Yale Bulletin and Calendar

September 3, 2004|Volume 33, Number 2|Two-Week Issue















Bassam Frangieh (left) teaches Arabic, which has been rated by the Educational Testing Service as one of the most difficult languages to master. Nevertheless, enrollments in Arabic courses at Yale have doubled in the past five years.

In Focus: Studying the Near East

Like the region its study encompasses, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) is diverse in its offerings: Its courses span 10,000 years of history, covering topics that range from ancient art, history and literature to the news-making political and cultural conflicts of the present day.

These classes are taught by faculty members who vary both in their scholarly focus and their backgrounds. Working side by side in the NELC's offices in the Hall of Graduate Studies are two Israelis and two Palestinians, an Englishman, a German, an Iranian and a Greek raised in Turkey, among others.

NELC was founded in 1842 by Edward Salisbury, Yale Class of 1832, making it the first program of its kind in America. For over 160 years, the department has enjoyed an international reputation, and NELC graduates today occupy many of the principal academic and research positions across the country in Assyriology, Egyptology, Semitic studies, and Arabic and Islamic studies.

NELC studies cover the entire Middle East region. Originally, the terms "Near" and "Middle" East were strategic concepts related to the interests of the British Empire lying geographically between England and India. For the British, the "Near" East comprised Egypt, the Levant, Iraq and occasionally Turkey, while they used "Middle" East more broadly to include Iran and Afghanistan. Today, the terms are synonymous and are often understood to encompass the lands, peoples and cultures extending from Morocco to Afghanistan.

Over the past decade, NELC has experienced the highest rate of increase in undergraduate enrollments of any humanities department, according to the department's new chair, Beatrice Gruendler, professor of Arabic language and literature. Enrollments in some courses, such as the "Introduction to the Middle East" class taught by Benjamin Foster, have increased more than 10-fold since 1995.

Likewise, the number of students majoring in NELC has tripled, and the department's undergraduates have distinguished themselves by winning two of the past four Wrexham Prizes for the Best Senior Essay in the Field of the Humanities. Both of these students -- Colleen Manassa '01, who won for her study of the Great Karnak inscription of Merneptah, and David Klotz '03, who wrote his essay on the Armun hymns at Hibis Temple -- are now NELC graduate students.

At the core of the NELC curriculum are classes in more than a dozen ancient and modern languages, from Sumerian and Akkadian to Arabic, Hebrew and Persian (Farsi). As Benjamin Foster, the William M. Laffan Professor of Assyriology and Babylonian Literature and director of Special Programs in the Humanities, explains: "Serious study of languages of the Near East is essential for understanding the cultural and political complexities of the region from the beginnings of history to the present."

Because of the priority on languages, NELC doctoral students must complete a 24-course requirement (as opposed to the 12 to 16 courses required in other humanities fields), culminating in three full days of written examinations and a two-hour comprehensive oral examination, conducted before the entire faculty of the department.

All ranks of NELC faculty engage in language instruction and actively develop innovative approaches. In "Introduction to Classical Hieroglyphic Egyptian," for example, which regularly enrolls 10 to 12 students, the graduate student teaching fellows and John Darnell, associate professor of Egyptology, have created a beginning grammar of Egyptian, to be published in the near future.

Under the direction of senior lector Bassam Frangieh, Yale's Arabic language program has also risen in popularity. Enrollments for "Elementary Modern Standard Arabic" have doubled over the past five years, with many of the 30 to 35 students continuing into the second- and third-year Arabic courses -- this despite the fact that the Educational Testing Service ranks Arabic at the top of languages that are challenging and time-consuming for American students to learn.

"The most difficult aspects are the grammar, which is hard to master, and the vocabulary, which is vast," notes Frangieh, who received the 2001 Yale Prize for Distinction in Teaching in recognition of his success in Arabic instruction.

The curriculum in modern Hebrew, supervised by senior lector Ayala Dvoretzky, has expanded from a one-semester introduction to a full three-year sequence that is regularly updated to include current issues, as well as popular songs and poetry.

In addition, NELC has been rapidly expanding its cooperative ventures with other University departments and programs. NELC faculty currently contribute four foundation courses to the Special Programs in the Humanities, among them "The Worlds of Homer" (taught by lecturer Karen Foster) and "From Greek into Arabic into Latin: Foundations of Western Culture" (taught by Dimitri Gutas, the former chair of NELC).

In the spring of 2002, Gruendler and Darnell teamed with computer science professor Michael Fischer to offer a new course, "From Pictograph to Pixel: Changing Ways of Human Communication." Other recent initiatives include courses offered in collaboration with history of art, archaeological studies, environmental studies and comparative literature.

The past decade has also seen a marked increase in NELC's outreach efforts. In response to Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq, the department organized three panel discussions designed to share the historical and cultural expertise of its faculty with the Yale community: "Arab/Islamic Civilization Beyond September 11 and the 1001 Nights" and "Iraq Beyond the Headlines, I and II." (Videotapes of these are available in the NELC office.)

