Cool blue light flooded the stage as members of the crowd listened to the music of the Middle Eastern oud instrument and learned about the history of "Little Syria" at the UNCCenter for Middle East and Islamic Studies (CMEIS) 20th-anniversary celebration.
Last Friday, featured performances at the event included Black-Persian comedian Tehran Ghasri, Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum, Palestinian-American musician Ronnie Malley and North Carolina local DJ Rang.
After 20 years, faculty members reflected on the future of CMEIS and on the achievements the center has made.
Professor Claudia Yaghoobi, the director of CMEIS as of last spring, said she developed the vision behind the celebration alongside her team. She emphasized the importance of diversity that exists within the Middle East and the necessity of considering diversity when telling Middle Eastern and Islamic stories.
"My work is focused on DEI — diversity, equity, inclusion — and the fact that hybridity is part of something that I do research," she said. "Hybridity is my own identity, I'm Iranian-Armenian-American."
Additionally, she stressed the importance of humanitarian work. For the celebration, she selected artists that not only aligned with her vision of human rights but also represented important voices for the Middle East and the world in general.
For example, Offendum has helped raise millions of dollars for different humanitarian relief organizations.
Some faculty members said none of the diversity and humanitarian goals of CMEIS would have been possible without Title VI funding from the U.S. Department of Education. These grants help universities further explore international studies and world languages.
“We have been awarded the Title VI federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education every four years since 2010,” Yaghoobi said. “And, this is the biggest achievement of the Center, almost, or the biggest award that the Center gets. Because of this grant, we are able to do so many things.”
Thanks to this funding, CMEIS not only organizes events and promotes research, but expands its language and course offerings, invests in library research and does important work in public outreach to both universities and high schools, Professor Cemil Aydin, a faculty member of CMEIS, said.
For students, the Center is also an important community serving as both a professional and personal support network, Yaghoobi said in a press release. She launched the first CMEIS Annual Lecture Series last year to bring experts and scholars to speak at UNC.
Reflecting on CMEIS’ history over the past 20 years, some faculty members outline the Center’s goals and achievements since its founding in 2003. Professor Charles Kurzman, one of the founding members of the Center, described it's original function as an organizational home and community for faculty members and students who were already studying Middle Eastern and Islamic studies.
Aydin explained the public outreach role CMEIS has always had, especially in the aftermath of 9/11.
“I think the need for that type of education increased as Americans' involvement in the Middle East got more complicated in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Aydin said. “The Middle East became a domestic political question."
The Center has brought a new approach to educating students and the public on Middle Eastern studies. As opposed to traditional methods, CMEIS practices a cross-regional approach to studying Middle Eastern and Islamic history and current events because these world regions are “somewhat arbitrary,” Kurzman said.
“The definition of the Middle East as a region only emerged in the early 20th century and brought together a variety of territories — North Africa, in the Levant region, the Arabian Peninsula, Turkey, Iran, parts a little bit east,” Kurzman said.
CMEIS’ unique cross-regional approach takes these connections into consideration when studying both the past and the present.
“These connections we wanted to highlight not to treat the Middle East as though it is separate from the rest of the world and totally different, but rather, as historically and currently linked with these other parts of the world,” Kurzman said.
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