Arabic is the language of a rich culture and civilization dating back many centuries. It is spoken by over 250 million people in the Middle East. It is the language of Islam, and more than one billion people use it as a vital spiritual component of their daily life. Arabic is spoken by many of the three million people of Arab origin living in the USA and Canada, and it is one of the six official languages of the United Nations since 1974.

The Arabic Language curriculum at Mount Holyoke introduces learners to a variety of functional tasks that have been carefully sequenced to enhance students' language skills. It also helps them cope with the real world communication demands they will face in an Arabic environment.

1. The elementary level covers the Arabic alphabet and vocabulary for everyday use, including courtesy expressions. Students will concentrate on speaking and listening skills as well as basic reading and writing. Students will expand their command of basic communication skills, including asking questions or making statements involving learned material. Reading materials (messages, personal notes, and short statements) will contain formulaic greetings, courtesy expressions, queries about personal well-being, age, family, weather and time. Students will also learn to write frequently used memorized material such as names, forms, personal notes and addresses. An interactive computer software forms an integral part of these courses.

2. The intermediate level covers oral/aural skills related to interactive and task-oriented social situations, including discourse on a number of topics and public announcements. Conversational exercises will focus on content areas such as personal history, leisure time activities and transactions, giving directions, and simple information about events. Students will also read and write short passages and personal notes containing an expanded vocabulary on everyday objects and common verbs and adjectives. Students practice a number of practical writing needs, including letters about personal preferences, daily routine, everyday events, and other topics grounded in personal experience. An interactive computer software forms an integral part of these courses.

3. In the advanced level, students will continue to build on such skills as supporting opinion, explaining in details, and hypothesizing. Focus on the aesthetic properties of Arabic and its literary styles will permit reading and comprehension of a wider variety of original texts. Students will practice writing about a variety of topics in significant details. Towards the end of this course, students are expected to achieve a near-naive level of accuracy and proficiency in Arabic. Again, an interactive computer software forms an integral part of these courses.

The Arabic program is supported by a wide range of course offerings in culture, history, religion, International Studies, sociology, and art. This enables students to major in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies. The Arabic program at Mount Holyoke sponsors a year study at the American University in Cairo, Egypt for a total immersion linguistic and cultural experience. Mt. Holyoke also credits courses taken at the American University in Beirut (AUB), Damscaus University in Syria, and The University of Amman in Jordan.

4. A Seminar on Women's Issues in the Works of Arab Women Novelists. (Offered at Mt. Holyoke College in the Spring semester)

The modern Arab Islamic World, the seat of ancient civilizations with historical records that go back at least five millennia, has been for the last century undergoing radical changes that have profoundly affected the religious, social, political and economic aspects of the area's internal and external topography. Nowhere has this structural change been more evident than in the changes brought about in the condition of women. The course attempts to identify those significant patterns of change in the status of women in the novles of the foremost feminist reformists who, from the turn of the century, have been clamoring for the betterment of condition for women within their societies. Though these novels we can clearly identify discernible trends that have already been put in motion and are in the process of creating new roles for women and men in a new society.

The feminist struggle to eliminate restrictions which still hem in the activity of the average Arab women and the transformation process which is underway are the subject of the course. The same expanded scope of such struggle is to be found in the novels as a reflection of social realities and as an expression of concern for social reforms. The novels which will be studied and discussed are Pillars of Salt by Fadia Faqir (Jordan), A Woman of Five Seasons by Leila al-Atrash (Palestine), A Balcony over the Fakihani by Liyana Badr (Lebanon), Dreams of Trespass by Fatima Mernissi (Morocco), and In the Eye of the Sun by Ahdaf Souif (Egypt).

In addition to surveying novels, course activities will involve showing Arabic movies that address subjects such as arranged marriage, divorce, child custody, the allure of modern life, and religious and cultural identity. The films include "A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbes" (by Belkacem Hadjadj), "Four Women From Egypt," "The Perfumed Garden" (by Yamina Benguigui), "Alone with War" (by Danielle Arbid), "Arab Diaries, Birth" (by Suheir Farraj-Palestine, Abbas Hashim-Iraq, Abeer Esber-Syria) and "Arab Diaries, Love and Marriage" (by Samia Chala-Algeria and Muriel Aboulrouss-Lebanon). The objective is to give a well-rounded picture of the problems still confronting women in the Arab world and of the efforts being made by them to achieve a fuller and more equal participation in all aspect of life.

