Mideast language program launched

Sheila Burt

With the help of an expanded Middle Eastern language program at Northwestern, John Mafi is slowly learning more about his ancestors, including his great-uncle who briefly served as prime minister of Iran in 1921.

Mafi, a Weinberg senior, is one of 10 students currently enrolled in a Persian independent study program offered this quarter for the first time. He wants to learn how to read the Persian poems his grandmother wrote to him a few years ago, as well as his grandfather’s memoirs.

“It’s opening a whole new door of literature and philosophy I’ve never experienced before,” Mafi said.

The Persian independent study program is just one of several new classes, mostly language courses, focused on the Middle East — and several students and faculty members are hoping the courses continue.

Currently Mafi and other students and faculty members are petitioning for the Persian independent study course to become an official class that fulfills the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences language requirement. Mafi said he hopes that by Spring Quarter the course will become a permanent class for future students.

Other new programs offered for the first time this quarter include a Turkish language course and a new minor in eastern European studies offered by the Center for International and Comparative Studies. In addition, two new courses on Istanbul in history and fiction and the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans will be offered next year.

“I think students in general don’t know exactly what they want (when they first come to college),” said Andrew Wachtel, the center’s director. “It’s our job as faculty members, and the university as a whole, to show our students possibilities they didn’t know about.”

Wachtel, who also serves as chairman for the Slavic languages and literatures department, helped secure a government grant for the Turkish and Persian courses.

Wachtel said the steady enrollment in new language courses proves that students have an interest in non-Indo-European languages.

“Historically, the argument has always been that students don’t want these exotic languages.” Wachtel said. “But my argument is that they don’t want them because we don’t offer them.”

History lecturer Fariba Zarinebaf, who will teach the course on Istanbul and the Ottoman Empire next year, also was involved with the push to offer these courses. She said the University Library’s collection on Turkish books is increasing slowly. She received a small budget and purchased some language books and primary documents.

“It is important to expose the students to the (Middle Eastern) cultures, and teaching language is one vehicle to achieve that,” Zarinebaf said.

Students with varying levels of proficiency in the languages are interested in the courses, said African and Asian languages lecturer Judith Wilks, who teaches the Turkish language course and the Persian independent study class.

“I think we’ve tapped into a pent-up demand for these languages in offering them this year,” she said. “There was a long-standing demand that is now being met, at least for this year.”

Students aren’t the only ones interested in the Turkish and Persian language courses. Political science Prof. Elizabeth Hurd and Slavic languages and literatures senior lecturer Elisabeth Elliott also are taking the Turkish language course.

Hurd said interaction with countries in the Middle East will only increase in the 21st century, and it is “incumbent upon” NU to give students and faculty members the opportunity to study these languages.

“It’s absolutely essential that there are students and that there will be people trained in both Persian and Turkish who can go to Turkey and Iran and work as diplomats,” she said. “It’s very difficult to find training in these languages (elsewhere).”

New courses in Middle Eastern studies:

This year:
* Introductory Persian, African and Asian Languages Program
* Turkish, African and Asian Languages Program
* Islamic and religious movements, Sociology Department

Next year:
* Istanbul in history and fiction, History Department
* The Ottoman Empire and the Balkans, History Department