In April 2007, the Orient’s editorial board called upon Bowdoin to “find and hire professors who will be able to give students the instruction in Middle Eastern culture and language that they both want and need.” At the time, only one Bowdoin professor, Shelley Deane, specialized in the Middle East.

The following year, a group of students dissatisfied with the lack of Arabic instruction organized informal Arabic classes taught by fellow student Jamil Wyne ’08.

In 2008, the College responded to the growing demand for Middle Eastern studies classes by hiring Russell Hopley as a lecturer in Arabic and Robert Morrison as a religion professor. According to Professor of Religion Jorunn Buckley, hiring Morrison finally satisfied the religion department’s request for specialists in Islam and Judaism that stretched back two decades.
But despite the progress, Bowdoin continues to suffer from a deficiency of classes focusing on the Middle East.

Morrison and Hopley are the only professors currently at Bowdoin who specialize in the Middle East. Susan Tananbaum occasionally teaches a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but her specialties are European and Jewish history. 

In terms of offering classes on the Middle East, Bowdoin remains behind many liberal arts colleges. Middlebury offers a major in both Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. Next semester, Williams is offering six classes on Middle Eastern culture and history to complement its stellar Arabic program. Swarthmore offers classes on both Arabic and Islamic studies. Meanwhile, Bowdoin’s syllabus next year contains three classes focusing on the Middle East: Middle Eastern Ensemble, Elementary and Intermediate Arabic.

Enrollment in introductory Arabic classes remains high every semester, but the Arabic “department” is composed of Hopley. He is left to struggle with how to teach the growing number of Arabic students, by himself. Arabic is also not offered as a minor, even though the 12 credits of Arabic many students will have by the time they graduate would satisfy almost any major at Bowdoin.

The lack of classes on the Middle East does not reflect a lack of interest on the part of students. 
This year marked the chartering of J-Street U and Students for Justice in Palestine, two new student organizations addressing the Israeli occupation of Palestine in different ways.

The Shannon Room was packed in February when J-Street U brought Uri Zaki, the director of Israeli human rights organization B’tselem USA, to campus. In April, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Slam Poets Society invited Palestinian slam poet Remi Kanazi to Ladd House for an evening of spoken word. The level of snapping, clapping and knee-slapping at Kanazi’s performance was testament to the popularity of the show. Before the end of the year J-Street U will host the general director from the Palestinian mission in Washington D.C. and Students for Justice in Palestine will screen the Oscar nominated Palestinian documentary, “5 Broken Cameras.”

Ignoring the Middle East—a region significant in current events and the intellectual and historical development of the world—is academically reckless.

Arabic is the sixth most spoken language in the world, according to the Encyclopaedia Britanica, offering instruction in the history, culture and language of the region is already indispensible for any competitive college.

It is clear that students are insisting that the Middle East have a greater place in College discourse. Like Jamil Wyne’s informal Arabic classes five years ago, Bowdoin students are once again taking the initiative to fill the gap in class selection. But the responsibility for satisfying the academic demands of the student body ultimately falls on the College. 

The Orient’s call to find and hire professors who will be able to give students the instruction in Middle Eastern culture and language is just as relevant today as it was in 2007.