MEST Forum: 1st Alumni Annual Gathering (THE FULL REPORT)

Middle Eastern Studies: From Academia to Marketplace


The Middle Eastern Studies Division at the AUD School of Arts and Sciences organized the first Middle Eastern Studies Alumni Annual Gathering, themed Middle Eastern Studies: From Academia to Marketplace. As part of the 2016 Middle Eastern Studies (MEST) Forum sequence, aiming at bringing together MEST scholars and AUD’s community who are interested in Middle Eastern historical, political, economic, religious, artistic, social and cultural issues, the event took place on January 26, 2016, and gathered more than 200 current students enrolled in Middle Eastern Studies courses and in the Certificate of Middle Eastern Studies with AUD graduates who have completed the Certificate.

The gathering started with a reception outside the auditorium. Dr. Nadia Wardeh, Coordinator of the Middle Eastern Studies Division, introduced the attendees to an overview of the Middle Eastern Studies Certificate, which is an 18-credit hour program designed to give students an appreciation and basic understanding of Southwestern Asia and North Africa, and of the different factors that have shaped this region through time.

She commented, “The Certificate program seeks to firstly, educate students to such a level that they would be able to function successfully in a contemporary global world with an understanding of different ethnicities, nationalities and religions – specifically, those in the Middle East. Secondly, to provide students with a comprehensive understanding of the region’s cultures. Thirdly, it provides students with the necessary skills to critically analyze current situations/events in the region considering cultural and historical backgrounds. Last but not least, it provides them with an understanding of the geopolitical role of the region in the context of globalization.”

Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Pamela Chrabieh pointed out the fact that the Certificate is an opportunity for students who are pursuing different careers in journalism, education, media, diplomacy, and business. She addressed a message to the Alumni thanking them for accepting the invitation and congratulating them on their achievements, and to the current students enrolled in the Certificate and MEST courses, she said, “Tonight is an opportunity for you to further understand the importance of this field of study and to be able to relate theory to practice, the academic sphere to the marketplace. Tonight is also about understanding the importance of a holistic approach in Higher Education. Whether you are formed to become engineers, businesswomen and men, teachers, diplomats or media specialists, you are all interconnected as AUD students, as current and former students, and your areas of expertise are interdependent. Tonight is about starting to build a platform of dialogue and collaboration, a community where differences come together and, as Gibran Khalil Gibran writes, a community where ‘there are spaces in your togetherness’.”

AUD student Alia Hammouri was the host and moderator throughout the evening. The guest speakers, MEST Alumni and current students enrolled in the MEST Certificate, included Dana Abulaban – News Reporter and Presenter with MBC Group, Sarah Hassan – Journalist and Producer with CNN International, Hassan Khayal – Internal Audit at Protiviti and owner of Fantasy Diving, Hossam Sameer Ali – reporter with MBC Group, Angi Shaya – senior studying Journalism, Hazar Bahbouh – third year student majoring in Arabic Track Journalism, Leen Alfaisal – video producer at CNN Arabic in Dubai, Maram El Hendy – third year Journalism student minoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics, and Hiba Bou Daher – senior student majoring in Journalism.

Here are summaries of their biographies and excerpts of their most inspiring speeches that were highly praised by the attendees.

