CCAS’s Community Resource Service is celebrating 25 years, and the Master of Arts in Arab Studies program (MAAS) is marking 30. It was 25 years ago, in 1983, that the Center received initial funding to start a K-12 educational outreach program, with a focus on educating American teachers about the Arab world and Islam and providing them with appropriate resources. Since then, the program has grown to become one of the foremost outreach centers in the United States, and has engaged thousands of teachers in its workshops and activities. CCAS is proud to celebrate this important milestone!
Master of Arts in Arab Studies Program Turns 30
It all started with a conversation in 1974 about who was teaching the contemporary Arab world. The answer? No one. “[Dean of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service] Peter Krogh pointed this out after coming back from business in the Gulf,” says Dr. John Ruedy, the first director of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies (MAAS) program. “I began to do some investigating and contacted leaders of all the Middle Eastern studies programs in the United States. I found that none of them was teaching the modern Arab world.” As a result, Ruedy and a number of others, including Dr. Halim Barakat, Dr. Wallace Erwin, Dr. Michael Hudson, Dr. Ibrahim Oweiss, Dr. Irfan Shahid, Dr. Hisham Sharabi, and Dr. Barbara Stowasser began to put together such a program.
“We decided that all of our students would gain proficiency in Modern Standard Arabic,” Ruedy says, “and we wanted them to study a cross-section of the social sciences.” The result, of course, was the MAAS program, which welcomed its first class in 1978, and these two key elements—a rigorous mastery of Arabic coupled with a multidisciplinary scholarly track—continues to this day. Dr. Michael Hudson, current director of CCAS, adds that a fundamental idea behind the founding of the program was that the region should not be studied through an Orientalist lens. “It was part of our scholarly mission to unpack misconceptions and reductionist assumptions,” he says, noting that MAAS was ahead of the curve in such an undertaking.
Much of MAAS’s original program structure and ideology has remained intact. But what changes have taken place over the past three decades? For one, CCAS’s suite in the Intercultural Center (ICC) did not always exist. MAAS was first housed in a small office in the Car Barn. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Stowasser and her assistant director, Richard Dorn, designed some of what is now ICC 241, a major project funded by Investcorp and closely directed and inspired by its president and CEO, Advisory Board Chairman (now member) Nemir Kirdar. “It has been the jewel of the university,” says Stowasser.
Also, while there was always a high level of interest in MAAS, the number of applicants since 9/11 has increased from around 75 to more than 200 each year, according to Dr. Judith Tucker, current director of MAAS. “The level of preparation has changed as well,” she says. “Most applicants have studied Arabic and spent time in the Arab world. You have to have earned your spurs [to be admitted].”
Tucker cites the Center’s ability to attract great younger faculty, including Dr. Samer Shehata, Dr. Osama Abi-Mershed, Dr. Rochelle Davis, and Dr. Fida Adely in the past six years as another positive change. Hudson agrees: “These are people who are very dynamic and full of energy. They’re already contributing a lot.”
Alumni agree as well. Khody Akhavi, a freelance producer with Al Jazeera English who graduated from MAAS this past year, cites Shehata’s class on Islamists and elections as one of the best he took. Persis Berlekamp, class of 1994 and an assistant professor of art history at the University of Chicago, also names a certain class as giving her “wonderful memories”: “Islamic Cities” with Dr. Stowasser and Dr. Scott Redford. Berlekamp notes that the MAAS program “was exactly what I needed—to improve my Arabic and to figure out what discipline I wanted to pursue.” “Islamic Cities” evidently helped a lot; Berlekamp earned her Ph.D. from Harvard in Islamic art and architecture.
Akhavi describes the program as a nurturing one in which faculty, staff, and fellow students “never make you feel like you’re a number.” Ms. Jenna Beveridge, Academic Programs Coordinator, is in large part to thank for this supportive atmosphere. Beveridge joined MAAS in 2005, and recalls attending the going away party for her predecessor, Liz Kepferle, who had served in the position for 12 years. “Dr. Tucker spoke about how Liz always made the students feel welcome, and I saw how they appreciated that. I took that to heart.” This atmosphere isn’t just a recent development. Carol Madison, one of the first MAAS graduates who went into the Foreign Service and is now a Trustee of the Carnegie UK Trust, echoed Akhavi’s sentiments. “My first greatest joy [in MAAS] was the fellowship of my classmates and the professors. We were like a family and we still are.”
It’s obvious the MAAS program has been a success, both academically and interpersonally. So where do we go from here? First and foremost, says Dr. Stowasser, “we desperately need money for fellowships, so students don’t go to more heavily endowed universities.” Dr. Tucker and Dr. Hudson both voice the need for a few more faculty positions, including one in 20th-century Arab history and one in Arab politics.
Insha’allah these developments will come to pass. But in the meantime, Ruedy notes how far we’ve come. “Recently, I was giving a talk at the State Department, and I looked out into the audience and saw a number of people—now important diplomats—who had been our students,” he says. “We are training people to really know something about the Arab world—it’s an academic background that wasn’t really there before.” Indeed, the MAAS program set the standard thirty years ago, and it’s still going strong. Here’s to the next thirty!