
and conspiracies. From the Orientalist bent of an insidious Hollywood, to
the wickedness of the U.S. war on terrorism, to the vilification of Middle
Eastern minorities as imperialist agents and Western moles bent on the
destruction of the Arabs and their culture, these lectures and films went
to great lengths to malign outsiders and dismiss dissent as product of
One talk, for example, touted as a scholarly discussion of the "Dilemma of
Identity in Lebanon" degenerated into a festival of scorn at Lebanon, the
Lebanese, and their "artificial" culture of upstarts. In his lecture,
Mahmoud al-Batal, the director of the Institute for Comparative and
International Study at Emory University, declared that Lebanon had no
specific culture beyond its Arabic accretions. Most students left the
lecture with tainted conclusions and caricatures of the Lebanese as
culturally bankrupt French wannabes who denied their Arabness, preferred
French to Arabic, but nevertheless remained Arabs.
Chris Stone, an associate professor of Arabic at Hunter College, delivered
another lecture in which he addressed popular song in Lebanon. During the
course of his lecture, he poured scorn on Lebanese folklore and the
similesand imageries of cedars, snows, harvests, and mountainsused in the
music of Fayrouz, Lebanon's foremost diva. His subtle prescription was
that Lebanon should conform more to the landscape of its Arab
surroundings. Fayrouz should instead have sung of the beauty of her
neighboring desert-like scenerynot an ostensibly alien Alpine topography,
evidently pilfered by Lebanon's Christians. According to Stone, the music
and metaphors of Fayrouz were seditious not only to Arab unity and
uniformity, but also to Lebanon because they reflected the imagery and
assumptions that led to the 1975-1990 Lebanese civil war.
Within the classroom, the Middlebury program inculcated Arab nationalism
in other ways. In one exam, I had used the Arab nationalist slogan, "from
the Gulf to the Ocean." To prompt my students to use the Arabic verb
yamtadd (to extend/stretch), I had written a fill-in-the-blank sentence
where the use of that verb would have been suitable. The sentence,
incorporating that familiar Arab nationalist catch phrase, which I
qualified with "according to Arab nationalists," read as follows:
"According to Arab nationalists, the Arab world ______________ from the
Gulf to the Ocean."
The phrase "according to Arab nationalists" caused controversy. Abdalla
kept a close watch on how exams were written. He insisted on removal of
the "irrelevant" clause on the grounds that "according to Arab
nationalists" was "unnecessary verbosity irrelevant to the evaluation of
the students' knowledge or the general meaning of the sentence" and
"confusing for the student." But, by truncating the sentence, the Arabic
school conveyed a distorted version of reality and suggested a partisan
slogan to be unquestioned fact. Millions of Assyrians, Berbers, Copts,
Chaldaeans, Jews, Kurds, and Maronites both in the Middle East and in the
diaspora object to unqualified Arab nationalism.
Ironically, even as Middlebury indoctrinates a new generation of
professors, government officials, journalists, and aid organization
workers into a failed ideology of the past, many Arabs are charting a
different course. Since 2002, Cairo University political scientist Nader
Ferghany and a small team of experts have challenged in the Arab Human
Development Report the outmoded discourse of Arab nationalismand the
social, political, and cultural failures it engendered. It is all the
more ironic, then, that as Arab intellectuals challenge the outlook that
so long constrained Arab development, a volatile mix of Arab nationalism
and dependency theory endures in Middlebury's classrooms.
Experts in the Arab world and cultures of the Middle East need not embrace
the current state system in the Middle East nor must they accept standard
geographical appellations. They need not like the fact of Israel's
existence nor need they emphasize the cultures and narratives of the
Middle East's non-Arab minorities.
But, by the same token, a leading Arabic language program should not tie
language instruction to a political philosophy. Arabic language
instruction should promote linguistic ability, not force area experts to
march in ideological lock step. Rather than impose an Arab nationalist
discourse, programs like Middlebury's should enable students and
practitioners to realize that not all Middle Easterners are Arabs, that
not all users of the Arabic language are Arabs, and that Arabs did not
emerge out of nothing from an uninhabited Middle East.