Dana Abulaban is a News Reporter and Presenter in MBC Group. She graduated in 2012 in Journalism (AUD MBRSC) and completed her MEST Certificate in the same year. She explained that she chose to enroll in the program as a Journalism student because “being a journalist is much more than learning the technicalities of the job. In order to write, produce and tell good stories, you need a broader education, you need to be able to add to the story and give it interesting angles. Since I was aiming at working in the media field in the region, I thought the MEST Certificate was the perfect tool that would help me not only in getting the job of my dreams but also in making a difference and being different. The first thing I learned when I initially started studying was ‘to be from the Middle East is not enough to understand it’. I thought that being Arab and Palestinian would make things much easier for me. But we are taught that the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. The program takes you on a journey of understanding the region step by step in all its aspects such as religious, political and cultural. Even if you think you understand your culture thoroughly, you will discover new realms and new aspects. I learned the beauty of the Arabic language and read the works of great poets and inspiring writers. I also gained a better knowledge of the region […]. Being a Muslim I have studied Islam for almost 12 years in school and yet, when I began studying during the course of the MEST Certificate, I learned there was much more than what we were taught before. I learned to think critically […]. I learned that the Middle East does not equal Arab, that the region was an oasis for the world, it was shaped and defined by the world, by all cultures who have lived here, prospered here, even the ones who occupied the region and caused much bloodshed and suffering. We are all of that and much more […]. I can honestly say that what I learned throughout my time here at AUD and especially while completing the MEST Certificate paid off. In addition to all the knowledge and information I acquired, I was able to shape an informed opinion and an understanding about the happenings in the region, rather than an emotional one. […] To all current students and the ones who are still deciding whether to enroll in the MEST Certificate or not, make use of this great opportunity to understand the region you live in. Arab students will learn a lot more about themselves and their neighbors. And those who do not come from the Middle East will gain a golden chance in experiencing the region not only by living in it but also by understanding its history, cultures and politics.”

Sarah Hassan is a Journalist and Producer with CNN International. She graduated with a degree in Journalism from AUD and completed her MEST Certificate, but found her passion in film after taking a course in documentary in her last year of university. She directed a short documentary and produced another, and the ideas of both films were strongly related to Islam, and women and gender in the Middle East. The films took part in students’ film festivals in the Middle East.
Sarah started her speech with a story about a man setting himself on fire in Al Aqsa Mosque in 1969 and the comatose state of Arabs following the incident, comparing it to their nowadays most common attitude: “We Arabs are in a comatose state. A quick look at our history for the past few hundred years shows that things have not been going very well. We do not learn from the past. We passively receive all the news from media rich in agendas, media that focus deliberately on explaining the reasons why we, the components of the Middle East, should hate each other. […] I am not exaggerating when I say that the courses I took as part of my MEST studies have absolutely changed my life. I understood the roots to our problems, and it was not long before I was able to connect the dots and understand how the names have changed, but the key players remain the same, and history simply keeps repeating itself. Putting politics aside, I was also introduced to my religion from an unusual perspective, from books that had nothing to sugar coat, and students who come from different backgrounds than mine, and professors who were ready to listen to anything we say. This forced me to think outside the box, to critique things I never thought I could, to challenge myself to find explanations. […] It is only when we dare to ask and stop following heedlessly, that we will be able to develop solid beliefs that we are proud of, and in which we will awaken from our long sleep.”

Hassan Khayal graduated with a Bachelor of Business Administration and completed the MEST Certificate as well. He now works in Internal Audit for the prestigious international company Protiviti, and  has his own diving company. He is currently back at his beloved AUD completing his masters degrees.

Hassan focused his speech on the learning experience he had while a student at AUD, and particularly while completing the MEST certificate. He shared, “The majority of graduating students will work in the Middle East; even for those who won’t, the world has become such a small village that they will be affected by the events going in the area. In this regard, the MEST Certificate program helped me in my personal development and in acquiring soft skills necessary to my workplace, which I find to be more important than technical skills. Because AUD applies the  liberal education philosophy, it helped me interact with other students, and develop intercultural sensitivity and understanding. My interaction with Study Abroad students provided me a fantastic opportunity to network and gain insight into the traditionally opposite perspective. The Certificate certainly allowed me to have access to a platform of debate and to a steeper curve of learning; it helped me become a global citizens who is not only capable of adapting and surviving in the modern world but also capable of thriving and succeeding.”

Hassan commented that the Certificate had a unique edge that helped him in his career in internal auditing, risk consultancy and in his work with his Government clientele. “It set me as a graduate apart from my competition in the workplace.”

Leen Alfaisal graduated in Journalism and is currently working as a video producer at CNN Arabic in Dubai. She is also an independent documentary filmmaker and a gender equality activist. “Working in the media sector, whether in the news department or in the creative sector of films, you are expected to bring something new to the table, and if you do not have that new approach within you, you will not be able to deliver.”