Recently, NELC has sponsored a number of international congresses and symposia, drawing both top experts in the field and new scholars to Yale to share their research. In conjunction with these events, NELC faculty have organized special exhibitions at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Sterling Memorial Library.

Throughout its long history, the department has approached the languages and cultures of the Near East from a positive standpoint, in contrast to a growing trend in American universities to present this region in terms of conflict with the West, say NELC faculty. "There is a real thirst out there, in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, for serious study of the harmony of civilizations, rather than their clash," explains Gutas, who teaches Arabic language and literature courses.

"Furthermore," he adds, "there is widespread ignorance among non-Muslims of the profound impact of Islamic civilization upon the West -- indeed the two are part of the same cultural tradition that built upon biblical and classical foundations -- and among Muslims, of the inclusive and international nature of earlier Islamic polities, beyond the mere dictates of a narrowly conceived and arbitrarily defined Islamic orthodoxy."

Strengthened faculty

NELC's newest faculty members have contributed to the expansion and rejuvenation of the department, especially in their commitment to undergraduate education and broadly collaborative research and teaching endeavors.

Among the department's most recent members are:

Beatrice Gruendler, the current chair of NELC, who is widely recognized as a leading authority on the development of Arabic script and on medieval Arabic poetry in its social context. Gruendler is also at the forefront of integrating modern literary theory into the study of Near Eastern literatures. With colleagues at Würzburg University and the Institute of Advanced Studies in Berlin, Gruendler holds regular workshops at the meetings of the Deutsche Morgenldndische Gesellschaft, with publication of the proceedings appearing as "Understanding Near Eastern Literatures" within a new series, "Literatur in Kontext." Gruendler has served as chair of medieval studies and has been instrumental in organizing the Yale Arabic Colloquium, which brings together students and faculty whose work involves Arabic for monthly conversations.

As one of her goals as chair, Gruendler hopes to further enhance NELC course offerings.

"In assuming the chairmanship of this distinguished department, I look forward to building on its long tradition of academic excellence, as well as to expanding its undergraduate coverage, especially in the modern period," she explains.

John Darnell, associate professor of Egyptology. Darnell came to Yale from the Epigraphic Survey of the Oriental Institute, based at Chicago House in Luxor, Egypt. His research interests include ancient Egyptian religion, cryptography and the texts of the Graeco-Roman period. Darnell co-directs the Theban Desert Road Survey (see related story). In addition to lecture courses in Egyptian history and religion, Darnell has taught an unusually wide range of courses in ancient texts, from those dealing with the underworld and cosmography to love poetry and magic spells. He serves on the Council on Archaeological Studies.

Eckart Frahm, assistant professor of Assyriology, a specialist in Mesopotamian history of the first millennium B.C.E., is an authority on the inscriptions of the Assyrian king Sennacherib. Before coming to Yale, Frahm served as epigrapher for the German archaeological expedition to Assur, one of the most important sites in northern Iraq. At Yale, he has developed undergraduate courses in Mesopotamian literature, religion and politics, and he teaches in the Directed Studies Program.

Hala Nassar, assistant professor of modern Arabic culture and literature, focuses her research on contemporary dramatic and literary production in the Arab world, especially in Palestine. Prior to coming to Yale, she directed numerous productions and workshops on female identity and anti-authoritarian theater for eventual incorporation into the first Palestinian children's theater. At Yale, she has offered "Drama and Theater in the Arab World" and "Gender and Nationalism in Arab Women's Literature."

Karen Foster, lecturer in the art of the ancient Near East and Aegean, specializes in the art and archaeology of the Bronze Age Aegean, with particular interests in interconnections with Egypt and the Near East. In addition to scholarly publications, she has written and illustrated a children's book, "The City of Rainbows: A Tale From Ancient Sumer," the first retelling of one of the world's oldest folktales. In her joint appointment with the Department of the History of Art, she has developed such undergraduate courses as "The Art of Ancient Palaces" and "Buried Cities: Thera, Pompeii and Herculaneum." She serves on the Council on Archaeological Studies.

Siam Bhayro, lector in northwest Semitic languages, came to Yale from the University of Sheffield, where he was a research associate for the Dictionary of Classical Hebrew Project. At Yale, he teaches many Semitic languages, among them Ugaritic, Ethiopic and various dialects of Aramaic, including Syriac. He serves on the Judaic Studies Committee and hosts the NELC Roundtable, a forum for student research presentations.

Kahar Barat, lector in Turkish, is affiliated with the department through the auspices of the Center for International and Area Studies. He is the University's first specialist in Inner Asian and Altaic Studies, with competence in numerous Turkic languages, among them Uygur, Turkish, Azeri, Uzbek and Kazakh. Barat has been a research affiliate at the Harvard University Yenching Institute and Center for Studies of World Religion.


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