Course Videos, Spring 2009

Videos of the initial segment of each class session are available online for students to review.

Required Novel Reading List

1. Pillars of Salt is a story of two women confined in mental hospital in Jordan during and after the British Mandate. Maha, a peasant woman from the Jordan Valley, and 'Um Saad from Amman find themselves sharing a room. After initial tension they become friends and share their life stories. The intricate structure of the novel with its different voices and interlacing narrative lines conforms to the ancient tradition of storytelling in Arabia. Both Muslim and Christian theological sources are used to create a mythical woman who is subjugated and confined by society.

Fadia Faqir was born in Amman, Jordan in 1956. As an Arab writing in English, she carved her own territory in the language, and in so doing creates an alternative history of her country. Her first novel "Nisanit" was published to great acclaim by Penguin. She is at present working on her third novel and teaching Arabic literature at Durham University in Britain

2. A Woman of Five Seasons. The poor, the dispossessed, the opportunist-all flock to the newly oil-rich state of Barquis in search of wealth. This novel vividly explores the relations that develop in such countries between local high officials and incoming heartland Arabs. Alongside this a second, highly relevant theme is developed. The poignant coming of age of the Arab woman as she seeks, in the face of traditionally exploitive Arab male attitudes, to win a degree of independance and fulfillment.

Leila al-Atrash is one of the leading Palestinian novelists and short story writers of the Arab World. Her novels include "The Sun Rises from the West" (1988), "An Ordinary Day" (1991), "Two Nights in the Shadow of a Woman" (1997), and "The Neighing of Distances" (1999), which all probe questions of feminine literature and selfhood. This is her first novel to be translated to English.

3. A Balcony over the Fakihani. The title story of Liyana Badr's remarcable collection of three short novellos interweaves the narratives of three Palestenians, two women and one man, relating their successive uprootings from Palestine in 1948, from Jordan during Black September in 1970, to their final exile in Beirut. There is an attention to details in these stories which bring the grand narrative of Palestinan history a live.

Liyana Badr, a renowned novelist and short story writer accross the Middle East, was born in Jerusalem and has herself live through a series of exiles. Her works of fiction includes one novel and three collections of short stories, as well as several stories for children. She currently lives in Tunisia.

4. Dreams of Trespass. In such exotic and rich narrative of a childhood behind the iron gates of a demostic harem in Fez, Morocco, the author weaves her own memories with the dreams and memories of the women who surrounded her in the courtyard of her youth-women who, deprived the access to the world outside, recreated it from sheer imagination. It is a provocative story of a girl confronting the mysteries of time and place, gender and sex in the recent Muslim World.

Fatima Mernissi was born in Fez, Morocco. She received a doctorate in sociology from Brandeis University, a License en Sociologie from the Sorbonne and a Certificat en Sciences Politiques from Mohamed V University, where she teaches currently. An Islamic feminist whose books have been published in 28 countries, Professor Mernissi's writings examine the lives of women in the Middle East. Her research and writing focus on the development of a pluralistic Islamic civil society where humanism and feminism-not extremism-are the foundation. Her most recent books are "Islam and Democracy" and "Scheherazade Goes West: Different Cultures, Different Harems." Other books include "The Veil and the Male Elite" and "Beyond the Veil." On March 12, 2002, Prof. Mernissi delivered the Fourth Annual Eqbal Ahmad Lecture at Hampshire College.

5. In the Eye of the Sun. The novel is set amidst the turmoil of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, this vivid and highly acclaimed novel is an intimate look into the lives of Arab Women today. Here, a woman who grows up among the Egyptian elite marries a westernized husband, and, while pursuing graduate study, becomes embroiled in a love affair with an uncouth Englishman. But for all her worldiness, Asya remains caught in a struggle between ties to her traditions and desire for independence and sexual fulfillment. In the Eye of the Sun is a revealing account of cultural collisions-and the plight of women all too often caught in the middle.

