Few students get to see their program of study grow and evolve in real time—and against the backdrop of world events. Adam Baron ’10 and his classmates, Williams’ very first students to graduate with majors in Arabic studies, were able to do just that. Baron examines how the college’s long-standing but diffuse connection to the Arab world has flourished into one of Williams’ newest programs.
I still can’t fully remember what landed me in a 9 a.m. Arabic 101 class that first Monday in September of my freshman year. Slamming the details of a notoriously difficult language into my head every single day of the week, at an hour when most 18-year-olds would rather be sleeping, just doesn’t seem like a choice I would have made with much forethought.
There were roughly 20 of us spread out in Griffin Hall that day. For some of us, that singular event of our coming of age loomed large: 9/11, Al Qaeda’s 2001 attack on the twin towers and the Pentagon. Arabic 101 was that first step toward the goal of eventually joining the State Department or a three-letter agency, a kind of type-A career path. Others of us were seeking to deconstruct narratives espoused by media, to learn more about cultures and nations that were drawn in broad brush strokes, to engage critically in the simultaneously forward-thinking and idealistic way that 18-year-olds are wont to do. And for some students like me, enrolling in Arabic 101 was a sudden impulse that would shape the rest of our lives—or at least the rest of our year.
We didn’t realize it then, but we were making history in some sense. Four years later, a group of us would be the first Williams students to graduate with an Arabic degree. What was once a fledgling course of study has since emerged as one of the college’s most popular language programs—a testament to the hard work of many in the department as well as to the intersection of the Purple Valley and the wider world.
Formal Arabic classes didn’t enter the Williams course catalog until 2005, but the college and the region have a surprisingly long history. Strong faculty connections and alumni networks in fields like the foreign service, journalism and even archeology have seen Ephs pop up in the Middle East since the time of the Ottomans. John Henry Haynes, Class of 1876, found himself playing a key role in early digs in Assyrian sites in northern Iraq. The Williams-educated troika of Ken Dilanian ’91 with The Philadelphia Inquirer and Eric Schmitt ’82 and Scott Shane ’76 of The New York Times has played an outsize role in post-9/11 reporting on Al Qaeda and the war on terrorism.
Institutional memory effectively places the birth of Williams’ Middle Eastern studies program at 2003, coinciding with the hiring of Icelandic Iraq scholar Magnús Bernhardsson as the college’s first tenure-track history professor focused on that region. Consciously or not, the appointment was seen as a reaction to the 9/11 attacks—both with regard to rising student interest and a collective consciousness of a need to facilitate a greater space for conversation on the region.
Due to curiosity in the topic—and, speaking from experience, Bernhardsson’s excellent teaching skills—interest immediately boomed. Another professor, Armando Vargas, joined the faculty in 2004 to offer language classes building off of the previous work of visiting comparative literature professor Christopher Stone, who taught Arabic under the critical languages program.
“There was a real thirst for a greater understanding of Arabic culture,” says Katarzyna Pieprzak, a comparative literature professor who currently serves as the chair of the Arabic studies department. “And I think that it’s significant that it wasn’t just coming from political science.”
By the time I entered Arabic 101 in the fall of 2006, a small flock of professors had been brought together loosely under the Arabic studies umbrella. It was hard to shake the feeling that we were pioneers—or, less dramatically, guinea pigs. I lean toward the former just in terms of the weird bond a lot of us ended up feeling, fueled by some combination of those early professors, Williams’ deep commitment to faculty-student mentorship and the sheer difficulty of the Arabic language. We cracked jokes about the case endings (a grammatical quirk of the Arabic language), traded YouTube clips of Arabic singers, debated regional politics (increasingly, in both languages) and, when appropriate, did what we could to apply pressure to the Williams administration to build on the program. As time went on, the pressure took an intersectional nature, pulling in a wide array of students, many of whom weren’t even in the department per se. Activism on preserving Arabic became imbued into those early years.
“I believe that there was a strong contingency of POC students that really pushed for the Arabic program, and a lot of Muslim or Arab students themselves,” says Jennifer Monge ’12, who is now a lawyer. “I think that these students, lots of them immigrants or children of immigrants, recognized the importance of multilingualism. It felt like there was a real comradeship between many students to get this program afloat.”
While there were only a handful of classes at that point, both the pioneering spirit and Williams’ general culture allowed for a flexibility that simply wouldn’t have existed in most schools with more established programs. My classmate Chloe Brown ’10, for example, spent a Winter Study in Sanaa, Yemen, on an independent study project that she largely designed herself in coordination with a local Arabic language institute. There she developed a fondness for the Yemeni capital’s signature potato-and-egg sandwiches that came up as we reminisced during my research for this piece.
I, meanwhile, used a Class of 1945 World Fellowship from the college to spend the summer after my junior year doing blessedly amorphous research on expressions of identity as I schlepped from Cairo through Amman, Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut to Istanbul. Those two seemingly dreamlike months effectively consummated my attachment to the region and culminated in a wide-ranging paper that prefigured a lot of the writing I’d do just a few years later.
