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CASA: 50 Years of Changing Lives… in Arabic

The history of AUC's CASA program on its 50th anniversary.

By Aliah Salih | This is the cover story for the Fall 2017 edition of AUCToday.

Fifty years ago, Arabic was a Less Commonly Taught Language in American universities. Today, it is one of the fastest-growing foreign language programs in U.S. universities, according to the Modern Language Association. The way Arabic is taught has also been radically transformed.

“How the teaching of Arabic changed from the examination of recondite manuscripts by scholars who have a penchant for the arcane, into the study of a living language spoken by millions [is] really one and the same. It is, moreover, the story of CASA [Center for Arabic Study Abroad],” wrote Gerald E. Lampe, who served as director of CASA in the 1990s, in a 1992 document on the history of CASA, presented to the Middle East Studies Association.

casaoldThe founding of CASA at AUC was nothing short of a revolutionary academic move, taking students from rigid classroom-based curricula based on analyzing and translating excerpts in Classical Arabic to reacting to breaking news on the radio, appreciating humor in a comedy, crooning the lyrics of a top hit and chatting with a taxi driver.

In 1966, the U.S.-based Joint Committee of Near and Middle East Studies decided to establish an Arabic-teaching program abroad and chose AUC as its location. “The reality was that the United States needed a capacity that it did not have: people who knew about the Arab world who could speak Arabic — and there were now people looking for that kind of opportunity,” recounted Thomas A. Bartlett, AUC advisory trustee who served as president of the University during the year CASA was founded, in a 2005 oral history interview for the University Archives. “We thought it was important; we wanted to do it.”

The committee members saw AUC in the heart of Tahrir Square as the perfect location for the CASA program. They evaluated the University as having exceptional instructors, able to absorb the program and accommodate student needs, as well as having a stable relationship with the Egyptian government.

The year 1967 witnessed the beginning: a consortium of eight prominent American universities, including AUC, taking care of policymaking. The program was set, the curriculum drafted, 31 applications received, 16 selected and top-notch instructors recruited.

What happened for the next half-century is a story of endurance and excellence that shows how this transcontinental institution, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, has become a landmark for language teaching and the world’s premier, full-immersion Arabic-language program.

CASA Comes to Cairo

Since its founding, CASA has served as a link between the Middle East and the United States. U.S. government entities, primarily the U.S. Department of Education, and those in the academic field saw the need for Americans learning Arabic to immerse themselves in the study of the region. The curriculum was arranged according to these objectives, and students were required to study the three varieties of Arabic: Classical Arabic, Modern Standard Arabic and Colloquial Arabic.

The Joint Committee of Near and Middle East Studies, which brought the program to life, was formed by the Social Science Research Council of the American Association of Learned Societies to delegate the process. The council had a long history of “supporting scholars in the humanities and related social sciences.” The committee was composed of academics from universities that offered Middle East studies or Arabic. They appointed William Brinner, professor emeritus of Near Eastern studies from the University of California, Berkeley, to visit three institutes in the Middle East. The visit assessed AUC, the American University of Beirut and the University of Tunis. Brinner’s visit was in AUC’s favor, rendering Cairo as an “attractive locale, sophisticated

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 metropolis and a leading center in the Middle East for commerce, culture, art and entertainment, accustomed to dealing with Western tourists” and showing openness to international newcomers. 

CASA offered AUC a distinct opportunity to position itself among other international universities in the region. “One of our concerns during those years, from my point of view, was to develop relationships with strong American universities because we needed that,” Bartlett noted. CASA’s existence in AUC granted the University a stature among prestigious Ivy League and renowned universities.

Since the start, CASA was co-directed by both a U.S.-based director and an in-house director at AUC. The first was to take care of all aspects of the program and was chosen from a consortium of universities, while the latter was in charge of implementing CASA policies at AUC. Today, the CASA consortium has grown to include 28 universities and colleges in the United States that oversee the academic, financial and administrative aspects of the CASA program, with one member acting as the U.S. administrative base. Currently, Harvard University is the U.S. administrative base for CASA. The Governing Council, which handles the management and government of CASA affairs, consists of representatives of six member universities on a rotating basis. The council meets directly with the CASA directorship at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual convention.

