Political events of the last decade have put the Middle East and South Asia firmly in American students’ minds. However, according to some, academics concerning these regions are surprisingly lacking, with UC Davis’ program only recently established and only one of four in the entire nation.
Twelve years ago, there were barely a handful of Middle Eastern and South Asian courses at UC Davis. Now, after the founding of the Middle East/South Asia (ME/SA) studies program, the original two-member faculty and 300 students have grown to 22 and 2,000, respectively. With the leadership of founding director anthropology and women’s studies professor Suad Joseph, pressure from UC Davis student petitions and support from local Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, ME/SA has grown to offer both a major and a minor.
It is also a resource for non-majors, as the program hosts two lecture series and many guest speakers throughout the year. The lectures are free, open to everyone and aim to offer richer understandings of Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs.
“These days it is impossible not to be interested in [Middle Eastern/South Asian] affairs, because we as the United States are involved,” said Baki Tezcan, history professor and ME/SA director. “We were in Iraq until recently, and we are involved in Afghanistan, so it is in our news every day.”
Tezcan said that though students must be aware of Middle Eastern affairs, they may not always have the best sources for information, making it important for ME/SA to provide multiple and different perspectives.
According to Gurgit Mann, ME/SA coordinator, there are two lecture series, the Suad Joseph Lecture Series in Iranian Studies and the Faris Saeed Lecture Series in Arab Studies.
It took over a decade of petitions, networking and applications to make the ME/SA program and these lectures a reality.
In 2001, when Joseph was in Egypt, several students approached her for help. Though Joseph had already tried to create such a major in the 1970s, and again in the 1980s, she agreed to help, and upon returning home, worked with students to begin founding a program.
The next year, Joseph formed a research cluster with three new faculty members and submitted the proposal for the minor in 2005, which was accepted immediately. Three months after this, the program was officially created, which, according to Joseph, is the fastest any Davis program has ever been established. Riding this momentum, a proposal for the major was submitted in 2006, and two years later it was approved.
The Middle Eastern community in Davis also played a large role in ME/SA’s creation and growth.
“The Iranian Community of Davis and Sacramento has been incredibly helpful,” Joseph said. “They helped organize the other communities in 2004 to support our efforts to found the program, and they have continued to help us with donor development and with their own funds.”
According to Tezcan, Javad and Shirin Rahimian from the Iranian-American community support ME/SA’s Suad Joseph Lecture Series in Iranian Studies.
The Arab studies lecture series is also supported via donations, and is named for its benefactor Mr. Faris Saeed. Saeed is a businessman in Dubai, and after visiting UC Davis, he was inspired to develop a place in Dubai based on Davis’ West Village. In the meantime, he supports ME/SA financially.
Currently, ME/SA is beginning to talk to the local Sikh community, and Tezcan stated that they’re waiting to see what will happen.
Tezcan felt that it is important to raise awareness about the problems faced by the Sikh community in the United States, especially after the Wisconsin massacre this past summer, when six worshipers were gunned down at a Sikh temple by a white-supremacist.
“One thing everyone [is familiar with] is your classmates,” Tezcan said. “Your classmates come from very different parts of the world, and they come from very different traditions. We live here, in the United States, which is an immigrant nation, and it’s not just Middle East and South Asian studies — I think our university students should learn about all the world’s history and cultures, from East Asia to South Asia to the Middle East to Latin America to Africa. Learning about this is not just learning about the world. It is learning about each other.”
Tezcan also said that Middle East and South Asian affairs directly affect UC Davis.
“If we had resources that could go to public education instead of defense, perhaps we wouldn’t have to increase [university] fees as much,” Tezcan said. “Being better informed might help us make better decisions with our tax dollars, and that might actually have an impact on how much we pay for college tuition here.”
As far as informing the community goes, however, ME/SA is a rare and useful resource for students, according to Joseph.
“We are one of only four such programs nationally,” Joseph said. “I am regularly approached by faculty in other universities asking how we built this program. Even our dean has been asked by other universities how this program was built.”
Joseph said the answer is simple: commitment from and the collaboration of students, faculty, the community and the administration, working together with a common goal.
Though it receives very little funding from the university and relies heavily on donations, ME/SA continues to bring valuable educational opportunities to students.
Just this past quarter, the program brought many fascinating lecturers to campus, including Moroccan Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah, who spoke about the third year of the Arab Spring.
Upcoming events include a seminar this Friday with guest speaker Ali Yaycioglu on “Wealth, Power and Death in the Ottoman World.” It will be held at noon in 1246 Social Science and Humanities.
“[The lectures] are meant for the community and students, so everyone is welcome,” Mann said. “It’s always free and we always have food.”
NAOMI NISHIHARA can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.