As a newly admitted Yale student, Amal Altareb ’23 attended the 2018 Bulldog Days amazed by everything her new school had to offer. As she explored the campus with her tour group, she noticed the Asian American Cultural Center (AACC) and La Casa Cultural (“La Casa”), two of Yale’s cultural houses that neighbor each other on Crown Street. Altareb, who is Middle Eastern, wondered if there was a similar space for her.
Altareb left Yemen for the United States in 2012 and has not been able to visit her home country since. At Yale, she had hoped to find a network of Yemeni students who might remind her of home, but she found that such a network did not exist, nor did a cultural house for Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) individuals. In its history, Yale has only admitted two other Yemeni students. Altareb felt that few of her classmates could understand the events transpiring in her country.
“Especially with what’s been going on in Yemen — the civil war, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — it felt so lonely to not be able to share [my thoughts]. Sometimes I just wanted to have people [to reflect on it with],” Altareb said.
Based on conversations between MENA-identifying individuals and the News, countless students from all over the Middle Eastern diaspora seem to have had similar experiences as Altareb, struggling to find individuals on campus with analogous backgrounds. Though they are offered peer liaisons from the AACC and the Afro-American Cultural Center (“Af-Am House”), MENA students must choose one or both of the two cultural houses based on whether they feel “more Asian or African,” Altareb said.
After struggling to find a community that understood her experiences, Altareb decided to join the movement for a MENA cultural center. She helped lead the campaign as the president of the Middle Eastern and North African Students Association (MENASA) this past year.
In many ways, she inherited this fight: Founded in 2018, MENASA has been calling for such a cultural house for the past three years. Due to internal University and national-level bureaucratic hurdles, these efforts have been unsuccessful.
IMAGINING A CULTURAL HOUSE
The idea for a MENA cultural house emerged in the spring of 2018. Shady Qubaty ’20, the first Yemeni undergraduate at Yale, came up with the idea during Yale’s first Arab Conference. He questioned why there was not an umbrella organization for MENA students, who often do not identify with any of the four existing cultural centers. The Arab Students Association reached out to members of the Persian and Turkish Student Associations to discuss the possibility of creating a larger umbrella association for the Middle East. With the support of the three major student associations and after three years of mobilization, MENASA was formally registered as a student organization in January 2019.
MENASA runs its programs like a cultural center: hosting cultural events and activities as well as a peer liaison program. When in-person events were possible, MENASA hosted speaker events, film screenings and food tastings in room 110 at 305 Crown St., a small conference room with only about 15 chairs. If MENASA successfully establishes a cultural center, they will receive administrative funding from the University and acquire a larger space on campus, Altareb said.
MENASA is now in the process of finding a location for a possible cultural house, reaching out to alumni for funding support and communicating with possible faculty directors before formally proposing the cultural house to the Yale administration.
According to surveys conducted by the YCC, the idea of a MENA cultural center is popular among students. In 2017, 2018 and 2019, the surveys found that 75 percent of the students who responded were in favor of the cultural house.
Reilly Johnson, the current YCC vice president, wrote in an email to the News that the YCC’s efforts to support MENASA have focused on garnering support from Yale College Dean Marvin Chun. “The first step to establishing a cultural center is getting administrative buy-in, something that the YCC has attempted to assist student advocates in by gathering data and presenting student perspectives on the necessity of a MENA house,” she wrote.
Although the administration has discussed a potential cultural center with student groups for the past three years, more alumni support and tangible sources of funding would be needed before forwarding a formal proposal to the administration. Chun wrote that the administration wants to support cultural communities on campus but only by using existing cultural centers and resources. He stated: “We are not going to create many more cultural centers to address every community at Yale because that isn’t quite feasible.”
UNPACKING “MENA” IDENTITY
The fraught question of what constitutes MENA identity further complicates the fight for a cultural house. The countries formally included in the MENA region, and the populations who identify with the ethnicity, vary based on the source. From a collection of sources such as the United Nations Statistics Division, UNICEF and UNHCR, the list may include: Afghanistan, Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cyprus, Djibouti, Egypt, Georgia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malta, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Western Sahara and Yemen.
Shyla Summers ’24, an Iranian American and the YCC cultural and religion co-chair, noted that the term “MENA” has long been fraught with controversy, calling it a Eurocentric term. She elaborated that, historically, “Europe viewed East Asia as the Far East, so in between that was called the Middle East. It is quite literally centered around Europe.” The practice of calling the Middle East the “Middle East,” moreover, was popularized by Westerners, British officer Thomas Edward Gordon and U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan.
The U.S. Census currently does not categorize “Middle Eastern and North African” as a racial group. Most MENA individuals therefore have to identify as “white.” The Census Bureau currently describes the racial category of “white” as “a person having origins in any of the original peoples of Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa.”