The Beginning

CASA’s first year was an eventful one. With Portland State University as its first U.S. administrative base, the program was scheduled to start in October 1967 and continue until June 1968. However, the Six-Day War took place in Egypt just four months before the scheduled date. Brinner, who had then been appointed the U.S. director, was faced with tough choices, including the cancelation of CASA altogether. One of the options was to schedule the program for January 1968 at AUC and move it to the University of California, Berkeley for the time being. The plan worked, and everything was arranged in Berkeley, from classrooms to the temporary appointment of instructors.
A few months later, students took off to Cairo, where CASA officially started running on January 12, 1968.

As a language, Arabic “went from being taught as only a written language to being taught as a spoken, living language,” said Lisa White (CASA ’82), who was CASA’s executive director from 1993 to 1997. White served as Arabic language lecturer at Cornell University before returning to AUC as senior Arabic language instructor.

While CASA introduced a groundbreaking change in the way Arabic was taught, its directors were keen on updating the curriculum and synching it with the demands of language learning in the region. “Twenty-two hours of instruction were scheduled for the first semester: spoken Cairene, Modern Arabic Literature, Background to Modern Egypt, Modern Standard Arabic, Composition and Translation, and language laboratory work,” Lampe explained. The courses revamped the traditional system through discussion instead of pure translation, speakers who gave lectures in Modern Standard Arabic on a wide range of topics, a language lab and tape library that were equipped with recorded short stories at different intervals to allow students to repeat sentences, modern plays and recent newscasts, listening and dialogue exercises, and popular and classic songs. “The CASA method focused on Arabic as a ‘living spoken language,’” said John Swanson, associate provost for assessment, evaluation and special projects at AUC, who co-directed CASA in the 1980s. “I think the most unique thing about CASA is that it gave highly motivated students of the language an opportunity to spend a whole year focusing on developing their Arabic skills at the highest level, without any outside academic interference.”

casaold3The CASA curriculum’s adaptability to the times has allowed it to be versatile and flexible for its students and alumni, with some going into impoverished areas of Cairo for graduate research or simply laughing at memes regularly emerging from Egyptian social media.

Living and Learning in Cairo

This year, there are 14 distinguished students enrolled in CASA at AUC. Students who apply not only have to show interest and potential, but substantial proficiency in and previous knowledge of Arabic. The program is set to take advanced students of Arabic
to near-fluency.

“I started studying Arabic with a visiting professor in college at a school without a formal Arabic program, and I was determined to find a way to continue,” explained Eleanor Ellis, a Harvard University graduate student who is currently studying at CASA in AUC. “It was my dream to do CASA in Cairo.”

Swanson noted that after CASA gained a reputation, it became “a thing that you were expected and almost required to do if you were going into specializations in Middle Eastern studies.”

Affirming this, David Kanbergs, another current CASA student and a graduate of anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies from City University of New York, said, “Nearly every professor I studied with during my undergraduate course work who does research on the Middle East and North Africa graduated from the CASA program.”

casa6During the fall semester, CASA fellows are dedicated to strengthening their language skills in general. In the spring semester, the program description states that they are “given the chance to use the skills to tailor the program to their own academic and professional needs.” Impressed by CASA’s relevance and fruitfulness, Kanbergs believes the best part of the program is providing students this opportunity. “We learn from authentic sources on topics that revolve around our interests,” he said.

Click here for testimonials from CASA alumni!

While many students are hoping to gain knowledge from CASA to use in the future, the CASA experience is not exclusively prospective, but a concurrent day-to-day one. “Being in the center of Cairo gives me the opportunity to use new vocabulary, phrases and grammatical knowledge as soon as I walk out of the University,” added Kanbergs. “Every day, I can apply what I’ve learned with friends and strangers, which ensures that I’ll retain the knowledge rather than forgetting what I’ve learned.”

Summoning up what one learns in a language class for one year is a challenge, and students have described the program as “rigorous,” “intense” and “outstanding.” The program is not designed for taking baby steps in Arabic; it is all about engaging students. Their potential is determined by their level of participation in the course. “One of the great struggles of studying Arabic is that you can never learn enough to become fluent if you take only four years of Arabic in college,” reflected Alice Duesdieker, a current CASA fellow who recently completed her master’s in Middle Eastern studies at Harvard University. “CASA is the only program that I’m familiar with that takes you above and beyond to the point of being truly fluent.”