According to Leen, completing the MEST Certificate program gave her that something new to bring to the table, “Taking those courses changed me because I was able to ask questions – questions I was not allowed to ask before, coming from a conservative background, and because what we learned in this program were the guidelines to make our own content, our own story that shapes the Middle Eastern Studies.” She added: “I will always be grateful to the professors Dr. Chrabieh, Dr. Berry, Dr. Wardeh and Dr. Gauvain for being the right people to lead me through my journey, the journey that is not over.”

Hossam Sameer Ali is a Journalism graduate from AUD and is currently working as a reporter with MBC group. His major interests revolve around poetry, music and technology. In his speech he focused on two points, “The first one is about what I gained from the Middle Eastern Studies Certificate […] – a great opportunity in reconsidering all the important issues in our region. With a new insight, I started to look at many things I used to take for granted. I started to think deeply about our heritage and the way we deal with this important issue. This was an important issue I was introduced to, and it extended to our religious, cultural and social heritage. The second point is the timing when I was enrolled in the program: a special and historical time, when the Arab Spring started. Studying the region helped me better understand for instance the roots of public movements in our region.”

Hossam recited few of his poems in Arabic while Azza Zarour, AUD graduate and popular Palestinian TV presenter, was playing oud. Azza entered the media field at the age of 13 when she was presenting TV shows in her homeland. In 2008, she moved to Dubai and joined MBC Group where she presented children shows on MBC 3 channel. She was the youngest employee in the company. She works in a variety of programs that are popular amongst the youth audience such as ‘Banat wa Bas’, ‘Tassali’ and ‘Fakkerha Sah’. She was a fulltime employee and a fulltime student at the same time and graduated from AUD MBRSC and completed the MEST Certificate in 2012. She has currently a weekly live morning show ‘Khatawat Naemah’ in which she tackles the problems parents face in raising their children. According to Azza: “The MEST program helped me in my shows as I deal with kids and parents from all over the Arab world.” Azza is known for her love of music. She participated in numerous festivals worldwide. It was a pleasure to listen to her singing and oud playing during the Alumni gathering.

Angi Shaya is a senior studying Journalism and just received her Certificate in Middle Eastern Studies. She has been working the media industry as a voice-over artist for TV and radio commercials since she was 9 years old. As a singer and musician, she performs in public places, festivals and charity events. Her interests in politics, history and religions encouraged her to pursue the MEST Certificate. “My journey of seeking answers and gain knowledge began with this program. I fed my appetite with new tools and concepts that made me rethink my inherited knowledge, perceive things differently, and go back to primary sources to reach accurate conclusions. I realized that the major causes of conflicts in contemporary Middle East are misconceptions, stereotypes, the negative aspects of Orientalism, the amalgam created between globalization/modernization and westernization, and the controversial concepts of nationalism and identity. I learned about other reasons such as religious, socio-political, economic and historical […]. The idea of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ is killing the ‘Arabian dream’.”

Hazar Bahbouh is a third year student at AUD, majoring in Arabic track Journalism, and currently enrolled in the MEST Certificate. She was an intern in different TV channels such as Abu Dhabi TV, Sky News Arabia TV and is currently working at MBC 1 channel. According to Hazar, Middle Eastern Studies have increased her knowledge of the history of the region since the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia. “Studying about the Middle East has helped me understand the geographical, cultural, religious and political elements that have shaped the Middle East. And I learned one major fact: history repeats itself” […]. “The Levant course for instance taught me how to read historical narratives, to be able to better assess the current situation […]. The Islam and Qur’an courses showed us the beautiful aspect of religion, and it showed us how the image of this religion is distorted on a global level […].As a current student, I am learning that education and knowledge are powerful weapons one must use in order not to be misled.”