Arab nationalists and Arabists hold the countries of the modern Middle
East as illegitimate entities contrived by Western colonizers against the
wishes and aspirations of indigenous Arabs, but that is simply untrue.
While Western powers chose allies and interfered in local disputes, the
shape of the Middle East was no less the result of local actors making
their own decisions and pursuing their own local interests. While Arab
nationalists may dream of a united Arab super state, the fact remains that
this was never a coherent political or geographical reality. Nor can its
absence be blamed on outsiders.
Regrettably, the Summer Arabic School at Middlebury College is not alone
in shirking its obligation to academic objectivity and a dispassionate
approach to Arabic studies and Middle East history. Many area specialists
continue to treat Middle Eastern minority narratives with derision. From
the patrician colleges of Boston to the maverick academies of the West
Coast, faculty lounges and arcane associationsall functioning outside of
the "Arab world"cling to the carcass of Arab nationalism.
Foreign language experts like those at Middlebury are entitled to their
own opinions and convictions and should be free to advance them openly.
What is not appropriate, however, is for academics to intellectualize
their ideological sympathies and disseminate them through the classroom in
the guise of scholarship. By teaching the Middle East as Arab nationalist
proponents wish it to be rather than as it is, Middlebury and its fellow
travelers ill-prepare their charges and marginalize themselves.
 Bernard Lewis, The Multiple Identities of the Middle East (New York:
Schocken Books, 1998), p. 31.
 Martin Kramer, "Arab Nationalism: Mistaken Identity," Daedalus, Summer
1993, pp. 171-206.
 William Safran, "Nationalism," in Joshua A. Fishman, ed., Handbook of
Language and Ethnic Identity (New York and Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 1999), pp. 77-8.
 See, for instance, The Prophet (1923), Jesus, the Son of Man (1928),
and The Garden of the Prophet (1931).
 Kamal Suleiman Salibi, Maronite Historians of Mediaeval Lebanon
(Beirut: American University of Beirut, 1959), pp. 31-2.
 See, for example, Kees Versteegh, The Arabic Language (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2001), pp. 48, 57-8.
 Samar Farah, "So You'd Like to Learn Arabic. Got a Decade or So?" The
Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 17, 2002.
 Abu Khaldun Sati' al-Husri, Abhaath Mukhtara fii al-Qawmiyya
al-Arabiya (Beirut: Markaz Diraasaat al-Wihda al-Arabiyya, 1985), p. 80.
 Michel Aflaq, Fii Sabiil al-Baath (Beirut: Dar at-Tali'a, 1963) pp.
161-2; see also Kanaan Makiya, Republic of Fear: The Politics of Modern
Iraq (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), p. 206.
 Robert D. Kaplan, The Arabists; The Romance of an American Elite (New
York: The Free Press, 1995), p. 306.
 Michael Young, "Orient Obsess: A Lackluster Look at Americans
Abroad," Reason Online, Dec. 2003.
 American Forces Information Service, Jan. 5, 2006.
 "1998 Amendments to the Higher Education Act of 1965," PL 105-244,
Jan. 27, 1988. See also, "Detailed Information on the International
Education Domestic Programs Assessment," White House Office of Management
and Budget, Jan. 17, 2006.
 Kenneth D. Whitehead, "Learning the Language," National Review, Jan.
 Michael Rubin, "Lebanon's Tenuous Transformation," Aspenia (Rome),
 Ali Mostashari, "Factsheet on the Legal and Historical Usage of the
Persian Gulf,'" Iranian Studies Group at MIT, 2004.
 "How the Arabs Compare: Arab Human Development Report," Middle East
Quarterly, Fall 2002, pp. 59-67.
 Efraim Karsh, Empires of the Sand: The Struggle for Mastery in the
Middle East, 1789-1923 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), pp.
 Martin Kramer, Arab Awakening and Islamic Revival (New Brunswick:
Transaction Publishers, 1996), pp. 3-4.
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