The University Record, March 4, 2002

Outreach is focus of Center for Mid-East/N. African Studies

By Theresa Maddix

Since Sept. 11, the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS) has received a deluge of requests for information from the media, educational environments and individuals nationwide.

Not all requests are too serious. “My favorite question so far,” Director Michael Bonner says, “was a request from the TV show, ‘The Weakest Link.’” The show was validating the answer to one of the questions they would use for their show at a later date. “It was actually pretty good,” Bonner says. Many callers want to know the proper pronunciation of Al Qaeda.

CMENAS tries to put information seekers, whether their queries are serious or light, in touch with experts. “We want to be a clearinghouse for information,” Bonner says.

“One of the main reasons we are here is for outreach,” Bonner says. The single most important element of it is K–12 and especially high school education. We’re working to develop ways to do it systematically.”

This summer CMENAS is offering a seminar for high school and middle school teachers, called “The Arab World and the West,” with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Alexander Knysh, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Studies, will coordinate the conference with Ronald Stockton, U-M–Dearborn professor of social sciences, and Michael Fahy, program associate at CMENAS.

Knysh says that the conference “was prepared before the events of Sept. 11, not in response.” However, Knysh and other presenters are “already reworking to focus more on the modern history of the Middle East and recent developments.”

Knysh says, CMENAS also “attempts to give better job opportunities to students who would like to use their expertise in the Middle East in one capacity or other. For this they need knowledge of the areas and languages.”

Applications to the center’s master of arts program, an interdisciplinary introduction to the Middle East and at least one language, have doubled since Sept. 11. A course offered on the Arab-Israeli conflict had 77 students in 2001. This term, a second section had to open up and enrollment doubled.

Fortunately, Bonner says, “We think our curriculum regarding the Middle East is already pretty comprehensive. We cover a lot of areas so it wasn’t necessary to go off and reinvent the whole curriculum.”

Having a solid curriculum in place allows the center to help other educational institutions, such as Michigan State University, by sharing scheduled speakers and expertise.

U-M’s curriculum and the center’s expertise is more widely valued today, post-Sept. 11 than it was in the spring of 2000, when CMENAS lost its major source of funding— the National Resource Center grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Before this horrible Sept. 11 stuff came around, I really wanted everyone to keep their eye on the ball—that is getting that NRC grant back,” says Michael Bonner, director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies (CMENAS).

CMENAS still receives some funding from the Department of Education in the Foreign Language Area Studies (FLAS) fellowships, and funding from LS&A through the International Institute. Its focus, prior to Sept. 11, was renewing the grant at the beginning of the next three-year cycle. Bonner is confident that with recent faculty appointments and with the increased needs for its services, the center will have its funding renewed for the next cycle, beginning in 2003.

Fourteen other NRC funded centers focus in the same area of study at other Universities including Harvard, the University of California–Los Angeles and the University of Chicago.