Maram El Hendy is a third year Journalism student, minoring in Middle Eastern Studies and Politics. Her father is Palestinian and her mother is Algerian, which has enabled her to “acquire a multicultural background.” She was born and raised in Abu Dhabi, she went to the Rosary Sisters School and completed her high school education there. Maram stated that she realized who she was when she started studying at AUD. She used to live in an environment where she asked questions that were left unanswered. She took her first MEST class with Dr. Nadia Wardeh, which was Arabic proficiency, and to her surprise, her professor was answering a lot of those questions about religion and history she used to have when she was younger. “At that moment I understood that there was a lot for me to learn about the Middle East and that was when I went to Dr. Wardeh’s office and told her that I wanted to pursue the MEST Certificate.” […] In the Levant course, Dr. Wardeh taught us how to defend the Palestinian cause correctly and how to answer with backed facts rather than use the same old emotional useless arguments. This wasn’t all what the class was about, but let me tell you something, that class was intense, and I enjoyed every second of it […]. In another course entitled Islamic Art and Architecture, Dr. Pamela Chrabieh taught us that there was more to religion that the simple traditional way of communicating with God. She taught us that the love of God can be illustrated in everything that we do in our daily lives, from the buildings we build to the songs we sing and even the food we eat […]. The more I learned the more I realized that there were lots of things that I did not know about being an Arab or Middle Eastern . I learned for example that the word Middle East itself is incorrect geographically speaking and culturally speaking. I learned about the importance and the beauty of arts in the region. I learned about the origins and roots of our delicious food and culinary culture. Last but not least, I felt it my duty to spread the love of peace and the teachings of peace that my wonderful MEST professors passed on to me. I would definitely say that being enrolled in this program was the best choice I made as a student in AUD […]. The most important part for me is the learning experience that changed me as a person and made me who I am today, and for that I would ever be grateful to my MEST professors.”

Hiba Bou Daher is a current senior student in Journalism. She completed her MEST Certificate but is still taking MEST courses. She previously worked at Thomson Reuters, Abu Dhabi TV and Qanat Al Emarat. She is currently working at Kassab Media. Hiba presented an enthusiastic and dynamic speech on the knowledge she gained while studying about the Middle East and more, on the way she was transformed as a human being. Hiba was never exposed to different cultures and religions before joining AUD, and the MEST Certificate helped her change her perspective and attitude, from exclusivism to openness to interreligious and intercultural dialogues. “First, I came to university thinking that I shouldn’t be talking to others who are not from my community or who are quite different than me. For example, I came across Adonis Bdaywi, he said Hi and I refused to say Hi back because he had lots of tattoos and tattoos were not acceptable in my society. Then, when I started taking MEST classes, I found out that the people I was told not to talk to, are not what they told me about them. I found out that what I have learnt since childhood is just a misinterpretation of ‘the other’. Through the MEST courses, I have learnt to accept ‘that other’ who is different. I learnt that through differences, I can always find a common ground to settle peace on. I no longer look at people and cultures as I did before, now I no longer judge, because I know the reason why they do what they do, and I accept it”.

The last part of the gathering was dedicated to a Q&A and feedback session. More than 200 forms were filled by current MEST students and Alumni, and analyzed by the MEST Faculty. Most of the comments focused on the positive learning experience. Alumni in their majority either agreed or strongly agreed on the following points which are the MEST Certificate program goals and learning outcomes:

  1. They have achieved a familiarity with Modern Standard Arabic.
  2. They have grasped a geographic knowledge of the region including both physical and economic aspects.
  3. They can identify and discuss the historical underpinnings of the region.
  4. They can explain the basic tenets of the Islamic faith and the role various religions play in the societies of the Middle East.
  5. They can identify and discuss the various cultures whose presence contributes to and presents challenges to the cohesiveness of the region.
  6. They feel that they have been provided with the necessary skills to critically analyze current situations/events in the Middle East region, considering both cultural and historical backgrounds.
  7. They feel they can identify significant contributions to human culture by civilizations in the region.
  8. They feel that they can function successfully in a contemporary global forum with an understanding of other ethnicities and nationalities, specifically those in the Middle East.
  9. They feel that they have a comprehensive understanding of the cultures of the Middle East region.
Current students were able to connect the content and skills they are acquiring in MEST courses to the speakers’ speeches such as “In my Islamic Art and Architecture course, we are introduced to all forms of arts in the history of Islam. I was pleased to listen to poetry, oud playing and singing during the gathering. It made me remember and appreciate more the examples of famous poets and composers/performers in this region.”. “I could relate what the speakers were talking about with my learning experience in the MEST courses I am currently taking. Truly, we learn to become more curious, to want to do more research about ourselves and others, that books are not the only tools to help us learn – there are numerous ways to learn, that the things we are learning now will be carried with us forever.” “Alumni speakers were a real example and a proof of the MEST learning outcomes.”

