Arabic’s avoidable end at Sewanee.

By Max Saltman 
Executive Staff

This will be my first Sewanee semester without taking an Arabic class, and the first semester since 2012 that the University won’t offer courses in Arabic. We’ve been blessed (and I don’t use that word lightly) by Professor May Kamalick and the Reverend Leyla King, a mother-daughter team who spent countless hours teaching and promoting Arabic at the College. Keep in mind, too, that this was a side gig for both. Rev. King is a practicing Episcopal priest with her own congregation in Chattanooga, and Prof. Kamalick is a former FBI linguist who came out of retirement to teach Sewanee students. So, it isn’t hyperbole or hagiography when I say that these women were two of the most dedicated instructors at Sewanee. 

While Arabic classes were often extremely small, under the tutelage of King and Kamalick, two students won prestigious Critical Language Scholarships from the U.S. Department of State to study Arabic. One of them was my friend and classmate Nisrine Hilizah (C’21), who won the award not once but twice. The other was me. Technically, I’m still a student in the CLS program as I write this, as its classes are being held virtually from Oman and overlap with Sewanee’s early opening time. 

After Rev. King and Professor Kamalick decided to stop teaching at the College at the end of last year, most Arabic students hoped that Sewanee would hire a new instructor, possibly with a tenure track so that the Arabic department could continue in perpetuity. However, the hiring freeze imposed by the University after the coronavirus pandemic began meant that any search for a replacement Arabic instructor became impossible.  

It isn’t surprising to me that the Arabic program essentially died of coronavirus. Arabic education at Sewanee was always assumed to be in existential peril even before COVID-19. In 2018, my friend Nora Walsh Battle (C’19) pointed out that students studying Japanese consistently outnumbered Arabic students. Fittingly, that op-ed was written within the context of the University giving Japanese the axe. 

Some might view low enrollment rates in Arabic as a sign of inevitable decline, but I don’t see it that way. Our university has a thriving religious studies department offering classes on Islam, politics courses discussing the Arab world, Middle Eastern history classes, and an International and Global Studies major with a concentration in the Middle East and North Africa. We possess a surrounding academic infrastructure into which Arabic education very clearly fits. Yet Arabic was never given the resources and respect it needed to grow as a program at Sewanee. It was just as much an issue of attitude as it was of enrollment. 

When I entered the University, my freshman advisor informed me that I might not be able to finish my foreign language credits with Arabic. This wasn’t true (I’ll finish Sewanee this year with my language requirement fulfilled and with Arabic credits left over), but my Arabic instructors said at the time that students were told something along those lines every single year. The persisting rumor that Arabic was on its last legs became a kind of silly self-fulfilling prophecy, even as Nisrine and I reaped the benefits of our government’s interest in Americans learning Arabic, and even as our tightly-knit classes continued to study this beautiful, challenging language. 

With the end of Arabic at Sewanee, the foreign languages taught here (aside from Mandarin Chinese and Biblical Hebrew) are all European in origin. I find this embarrassing, not because we shouldn’t teach European languages, but because we’ve increasingly begun to tout the idea that Sewanee is an especially “global” school. Without tenure-track positions for professors of Arabic and other world languages, our “globalness” will remain an empty adjective for brochures, not a guiding statement of educational intent. 

One comment

  1. As a Sewanee graduate and Arabic speaker (American University of Cairo and the Foreign Service Institute) I think that not having the capability to offer students Middle Eastern languages is a real oversight in the preparation of a truly comprehensive curriculum. Business leaders are not looking for French, German or Spanish speakers but those who can converse in Arabic, Farsi, Russian, Chinese and such. Additionally, it is important to recognize that Modern Standard Arabic is not the Arabic spoken in most of the Arabic world. You’ll do better speaking Egyptian, which is way harder than MSA but understood over most of the Arabic world since the majority of Arabic television and movies originate in Egypt.

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