Ahdaf Soueif was born in Cairo and educated in Egypt and England. She taught comparative literature in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She now lives as a freelance writer in England. She is also the author of "Aisha", "Sandpiper" and "The Map of Love".

Required subject reading list

1. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate
by: Ahmed, Leila ,1993

2. Daughters Of Abraham : Feminist Thought In Judaism, Christianity, And Islam
By Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad And John L. Esposito. 2001

3. In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey
by: Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, 1998

4. Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist,
by Margor Badran, London: Virago Press 1986

5. Image of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East, 1860-1950. By Sarah Graham Brown, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

6. Women in Muslim Family Law
by: Esposito, John L., 1982

Video List:

1. Four Women from Egypt

This is a brilliant documentary exploring the lives, arguments and friendship of four very different women. They are different in their socio-economic background, education and political affiliation. At one point, we see stills from the 1960s and 1970s showing Safinaz Kazem, a well-known writer and columnist, svelte and alluring in an assortment of slinky suits and Audrey Hepburn-type shift dresses. Then Kazem, in 1998, in loose clothing and a scarf covering her hair, says, "For years, we ran around in short skirts and bare arms saying to them, 'Look, see, we're just like you.' Enough. It got us nowhere. We're not like them, and they shouldn't matter. We have to find a way to be ourselves."

2. The Perfumed Garden (by Yamina Benguigui)

The Perfumed Garden is an exploration of the myths and realities of sensuality and sexuality in Arab society, a world of taboos and erotic literature. The film lifts a corner of the veil that usually shrouds all discussion of this subject in the Arab World. Made by an Algerian French woman director, the film reinterprets the Modern Arab World through interviews with men and women of all ages, classes, and sexual orientations, who recount how sexuality is experienced in their own daily lives. Beginning with a look at the history of more permissive times, and ending with the experiences of contemporary lovers from mixed backgrounds, this film presents the personal and societal issues raised by the desire for pleasure, amidst the pressure for chastity and virginity.

The film discusses premarital sex, courtship and marriage, familial pressures, private versus public spaces (such as the Hammam), social taboos (and the desire to break them), and issues of language.The Perfumed Garden also demonstrates how the rich legacy of fantasy in A Thousand and One Arabian Nights permeates contemporary Arab culture, and shows that this world of pleasure and proscription continues as a form of survival and resistance to this day.
(52 minutes)

3. Alone with War (by Danielle Arbid)

Beirut is a wonderful city. We are at the center of the world. Between 1975-1990, there was a civil war here, which means that everyone wanted to kill everyone. Today, nobody remembers anything.

Opening with these words, Danielle Arbid introduces Alone with War. Exiled to France during the civil war that killed 150 thousand people from 75-91, Arbid returns to Lebanon to interrogate its principle antagonists-the Christians and the Muslim militiamen-about their justifications for the war, while wondering about the collective amnesia that seems omnipresent. A fearless woman in a male dominated society, Arbid is searching for the story of her country, "Peace was declared. But no one explained to us what peace is."

Arbid visits soldiers, widows and fugitives. Her interviews with killers from both the Christian and Muslim militias are chilling. But she does not find answers to her questions. She walks through the streets of Beirut, questions people, knocks on doors, and heckles politicians. Is there going to be a monument erected in the memory of the victims? She looks for the sites where massacres were committed, wants to know who was killed, how and why. Her quest reveals a Beirut seen with a new pair of eyes, with a reflection of echoes of history fading. Maybe the massacres did not happen after all, may be all the bombings and shootings did not harm any one.
(58 minutes)

4. A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbes (by Belkacem Hadjadj)

When her husband died, Soumicha, mother of three, had to earn a living. She became the only woman taxi driver in Sidi Bel-Abbes, Algeria. This film accompanies Soumicha around the city where religious and political violence rages, and records her experiences in a job normally reserved for men. Soumicha's interactions with her fares introduces us to contradictory aspects of Algerian society: men who frown on working women are happy to have a cabby with whom they can trust their wives and daughters; other men are supportive, and critical of Algeria's treatment of women, despite the constant threat of their violent Islamic movement.

