Back in 2006, after living and working as a journalist in Cairo for a number of years, I decided I needed to go back to university to study the Middle East, since my undergraduate studies had had nothing to do with the Arab world. I started a master’s-degree program in Near East Studies at New York University. I also decided to get serious about learning Arabic. There was only one program that I thought of applying to: the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad, or CASA.
Today this unique Arabic language program, which has trained generations of Middle East specialists, is under threat.
CASA is an intensive, one-year Arabic language program. At that time it was hosted at the American University in Cairo. It was funded by the Department of Education and open to American graduate students (and some professionals). It was famous for its rigor and for its results.
In 2007, I arrived back in Cairo to start my year at CASA. It was everything I could have hoped for. The professors taught us with enthusiasm and endless resourcefulness; my fellow students were bright and eager. Learning Arabic can be daunting. CASA’s approach is to do it all: We studied Classical Arabic as well as Egyptian Colloquial; we practiced reading, listening (endlessly rewinding media broadcasts and movies) and even writing. I have the fondest memories of afternoons spent in a Cairo flat, drinking coffee, plodding through my reading assignments and thumbing through my well-worn Hans Wehr dictionary. (The program had a philosophy: read, read and read. Keep reading even if you don’t understand everything. The more you read, the more the meaning of words will fall into place and stick in your mind. It worked). By the end of the year, we were taking seminars in Arabic from Egyptian university professors. I was able to read the novels that went on to be the basis of my master’s degree thesis.
This September, the Department of Education chose, for the first time in CASA program’s 49-year-history, not to fund it. The funding for Fulbright-Hays programs—under which CASA falls—has been cut in recent years. Where it used to fund eleven programs, the department now supports only five or six. This year, the department introduced new guidelines, favoring new rather than established programs, ones from institutions that serve members of minority groups, and ones that focus on education between kindergarten and 12th grade.
“We expected to get less money,” Nevenka Korica Sullivan, the program’s U.S. director told me, “but nobody expected they would give us nothing. This is a shock. This is a new reality.”
CASA is a scholarship program. It covers students’ travel, their courses, and gives them a modest stipend with which to pay for rent and food. (Students must be U.S. citizens or permanent residents in the United States.) Being able to take a whole year to focus exclusively on Arabic was a turning point for me. The Arabic I learned allowed me to carry out academic research and the journalistic reporting I wanted to do. Quite simply, that year at CASA changed my life. And that seems to be true of most everyone who goes through the program. In letters of support submitted with CASA’s funding application, graduates of the program describe it in the most glowing terms: “unmatched,” “one of a kind,” “invaluable.”
“It is hard to think of a colleague in the field (Arabic and Middle East Studies more broadly) who has not participated in this program” wrote Christopher Stone, head of the Arabic division at Hunter College/CUNY.
“My teaching career spanning 35 years across Harvard University, the College of William and Mary (where I founded the Arabic program), Emory University, and now the University of Texas at Austin simply would not have happened if not for CASA,” wrote Kristen Brustad, associate professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She argued that “no other program anywhere in the world provides this breadth and depth of Arabic training.”
It seems shortsighted, if not downright inexplicable, to leave an educational program whose value and impact are so universally acknowledged in the lurch. Especially at a time when there is such a preoccupation in the United States with Islamic terrorism and such a need for informed analysis of the Arab world.
As David Simonowitz, associate professor of Middle East Studies at Pepperdine University, argued in another letter of support: “Now more than ever, future U.S. students, educators, diplomats, civil servants, military personnel, and policy makers need the training provided by CASA” as well as “the cultural insights and resources that CASA provides.”
There are other intensive Arabic language programs, but none that are based in the Arab world, are as intensive as CASA, or largely serve future educators.
“It is the only program that caters to academia, [to people] who need Arabic for research purposes, and people who work in related fields, journalism and NGOs,” says Korica Sullivan, who teaches Arabic at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. “Because it built its reputation, it was able to attract the best students, who are completely motivated, who give up their life for a year to study Arabic, and it generates a wonderful energy.”
When I posted a note on social media about the program’s defunding, it was met with consternation and shock from many former Casaweyeen (I’m afraid that’s the nerdy term some of us used) who are in my network of friends and acquaintances. One friend today interviews Syrians applying for refugee status thanks to the Arabic she learned in CASA. Another has gone on to teach Arabic himself at the university level, and is about to finish a dissertation he says he couldn’t have undertaken without the program, which he calls “an experience that was pivotal to me.”
CASA has already gone through significant upheavals in recent years because of its commitment to being an immersion program that is based in an Arab country. It left Cairo twice since the uprising there in 2011, and is currently based in Amman, Jordan.
The program has a small endowment that will allow it to run, with a small number of students, this year and perhaps the next. Fifteen students are studying in Amman at the moment. CASA administrators are exploring other sources of funding they can apply for. They are hopeful that this invaluable program will find the support it needs.