The Obama administration considered adding the MENA category but ultimately decided against it in 2018, stating that the Census Bureau had not researched the implications of MENA being classified as a race rather than an ethnicity. When the movement for MENA’s inclusion as a racial category was revived, it was once again shuttered by the Trump administration, according to MENA advocates. An Al Jazeera article quoted Samer Khalaf, the national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, who claimed that the Trump administration blocked the move because the “white” population in the United States would drop in numbers if the proposal were enacted, potentially making white people a minority.
In an opinion editorial for the News, Summers wrote that MENA individuals were categorized as “white” because Europeans wanted to claim their race was the foundation of civilization, and at the time, the landing point of Noah’s Ark was believed to be in what is now Turkey.
Summers wrote that labeling MENA individuals as “white” does not accurately represent the population’s heritage. As MENA individuals are often lumped into the “white” category, there is an assumption that they are within the category that is “least discriminated against,” she said. In Summers’ view, this undermines the distinct forms of discrimination MENA individuals face.
“In an era of rising xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and racism, all of which disproportionately affect MENA people, it is ever more important to establish a new cultural house,” she wrote.
Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan said that because the census does not recognize MENA as a racial group, the University’s admissions process and Student Information System (SIS) do not as well. The University only acknowledges five racial categories — “white,” “Black,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”
Last year, MENASA launched an effort to include MENA as a racial group within Yale’s college application system and SIS. MENASA had conversations with the admissions office and the Yale administration to realize this goal. However, these efforts have failed due to bureaucratic reasons.
According to Quinlan, the office did not reject the request. Instead, he said the inaction was due to the office’s reliance on third-party platforms like the Common Application, Coalition Application and QuestBridge Application.
“Yale — like all other American higher education institutions receiving federal funds — are required to track and report on data about race and ethnicity using the Census Bureau’s categories,” Quinlan wrote in an email to the News. “Replacing or amending the existing question is not an option currently available to the Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions.”
Quinlan qualified, however, that although the option of selecting MENA as a racial group is not available to Yale College applicants, there are various areas on the application where applicants can express their cultural identity, and that many MENA-identifying applicants have done so in the past. Quinlan wrote, “Yale’s whole-person review process ensures that the Admissions Committee looks at each applicant’s background, interests, and likelihood to engage with Yale’s community in any number of ways. As with all applicants, a MENA student’s ethnic background is one part of a much larger evaluation.”
NEED FOR A CULTURAL CENTER
MENA-identifying students advocate for the cultural center for a variety of reasons. In Altareb’s experience, the MENA region is often viewed based on the foreign relations of its countries and the conflicts between them. MENASA aims to dismantle this image by foregrounding the richness of MENA culture.
“It is a dignifying recognition of our identity,” she said. “We are who we tell you we are. We’re not the separate categorization [of Caucasian, African or Asian] you’re dividing us into.”
Altareb and Yazeed Mualla ’22, the president of the Arab Students Association (ASA), both said that the lack of a cultural house also creates operational difficulties for MENA clubs on campus. Mualla pointed out that practices like student group recruitment, group retention rates, allocation of funding, bias incident reporting, and informing students of opportunities and resources are hindered by the group’s inability to identify MENA students.
Since they lack institutional support, Altareb said, ASA leaders must review the first-year directory each year and decipher which students have MENA-sounding names to determine whom they should reach out to. Altareb said that since there are so few MENA individuals at Yale and in the United States as a whole, the students yearn for an established community.
“If you go to the MENA region and talk to someone on the street, I can’t guarantee that they will identify as MENA,” Altareb said. “Being in the minority in the west, in the U.S., these different identities fade away and the commonality becomes more important.”
Both Altareb and Mualla stated that having MENA students from adversarial countries interact can lead to greater understanding in the region overall. “Creating the house will foster an emphasis on these commonalities within the community as opposed to the turbulent political and societal issues that currently dominate the narrative and dialogue regarding the region,” Mualla wrote.
Jonathan Wyrtzen, director of undergraduate studies for the modern Middle East studies major, said the MENA cultural center is specifically needed because the shared experience of MENA students “falls through the cracks of the logics by which [other cultural houses] have been created.”
TRACING THE ORIGINS OF A CULTURAL HOUSE
The path forward for MENA in its struggle to establish a cultural house may seem opaque, but one can trace the histories of other cultural centers’ formations to imagine a path forward.
The Af-Am House was the first cultural center to be established. In 1964, 14 Black men launched an effort to bring more Black students from around the country to Yale through a social weekend they called Spook Weekend. In the following years, Black students worked to address the major concerns encountered by the Black community at Yale: They pushed for increased Black student enrollment, the development of the African American Studies department, better relations with the Black New Haven community and a cultural center. The students established the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY) in 1967 to address these concerns. BSAY soon proposed the establishment of a cultural center, which was approved by the Yale Corporation in the spring of 1968.