Echoing the same sentiment of experiencing Cairo up close, Ellis emphasized that it doesn’t stop at being able to navigate the streets of Cairo, but also grasping Egyptian popular culture, as well as emotionally and mentally connecting with the people.

“One of the really unusual and exceptional things about CASA is that it’s not only textually immersive. We are also really pushed to learn and use ammiya [colloquial Arabic] and be immersed in Cairo,” Ellis explained.

“When Egypt qualified for the World Cup, I watched the match with an Egyptian friend and saw the celebrations in Tahrir that night. The next day in our ammiya class, we discussed the celebratory jokes and memes that were circulating after the match. CASA faculty members are constantly adapting our courses to what’s happening around us.” 

One of CASA’s most distinguished faculty members at AUC was the late Elsaid Badawi, professor emeritus of applied linguistics. Badawi started teaching at CASA in 1969, served for many years as co-director of the program, played a key role in designing the CASA curriculum and was awarded CASA’s Lifetime Contribution Award. He believed that language is to be learned, not taught. “The secret to CASA’s success is the willingness to trust the students to commit the time and effort required to learn Arabic,” he said. “CASA students are incredibly eager to learn, very worried about the grades they get and take studying very seriously.”

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CASA students browse through Arabic books to supplement their studies.

Between long hours of classes and reading one novel per week, CASA students appear to be comfortable with the workload, their faculty’s pace and unique pedagogy, and classmates who are eager to learn. “CASA is very rigorous, and the teachers are exceptional and committed to supporting us,” said Ellis. “It has also been great to study alongside other students who are equally devoted to Arabic.”

Duesdieker similarly reflected, “The teachers in the CASA program are truly outstanding. Their willingness to meet with students before or after class to work on anything from understanding broad concepts to specific grammar issues, or even the correct pronunciation of a single letter, is truly amazing.”

CASA students describe Cairo as accommodating to their interests and personalities. They are grateful for the chance to study in AUC Tahrir Square, surrounded by one of the most stimulating neighborhoods in Cairo. “I feel incredibly lucky that we have our classes at the Tahrir Square campus,” said Duesdieker. “It’s a great opportunity for practicing Arabic and engaging with the life of the city.”

While Cairo’s diverse and rich character invites any newcomer on a journey to explore it, CASA has a role in integrating students with the city through cultural field trips and a daily bulletin posted outside classrooms. “There’s so much going on in Cairo, and CASA does an excellent job of integrating this with our courses,” said Ellis. “We attended a play at Masrah el-Gomhoria and then met with the dramaturg in class.”

From going to independent music venues like Makan on Saad Zaghloul Street and tasting international cuisine to enjoying dynamic views from their home balconies, the heart of the city resonates. “Wust el Balad at night has a magical atmosphere that is bustling and hectic, yet still calm and relaxing,” Kanbergs said.

The CASAwiyiin Experience

There are more than 1,500 CASA alumni who have all embarked on different paths in life. What most took away from CASA is more than just language skills. “It was the immersion in Egyptian culture as opposed to just the language itself that changed my views and gave me a background in the Middle East, which has lasted the rest of my life,” recalled David Bonderman (CASA ’69), prominent businessman, philanthropist, and founding partner and chairman of TPG.

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CASA students are immersed in Cairo’s history, culture and language.

For most, being in Cairo and at CASA gave them the ability to develop careers devoted to the study of the Middle East. Denis Sullivan (CASA ’84, ’09), professor of political science and international affairs, co-director of the Middle East Center and director of the Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies at Northeastern University, is one of the proud “CASAwiyiin” who believes his studies helped him secure a tenure position and allowed him to further explore and research the region during his PhD studies. Sullivan noted that his favorite night in Cairo was his first night there. He recalled “breathing in the feel of Tahrir” and making a lifelong friend through a random encounter. “He taught me more Arabic than any language partner I ever had,” Sullivan explained. “He taught me about ‘real life’ in Egypt, especially about the majority of al-sha’b [the people] and the Egyptian underclass.”

