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New Courses to Examine Commonalities of Middle East and South Asia

December 5, 2011 — The University of Virginia's Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures is offering a new slate of courses in the spring semester designed to explore the deep cultural and historical ties between its two namesake regions.

The department, part of the College of Arts & Sciences, is offering four new courses linking South Asia and the Middle East. The idea is to get away from an academic tendency to study countries or regions in isolation, without regard for common historical or cultural trends, Farzaneh Milani, department chair, said.

Faculty and students in Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures – or MESALC – study an area stretching from eastern Africa to the Indian subcontinent. The department teaches seven languages: Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Hebrew, Sanskrit and Bengali. Milani said she was recently surprised to realize that about 29 percent of the world's population speaks at least one of those languages, according to 2010 census data.

"By its very nature, MESALC is interdisciplinary, multicultural and interregional," she said. "But in the last year and half we've taken the initiative to make the department even more inter-regional. We applied for a grant from the Jefferson Trust for new courses that will connect and celebrate the similarities between these two major areas: the Middle East and South Asia."

The first course funded by the $39,000 grant is "Crossing Borders: Middle East & South Asia," taught by lecturer Richard Cohen, managing director of the Asia Institute, and Ahmad Obiedat, coordinator of the Arabic language program. It is the only one this spring funded by the Jefferson Trust grant, which will also fund four other courses in coming semesters. The course originated with the premise that, since the end of World War II, regional studies have become too constrained by national borders and fail to properly examine the historical movement of ideas and cultures, Cohen said. 

"We're going to try to start with the so-called origins of civilization – agriculture, etc. – that go back to about 10,000 B.C., and try and track the cross-currents that are clearly demonstrable between the Middle East and South Asia," he said. "This is going to be hard because of the time span, and we're going to have to be smart about what material we choose."

So far, student interest has been strong. The initial 30 seats filled quickly. Cohen and Obiedat expanded the class to 40 seats, and within 24 hours all but two were filled. Now, the course has a waiting list.

Obiedat said the academic tendency to break the study of a region into compartmentalized disciplines and nations is understandable. "We academicians have invented smaller sectors that suit our education and capacity," he said, "but this doesn't always reflect what the nature of history is, or what the nature of knowledge is."

For example, tracing the history of mathematical or musical ideas through the Middle East and South Asia shows that the regions have always had some sort of cultural exchange, he said. For students who will graduate into an increasingly globalized society, learning to study regions or cultures using a wider lens is an important skill, both instructors said.

"I think it's also the future of scholarship," Milani said. "It will not only help us better understand the region by understanding its deep roots in these two vast areas, but it might also help our students better understand the interconnectedness we all share in the global village."

– by Rob Seal

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