In the course of her travels, Soumicha meets many women, who offer their encouragement (tempered with the warnings to be careful), in wave hello when she drives by. Some of the women she meets are actively struggling for more liberties in the face of the militant Islamic movement.As this film comes to a close, a rumor that Soumicha has been murdered by extremists spreads through her city. Men who were critical of her are now openly worried and gather for the latest news, until someone spots her yellow Renault 4. The rumor was a warning for Soumicha, and all Algerian women. But she will be out the next morning, still looking for fares.
(52 minutes)

5. Arab Diaries, Birth (by Suheir Farraj-Palestine, Abbas Hashim-Iraq, Abeer Esber-Syria)

Three powerful stories are told in this film: the story of unwanted baby, the story of a baby whose future is in jeopardy, and the story of an absent baby. The story that opens and closes the episode takes place in Palestine. Fatima is caught up in a cycle of pregnancies because of the social pressure to produce a male child. Her current pregnancy is her sixth. Fatima's determination to give birth to yet another child is motivated primarily by her fear that her husband will marry another woman, if she cannot give him a son.

In Baghdad, Daoud, is a sick baby born under the international sanctions against Iraq. Providing basic nourishment and vaccinations is an uphill struggle. His parents discuss their fears about the fate of children born in Iraq today. Roza lives in a Syrian village. After many years of childless marriage, she has learned that her husband has the fertility problem, not her. This is a revealing and moving saga of a woman caught between yearning to have a child and trying to assert herself within the traditional codes and expectations of her society.
(26 minutes)

6. Arab Diaries, Love and Marriage (by Samia Chala-Algeria and Muriel Aboulrouss-Lebanon)

In Lebanon, a single, middle age woman deals with the effect societal opposition to interfaith marriage has had in her life, while a young couple vows to fight it. Lama and Fouad are very much in love. He is a Christian and she is Muslim. Their love is doomed because their society will not allow them to marry across the religious divide. Marita, a woman in her mid forties, has never recovered from her first and only true love – a forbidden love that blossomed during the Lebanese civil war.

In Algeria, a hair salon becomes a haven for women constrained by the social traditions they are forced to live by. The beauty salon is one of the few social spheres in Algeria where women can discuss their lives freely. Here we meet Lila, who was prevented from marrying the man she loved because his mother did not approve of her having visited Paris, her smoking and her dressing like a western woman. The story traces the customers (and hairdressers) whose lives have clashed with tradition and rebellion.
(26 minutes)

Syllabus for Arab Women Novelists

Week 1, Introductory session, viewing two interviews with Arab-Muslim scholars/feminists, Prof. Layla Ahmed of Harvard and Prof. Aziza Al-Hibri of the University of Virginia.

Week 2, Pillars of Salt, Part 1
Viewing “Four Women From Egypt, P 1”

Week 3, Pillars of Salt, Part 2
Viewing "Four Women From Egypt, P 2"

Week 4, A Woman of Five Seasons, Part1
Viewing "The Perfumed Garden"

Week 5, A Woman of Five Seasons, Part 2

Week 6, A Balcony Over Fakihani
Viewing "Alone With War"

Week 7, Dreams of Tresspass, Part 1
Viewing Arab Diaries "Home or Maid in My Family"

Mid Semester Break

Week 9, Dreams of Tresspass, Part 2
Viewing "A Female Cabby in Sidi BelAbbes"

Week 10, In the Eye of the Sun, Chapters 1-3
Viewing "Arab Diaries-Birth"

Week 11, In the Eye of the Sun, Chapters 4-6
Viewing "Arab Diaries-Love and Marriage"

Week 12, In the Eye of the Sun, Chapters 7-8
Viewing "Arab Diaries-Work"

Week 13, In the Eye of the Sun, Chapter 9
Viewing "Arab Diaries-Youth"

Week 14, In the Eye of the Sun, Chapter 10

End of Semester Paper (25-30 Pages)


For information on related subjects, please check the following websites:

1. International Relations

2. Islamic Arts

3. History

4. Asian Studies

5. Women's Studies

Go back to the main page