Perhaps the most significant element of Arabic at Williams was the once-burgeoning study-abroad pipeline between the college and the University of Damascus. Between 2008 and 2010, right up until the outbreak of the civil war, about a dozen Ephs made their way to the Syrian capital to study. At the time, Williams was the only American college or university funneling undergraduates to the city, fueling experiences that continue to stick with many students to this day.
The informal program was the brain-child of former Associate Dean Laura McKeon, who oversaw study abroad and whose photographer husband, Kevin Bubriski, spent a significant time north of Aleppo capturing Syria’s ever-evocative dead cities. It’s hard to overstate the impact of how much time and effort Dean McKeon put into helping us sort the logistics for study abroad and fellowships.
Simultaneously, Williams’ brand of student-faculty interaction undoubtedly helped to nurture nascent academic interests and encourage us all to push through the less enjoyable aspects of language acquisition. And there was the interdisciplinary nature of the program. In contrast to many colleagues from other universities taking Arabic, my classmates and I weren’t particularly boxed into a department, which fueled the kind of free-spirited explorations that small liberal arts colleges are noted for.
“It kind of felt like the Wild West in the best way,” says Brown. “There were no standard requirements or set of classes outside of the language, so everyone was cobbling together their own curriculum based on their own interests. People I met from other schools seemed so much more uniformly coming from [international relations] programs … explicitly aiming to get on a very clear track. Meanwhile, I—a blissful idiot—was taking a bunch of comp lit and religion classes because it was stuff I loved thinking about, absolutely no clear career goals in mind.”
As much as we were learning from our classes, we were learning from each other, passing around articles or, say, talking through our ambitious essays attempting to analyze the music videos of Lebanese songstress Nancy Ajram. Between our own dynamics, budding friendships with our peers who were native Arab speakers and the direct and indirect efforts of professors like Bernhardsson, Vargas, Bill Darrow in religion and Mara Naaman, who taught Arabic language and comparative literature, we managed to build an informal community that mirrored the formal department as a whole.
By the time I graduated in 2010, there were nearly 50 students taking Arabic language classes. Serendipitously, a handful of fellow students and I discovered two weeks before graduating that our petitions to create an Arabic major had been accepted—something that underlines, even then, that the very idea of a formal Arabic program at Williams seemed somewhat up in the air. (Particularly early on, each announcement of another year of language classes appeared to come at a knife’s edge.)
Regardless, even if its staying power seemed precarious, by the time I graduated, it felt as if the Arabic program had tentatively arrived.
In an odd coincidence, the first class of Arabic majors graduated on the eve of the various anti-establishment, pro-democracy protests that would come to be referred to as the Arab Spring. It’s telling that a few of us found ourselves—more or less by chance—on the front lines. The winter of 2011 saw my life transformed from a quiet one of doing an admittedly uneven job of teaching English to Yemeni college students and professionals to hopping between protests as I freelanced for papers ranging from Foreign Policy to The Economist.
Elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, my former Cairo flatmate, Cortni (Kerr) Desir ’10, was on a similar trajectory in Bahrain, where the uprising invigorated her preexisting aims of pairing a teaching job with work on protest movements in the Persian Gulf island nation.
Ephs’ engagement in the region had grown deeper—and multifaceted. In addition to classic paths toward journalism, policy and academia, Williams alumni networks expanded in aid and education, among other areas. Swaths of graduates continued to find themselves in key hubs across the region, quite often bumping elbows with each other.
Back at Williams, the pipeline to Syria and other study-abroad options in the Middle East was halted as the situation grew more thorny. At the same time, Williams professors were incorporating more and more about ongoing events into their curricula—something the students noticed.
“My formative memory from the Arab Spring was walking into the first day of class with Magnús for his course called Nation Building: The Making of the Modern Middle East, probably on Feb. 2, days after protests started in Tahrir Square,” recalls Hill Hamrick ’13, who after graduation joined the Marine Corps, went on to receive an MBA and moved into the private sector. “It was fascinating that semester to assess the formation of nation states over the past 100 years while watching them seemingly unravel in real time.”
Arabic studies continued to flourish and evolve. In the spring of 2018, the faculty overwhelmingly voted to establish Arabic as an independent department, allowing it to formally split off from comparative literature as of the 2018-19 academic year. The program has since expanded to three tenure-track professors and a teaching fellow in residence. And the curriculum has formalized and grown, now including a 400-level course in intensive Arabic that has seen enrollment levels rare in institutions many times Williams’ size.
In 2020, the department gained its own fund to support undergraduate study abroad. Named for the late Abdul W. Wohabe, a Riyadh-born member of the Class of 1959 who went on to practice law in New York City, the fund is paving the way for future students to travel to the region to study Arabic language and culture. Six did so as the inaugural class of Wohabe scholars in Jordan this past summer.
Amidst the growth, much of what initially made the program special has remained.
“As we’ve continued to hire in, we’ve aimed to maintain this diversity of perspectives,” Pieprzak says. “In some respects we’ve seen this widening of what Arabic studies itself means.”
