NELC loses last Palestinian prof

After being passed over for promotion, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations’ only Palestinian professor is leaving Yale.

Hala Nassar, assistant professor of modern Arabic culture and literature, was not promoted to associate professor this year. According to Yale’s promotion policies, Nassar — the department’s only professor of Palestinian descent and only expert on modern Palestinian culture and thought — must leave at the end of this spring.

Professor Hala Nassar will be leaving Yale after spring term.
Professor Hala Nassar will be leaving Yale after spring term.

“Palestinian people are people with a culture of their own,” Nassar said. “They have theater and music of their own … [students should see them] not only in terms of conflict and shooting and bus explosions, or in terms of Hamas and the rest of it.”

Nassar came to Yale in 2003 and served as the department’s director of undergraduate studies until 2008, when her proposal to add a modern Middle Eastern studies major was approved. Nassar said that while Yale has many political specialists and professors who work in Arab prehistory and classical literature, the department is lacking in modern Arab cultural experts.

According to the faculty handbook, cumulative time as an assistant professor and associate professor on term may not exceed nine years.

“If you could stay in untenured positions, all of Yale’s faculty would be people who didn’t get tenure,” said Deputy Provost Frances Rosenbluth of Yale’s policies. “I think that part of it makes sense; tenure is a system that was designed to make people independent thinkers.”

Department Chair John Darnell said the department will miss Nassar on a scholarly and personal level, but has “no intention of leaving that position vacant.” Darnell said he is confident that the provost’s office will approve a proposal to hire a replacement for Nassar, and hopes the approval comes sooner rather than later.

“A number of positions have lain fallow over the past year,” Darnell said of faculty hiring at Yale, “but the flood gates are beginning to open right now.”

Darnell said the department’s only other professor from Palestine or Israel is Ayala Dvoretzky, a senior lector of Hebrew. But he said a candidate’s regional origins will be secondary to his or her scholarship. Nassar said she hopes her replacement is concerned with Middle Eastern cultural identity.

“People are so caught up in the political environment,” Nassar said, “they don’t realize these people have culture and thought.”

Nassar said she tries to provide a cultural perspective based in literature rather than her own political views when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in her courses. But Jessica Belding ’13, a modern Middle Eastern studies major who took a course with Nassar last semester and is currently taking two more, said that Nassar’s students are well aware of her political opinions by the end of a semester in her class.

Still, Belding said Nassar’s approach to studying the Middle East provides a welcome contrast to political analyses.

“Her classes give a more holistic view of the region, which is really important for anyone who wants to work in or even just understand the region,” she said.

Belding said the University has too few modern Arabic literature courses, adding that she has taken almost every class Yale has offered on the topic.

Current Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations DUS Colleen Manassa said Nassar’s course on introductory Arab thought is the most popular course for students seeking to fulfill the major’s modern Arab culture requirement. Another popular course for fulfilling the requirement is the Department of Religious Studies’ “Islam Today: Jihad and Fundamentalism,” Manassa said, adding that this course does not take Nassar’s broad, secular approach.

Manassa said the department will search for a replacement who can provide a similarly broad perspective in a course on Arab thought.

In her “Introduction to Modern Middle Eastern Studies” course this term, Nassar said, her students will examine Middle East studies scholars at risk in the United States and the legalities of “how they are persecuted on American campuses for one stand on one issue.”

“As for me, if I’ve been persecuted or not,” Nassar said. “I’ll keep it to myself.”

Nassar offered the department’s first course on Palestinian theater in 2003, titled “East Meets West: Theatre and Drama in the Arab World.” Darnell said he hopes to continue collaboration with the Department of Theater Studies after Nassar’s departure.

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