The student activism that produced the Af-Am House inspired the advocacy for the Asian American AACC and La Casa. The Asian American Students Alliance (AASA) and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán (MEChA) de Yale banded together to demand a cultural house from the administration. In 1981, the Asian and Chicano American Cultural Center was established, which welcomed Asian American, Latinx and Indigenous students. La Casa and the Native American Cultural Center (NACC) moved out of 295 Crown St. and were given their own physical spaces in 1999 and 2013, respectively.
Joliana Yee, director of the AACC, said that Asian American students’ two-decade-long fight for a cultural center centered around increasing their visibility on campus. She said that because Yale is a historically white institution, the administration was not aware of the significant population of Asian students on campus. She shared the “shoe story,” a pivotal moment in 1978 during AASA’s fight for a cultural center. They invited then-Yale-President Bart Giamatti to meet in their Bingham Hall basement headquarters. The leaders removed their shoes and left them in the hallway, exhibiting a common Asian custom while showing Giamatti how large the Asian American community was at Yale.
Yee also said that the AACC was important in advocating against racial biases that students faced on campus. Don Nakanishi ’71, one of the co-founders of AASA, was attacked by other students after the Pearl Harbor bombing because of his Japanese American identity. The establishment of a cultural house raised the authority of racial groups to push for action in issues that mattered to them.
Though the AACC was established in 1981, Yee noted that there has been a continued fight for resources since.
As recently as 2015, Yee said, students have protested to procure necessary resources for the cultural centers. She referenced a 2014 Consultation Committee on the Cultural Centers report, an evaluation of the cultural houses conducted by independent experts. The report mentioned the need for greater attention to the cultural centers’ physical infrastructure and to the centralization of financial resources, as resources were unevenly distributed among the centers.
Yee also commented on the inherent exclusivity that comes with cultural centers. “There is always a danger of just being so insular,” she said. She mentioned how she has worked at other universities that have multicultural centers instead of standalone cultural centers. But to her, it doesn’t matter whether one works with a multicultural center or an independent cultural house. She elaborated, “It’s more about the lens in which you are using to approach the work that you’re doing. … If I’m intersectional in how I understand race, then I wouldn’t just be focused on Asians. I’d understand that the Asian condition is predicated on how other communities of color are also being treated.”
Though Yee acknowledged the challenges MENA students faced in establishing a cultural center, especially amid the pandemic, she reiterated other cultural centers’ support for the students.
“Space is always a contentious thing, and I think that’s another large barrier for MENA,” Yee said. “It was also a barrier to the cultural centers back in the day, and students and alumni had to push the administration. … The cultural centers exist and understand what it takes to [establish a cultural center to] some extent, so we’re here to support [MENA] until they can be something on their own.”
According to Altareb, the pandemic has hampered MENASA’s efforts to organize for the cultural center proposal because meeting and planning in person was much easier.
“It was hard as president to keep everyone engaged and showing up to meetings,” Altareb said. “But the passion is there, and the flame isn’t going away anytime soon.”
Zahra Yarali ’24, the YCC cultural and religion co-chair and an Iranian American, said that as a first year entering amid a pandemic, MENASA gave her a community through its action groups such as MENA House Basics, where they work to bring a formal cultural house proposal to the administration.
With 2020 serving as a reflective year on the push for racial justice in the United States, Yarali agreed that the current moment has provided deeper significance to the push for a cultural house.
“We’ve had to really reflect on what foundations our country has been built on and why it’s affecting people today and taking the lives of people today,” Yarali told the News. “Race is rooted in oppressive concepts of superiority, and the origins of the MENA community being grouped into the white racial classifications [contributes to that].”
Altareb encouraged everyone to bring the issue up with their friends and on social media. “Even as simple as talking about it can make a difference,” she said. “I remember in my first year, the only people that talked about this proposal were MENA groups. Now, it has become a whole-Yale issue.” She said students can also aid the effort by signing onto their forthcoming petition for the cultural center and attending events endorsed on MENA’s Facebook page to communicate interest in the cultural center to the administration.
Most of Yale’s peer institutions do not have cultural centers for MENA-identifying individuals. Oregon State University seems to be one of the only U.S. universities with such a space, having started the Ettihad Cultural Center — which serves as a home for Central, Southwestern Asian, and North African students — in 2014.
This is, however, precisely the reason why MENASA is advocating for a cultural house. Altareb said that similar to Yale’s trailblazing choice to establish the Af-Am House, Yale can lead the movement for national change in recognizing the identity and unique challenges faced by MENA students. Yale was the first Ivy League school to establish a cultural space like the House, after all.
“If Yale does really do this, there can be a ripple effect on all the Ivies,” Altareb said. “As the leading institutions in this country, what they do matters. Imagine if 20 other top-tier colleges follow Yale, there could be actual change.”