Arab Student Conference promotes cooperation

This weekend, students, professors and notable speakers from a variety of fields met at Yale for the University’s first Intercollegiate Arab Student Conference, organized by the Yale chapter of the Arab Students Association.

The stated purpose of the conference, “Thinking In and Out of Crisis,” was to finalize a constitution for the Intercollegiate Arab Network (ICAN), which was designed to “facilitate cooperation between Arab and Arab-American university students across the United States,” according to the outlines distributed by the Yale ASA.

Fifteen to 20 campuses were represented at the conference, ASA Social Chair Catherine Halaby ’04 said, including students from Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Southern Connecticut State University.

Yale ASA chapter co-president Omar Christidis ’04 said the primary goal of the conference was to constructively contribute to the developmental gap between the Arab world and the U.S.

“As Arab and Arab-American students, we are often forced on the defensive,” Christidis said. “The Arab world is a house, and its foundation is rotting. We need to shift our concerns away from the political crises and back to the Arab world itself.”

ICAN strives to help Arab students obtain funds for research and travel, Halaby said.

The conference featured five discussion panels composed of Arab and Arab-American scholars drawn from a variety of fields. Speakers including Omar Al-Issawi, a co-founder of the Al-Jazeera satellite network that was founded after the dissolution of the Arabic BBC in 1996, and Salah Darghouth, a Water and Environment sector manager for the World Bank. The speakers addressed topics such as censorship, the exodus of intellectuals, public health and environmental policies in the Middle East.

The final panel, “Unity and Disunity: Geopolitics of the Arab world,” included As’ad AbuKhalil, an author and professor of political science at California State University; Rabab Abdulhadi, an assistant professor of gender studies at New York University; and Rashid Khalidi, recently appointed the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia.

“The diversity of opinion and wealth of information made the last panel awesome,” Halaby said. “Some of the panels — were a little dry, because they were more technical, but this was really interesting. Everybody really knew their stuff.”

Following the first four panels, smaller “breakout sessions” gave participants a chance to discuss specific issues in more detail and put their new perspectives to use, ASA Treasurer Raja Shamas ’05 said.

“The breakout sessions were designed to examine challenges to Arab communities and Arab students in the United States,” he said. “We discussed how to mobilize as a student body and special interest group, and they were very successful. The speakers were really into them.”

Visiting conference participants arrived in New Haven on Friday, but the discussion officially began Saturday morning with a keynote address that featured a brief pre-recorded speech from the late Edward Said, an eminent crusader for Palestinian rights who died last month. The subject of the speech, recorded in 1997, was the contrast between Said’s generation and the current one.

“Most of you [Arabs and Arab-Americans] are bi-cultural,” Said said. “The West to you is not — some Kafka-like fortress that you can’t get into. I think it empowers you to speak — with a great deal of confidence.”

The conference had been in the planning stages for “about a year and a half,” Christidis said.

Other aspects of the conference included “Asawir,” a Palestinian musical story presented by Issaw Boulos, and a dance party in the Morse CD Cafe with DJ Ahmed Ghazi.

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