Head of Arab studies program aims to shape understanding of the Middle East
Following an extensive international search, Professor Abdel Razzaq Takriti took up his appointment as the inaugural Arab-American Educational Foundation Chair in Modern Arab History at UH.
As the recently-endowed head of the program, Takriti is working to change his students’ perceptions of the Middle East through classes that will inform them of the realities of the Arab world.
A new home
Takriti was drawn to Houston for its vast cultural heritage, a heritage that benefits local universities as much as the city.
“The strength of (UH) is that it reflects the city in its diversity and culture,” Takriti said. “You don’t see such heavy community involvement in big cities like this usually. Houston is an exception.”
The local Arab community saw a need to educate and support local programs that sought to teach relevant curriculum, so UH became a natural choice for Takriti.
“We have a unique situation in Houston in which we have two endowed chairs of modern Arab history at two major universities,” Takriti said. “The Arab community has funded both of these chairs, so there’s a very close relationship between these institutions and the Arab community.”
Arabic is the third-most-used language in Houston. The investment of the Arab community into local academia at UH and Rice is a testament to the city’s ability to come together, Takriti said.
A blossoming program
Takriti said the Arab Studies program, which was established over the course of the past five years, was teeming with interest from students despite its relative newness. He is offering undergraduate classes on Palestine and the Making of the Arab-Israeli Conflict and Arab Revolutions.
“Dr. Takriti fills a large hole in the Department of History’s curriculum,” Department Chair Philip Howard said. “As a modern Arab historian, he has a unique perspective and (provides) students with a body of knowledge that is both political and social. We are very excited to have such a young and brilliant mind.”
For some students, the growth of the Arab Studies program at UH was inevitable. There were nearly 1,500 international undergraduate students at UH in Fall 2014. Over 300 of those students come from the Middle East, mainly Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Oman.
But it’s not just about the numbers.
“More importantly, there are valuable discussions within these classes about the issues being taught,” Takriti said. “The Arab world has a very complex and intimate relationship with the United States.”
Takriti said media coverage of the Arab world has skewed many students’ perspectives.
“There’s actually very little real understanding of what’s going on,” Takriti said.
Students are often not aware of this reality, and when they find out, they are interested in learning more.
“I try and give my students the information that isn’t communicated through the average media outlet in the United States,” Takriti said. “American news coverage of the Arab world tends to be more skewed (and) is completely different from any other country.”
Takriti said the classes are growing in popularity and are becoming more relevant by the day.
“His style of teaching is relaxed but engaging,” history senior Haya Khan said. “He always encourages discussion.”
Takriti believes that the program can only continue to increase in size and quality.
“This comes to show that these classes and these subjects are incredibly relevant and incredibly important,” Takriti said. “Not just among academics, but among students too.”
A goal within the professor’s courses,Takriti said, is to dissuade students from prescribing to one Eurocentric perspective.
“The Middle East is a very dynamic region,” Takriti said. “I encourage my students to think of the Middle East on its own terms and move beyond prevailing orientalist attitudes towards the region.”
Takriti said there are more things in common between people and civilizations than what is portrayed by the media and even in some history classes.
“I’m trying to show my students that there isn’t an inherent cultural superiority,” Takriti said. “We are all subject to the ebb and flow of history.”