They expressed their understanding of the possibility and the importance of moving the fruits of academic knowledge to the marketplace. “I learnt that the topics covered in such courses and my learning experience could contribute to the betterment of my future career.” An alumna also commented that she still remembered everything she learned in her MEST courses and that she uses this knowledge in her daily life at work.”

They expressed their understanding of the importance of Middle Eastern Studies. “Middle Eastern Studies are basically an eye-opener. We need now more than ever to ask why? To understand, to deconstruct and offer alternatives, to critique, to connect the past to the present and future in order to be able to start leading rather than following.” “I learned about the importance of acquiring knowledge about cultures, religions, history, politics, arts and the social-economic realities of the region, whether I decide to work here or elsewhere.” “MEST courses give us the opportunity to learn more about the Arab and Islamic cultures.” “As a foreign student, I think it is important to tackle issues pertaining to the Middle East which is a strategic geopolitical region, and studying in Dubai about the Middle East is an immersive experience worth having.” “The Certificate is not only relevant to Middle Easterners and Arabs, but also to people who grew up in the West in order to break stereotypes and build better cultural and human relations.” “I never knew things about other cultures and I thought I knew everything about mine. MEST courses made me gain knowledge and a better sense of dialogue.” “MEST courses help us learn more about our culture and respect Islam.” “MEST courses help students think outside the box and develop their critical thinking.” “MEST courses are not only for media students. Numerous fields could gain from this specific learning experience.” “The MEST courses are basically a tool for expanding a person’s knowledge of the region, for preserving our cultures and for learning how to manage our diversities and dialogue with people from different backgrounds.” “I learned about the importance of education.”

Many were eager to join the MEST Certificate program or to take more MEST courses, and even expressed their satisfaction with being enrolled in the program, “I really enjoyed listening to the speakers and it really made me consider applying for the MEST Certificate.” “Although I had completed all the required MEST courses, I decided to take one more before graduating.” “I am currently completing the MEST Certificate, and following this gathering, I realize I made the right choice.” “I don’t regret at all being enrolled in the program. Hopefully when I graduate next year, I will be also sharing my experience.” “I am completing my last course for the Certificate. It allows me to stand out and gain knowledge about the Middle East.” “This gathering increased my interest in the MEST courses.” “This gathering boosted my enthusiasm about the courses I am taking.” ”First, I thought I would be uninterested during this event, but it was actually very motivating and it changed my perception. What we are learning now constitutes an introduction and a guide to what we will have to deal with after we graduate. I will enroll in the program even though I am graduating in Spring 2016.” “I was motivated and inspired because being non-Muslim and non-Middle Easterner, I always thought MEST courses would be difficult to take. I thought I would have to compete with students who are locals and from the region. One speaker motivated me by mentioning the fact that she thought she knew everything, only to learn that she knew nothing.”

Following the event, Assistant Professor of Middle Eastern Studies Dr. Basak Ozoral stated that the Middle East was a challenging region, “Despite its rich history and sophisticated cultures, serious problems in politics and economy, sectarian fights and divisions between people have been a reality in the region one cannot avoid addressing. However, at the 1st MEST Alumni gathering, our former and current students showed us another picture of the Middle East. These young individuals talked about hope, awareness, understanding and motivation for the establishment of peace in the region. I realized that the MEST Certificate program improves our students’ critical thinking skills and I believe it is the most important contribution of a university professor. I am proud of my wonderful students and truly trust that they will build a better future for all of us.

According to Assistant Professor in Middle Eastern Studies Dr. Magdy El Shamma, “It was heartwarming and incredibly rewarding to see so many of our students who had been transformed into thoughtful, sensible, generally more aware human beings and finding success along the way because of what they learned in the MEST program.”

And as a big fan of Mahmoud Darwich, Dr. Nadia Wardeh concluded with a quote while addressing the Alumni and current MEST students, “We have on earth what makes life worth living […]. You are the next generation – the generation that makes life worth living.

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