Before her time at AUC as provost from 2008 to 2010 and then president from 2011 to 2015, Lisa Anderson (CASA ’76) studied Arabic at AUC. “CASA crystallized my lifelong love of Egypt, of Arabic and of learning,” said Anderson, who is currently the James T. Shotwell Professor Emerita of International Relations at Columbia University.

I have had the immense good fortune of having a career that I have found to be like the city and the language CASA taught me about endlessly fascinating. Alhamdulillah!”

Meanwhile, Evelyn A. Early (CASA ’71), who dedicated 44 years of her life to public policy and development in the region, published her first book on the lives of Baladi Egyptian women in the Cairene district of Boulaq Abul Ela, with interviews conducted entirely in colloquial Arabic. After teaching anthropology in universities for almost a decade, she went on to have a globetrotting career at embassies and cultural centers in Morocco, Sudan, Syria and the Czech Republic. During her time at CASA, she met former Egyptian president Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat’s sister, Sakina El Sadat, who wrote about Evelyn and her friend’s experience of being American female students in Cairo in Hawaa, a women’s magazine.

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Evelyn A. Early (CASA ’71) and Judith Gran (CASA ’69) featured in Hawaa magazine in 1970.

Early indicated she owes CASA much of her career as a diplomat. “CASA was key to my dual-track academic and diplomacy career,” she reflected. “I have utilized the Arabic I learned in CASA to complete my master’s degree at the American University of Beirut, my PhD at the University of Chicago, and in teaching, researching, consulting and diplomacy ever since.” One of her latest published co-edited works, ​​​​Everyday Life in the Muslim Middle East, includes scholarly contributions from distinguished authors –– among them nine CASA alums. Early’s article on Egyptian telepreachers in the book is based on research she conducted in Arabic.

Many Egyptian-Americans were not only interested in CASA for academic development, but for learning about their identity and backgrounds. “Being in Cairo for CASA allowed me to go to the Egyptian National Archives whenever there was spare time. That’s when I began some of the archival research that would make it into my dissertation and later work,” said Alan Mikhail (CASA ’04), professor of history at Yale University.

CASA, Mikhail added, helped him to gain experiences he had long yearned for, such as watching old Egyptian films he heard of and hadn’t seen, as well as ones he had never heard of. “The [CASA] class put all the films we saw into a narrative of modern Egypt and helped me see how they worked from, with, and sometimes against each other,” he said. “Now I feel that I can watch older Egyptian movies and put them into some sort of context of their production and place in Egyptian film history.”

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CASA’s more than 1,500 alumni also form bonds with each other through the intensive program.

For some, the Arabic they learned provided an opportunity for community engagement. “Immediately after CASA, I worked as an education advocate for unaccompanied refugee minors at AMERA [Africa and Middle East Refugee Assistance],” said Max Shmookler, PhD candidate in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies at Columbia University. “I used my Arabic knowledge in reading documents, taking testimony, accompanying clients to Egyptian institutions and advocating on their behalf, and frequently serving as an impromptu interpreter.” Since then, Shmookler has continued to use his knowledge of Arabic in his return to academia, focusing on the Arabic literary genre, maqama, and co-editing a major anthology of Sudanese stories translated into English, The Book of Khartoum: A City in Short Fiction (2016).

Much like in 1967 when it began, CASA was on hiatus in 2013 due to political unrest in Egypt and has now resumed its program at AUC, in Cairo. It could have ended both times, but CASA’s continuity conveys the story of revolutionary endurance and excellence a trajectory akin to the moment students decide to learn an intricate language like Arabic to when they succeed and influence those around them. As Lampe put it, the program was founded in “a new era [that saw] the appearance of CASA and [witnessed] its fight to change the curricula and methods followed in the teaching of Arabic, [making] a singular and lasting contribution to the field of Arabic study.” 

1 comment on “CASA: 50 Years of Changing Lives… in Arabic

  1. John Davidson

    CASA students were some of my best friends (non-Egyptian). The program deserves promotion and support. I hope it can remain on the old campus rather than moving to the new campus.

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