Since the program’s inception, Arabic professors have offered both language and non-language courses, and their varied academic interests have only enriched the course catalog. Spanning both North Africa and West Asia, these linguistics and comparative literature professors cover everything from the history of Jewish communities in the Arab world to synergies between Arab, Caribbean and Latin American post-colonial literature.
“Even on a national level, it’s a very unique setup when it comes to the diversity of Arabic studies,” says Brahim El Guabli, an assistant professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature who joined the faculty in 2018. For faculty, “there’s a real opportunity to experiment and go out of the box and offer new courses.”
All the while, the rather special collaborative culture of the department has continued. Speaking with Guabli and other current professors, it was notable how much of what they appreciated about the department echoed my own experiences more than a decade ago. Lama Nassif, an associate professor of Arabic studies who came to Williams in 2016, for example, noted that the focus on community building extends even into the hiring process.
“It’s a small community,” Nassif says. “When they’re hiring, it’s not just about the competence. It’s about how they’ll fit into the community. In a small department like Arabic, when we thrive—not just as professors but as people—it’s good for everyone. There’s a shared investment in and mutual reliance on each other.”
Over the course of conversations for this article, it wasn’t hard for me to feel quite a bit of nostalgia—in addition to jealousy—over students who were just beginning to learn Arabic, with all its joys and frustrations.
Even my classmates who moved away from Arabic continue to feel the consequence and impact of this moment in our educations. Desir, my former Cairo flatmate, says her experiences living and studying in Bahrain and Palestine birthed an interest in the roles of built environment and space. She returned to school to study urban planning at MIT and now works in urban planning for the City of Somerville, Mass.
Says Brown, reflecting on how Arabic counterintuitively prepared her for work in technology, “This sounds incredibly corny, but I feel like the absolute nightmare of getting your fus7a”—formal Arabic—“homework corrected is a really great prep for getting error messages in code.”
Arabic may have taught us a language, but it also taught us a lot about endurance, intellectual curiosity and friendship.
It’s weirdly appropriate—or an odd coincidence—that I found myself back at Williams on the eve of the coronavirus outbreak, a trip intended to be a reflective break. What I jokingly referred to as my “independent study 10-year reunion” ended up giving me an additional angle at the seeming end of the world, as the world effectively shut down around us.
A day after my guest lecture on Yemen and a few hours before the announcement that campus was closing, I found myself at the Log having lunch with a collection of current students. Covid-19 may have loomed like an elephant in the corner of the room, but we chatted as if oblivious to the pandemic slowly making its way to strike.
I hashed out career advice and shared my email address. But more than anything I just wanted to see what the kids were up to—to see how things had progressed. I can’t remember the details; they were likely fogged out by the drama of the disaster year that came after.
What I can remember is that the students made me feel old and they made me feel dumb; they left me proud to be even tangentially associated with the work that paved the way for their educations and fearful of the time coming that they would edge me out of a job.
Overall, there’s no greater credit to Williams, and no greater credit to those who built—and continue to build—the department, than that.
Meet the Faculty of the Arabic Studies Program
“Today’s Arabic Studies Department at Williams is a dynamic place to study language and the many arts and cultures of North Africa and the Middle East,” says Katarzyna Pieprzak, chair of the Arabic Studies Department. With courses such as Arab Women Memoirs: Writing Feminist History, Saharan Imaginations, and Topics in Contemporary Arab Cultures, “the program’s three tenured and tenure-track faculty are stretching traditional boundaries in the field of Arabic studies and are transforming other fields such as linguistics, indigenous studies and Jewish studies from a Maghrebi and Middle East perspective.” In addition to these three faculty members, the program also includes several faculty affiliates who teach across a variety of other disciplines as well as in-residence teaching fellows.
Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies and Comparative Literature Amal Eqeiq works on South-South relations, borders and indigeneity in Palestinian and Mexican contexts and transnational solidarities. Her forthcoming book, Indigenous Affinities: Comparative Study in Mayan and Palestinian Narratives, is deeply interdisciplinary, exploring indigenous narratives that range from literary texts to wall murals. In addition to her scholarly writing, she also writes creative nonfiction.
Assistant Professor of Arabic Studies Brahim El Guabli’s scholarship expands our understanding about North Africa. His forthcoming book, Moroccan Other-Archives: History and Citizenship after State Violence, explores how literature forms a crucial “other-archive” for articulating state-suppressed histories, giving voice to more capacious forms of possible citizenship.
Associate Professor of Arabic Studies Lama Nassif’s groundbreaking studies on noticing and learner anxiety in second language acquisition as well as sociolinguistic development in second language (L2) Arabic acquisition have informed L2 research and pedagogical practice in the teaching of Arabic and other languages. Her forthcoming book, Teaching Grammar in the L2 Arabic Classroom: A Focus on Form Practice, bridges theory and practice in the Arabic classroom by exploring how we teach students to notice linguistic forms.