Gaining a Nuanced Understanding of Syria

AJ Naddaff – On Tuesday April 4, airstrikes struck down on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in northern Syria filling newsfeeds worldwide with horrific images of anemic women and children foaming gas from their mouths and gasping for breath.

The same day, as the death toll was unfolding, a few students in my advanced Media in the Arab World course had been assigned to present on a news story. I chose to share about a pomegranate valley in rural Jordan that was providing family income, while other students chose stories of female entrepreneurship and a music festival. Well aware of the plight transpiring in the region, we chose stories of tradition and perseverance to shine light on pockets of positivity in an otherwise bleak time.

My favorite part about taking Arabic at Davidson is the inextricable link forged between the study of the language and a rich Arabic culture, specifically tied to Syria and the Levant, or what used to be referred to as the Greater Syria region. This is entirely due to Professor Rebecca Joubin, the chair of the department, who spent close to a decade living in Syria. While there, she began conducting research on gender studies and how topics of identity, family, and social relationships are portrayed in present Syria art and media. Today, she offers courses on her research for advanced Arabic speakers (which only takes one year and a summer program of intensive study) such as Gender and Politics in Contemporary Syrian Literature, Contemporary Syrian Television Drama, and Mediating the Crisis: Post-Uprising Syrian Television Drama.

Many of the students in my class now have personal connections to the Syrian conflict, having worked with Syrian refugees in Charlotte through the student-led Davidson Refugee Support, studying abroad in the region, or through volunteering at a U.S. State Department-sponsored Syrian art fundraiser and dinner for Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) that took place December 3 and raised nearly $10,000. The fundraiser, started by Davidson students Adam Morin ’18 and Mohammed Willis ’18, invited a Syrian family that had recently resettled in Charlotte to speak about their experience coming to the states with the hopes they could make beneficial contacts. There have now been several occasions in which this family has catered delicious Syrian sweets to serve alongside Arab Studies-sponsored events.

After talking to Dr. Joubin more about the education crisis unfolding in Syria, I, along with few students, engaged in a lengthy dialogue that resulted in Davidson’s International Admission Officer Kaye-Lani Laughna to commit Davidson to the Institute of International Education (IIE) Syria Consortium for Higher Education. I was amazed with the college’s support of our efforts. The Admissions Office provided us with Davidson brochures and prepped us with advice before we traveled throughout Jordan and Lebanon over the summer to promote Davidson to Syrian refugees. We hoped to attract a student who attained both the necessary language skills and would be the right fit to thrive at our small, close-knit, competitive liberal arts institution. Our efforts came full-circle when Hani Zaitoun ‘20, an extremely passionate and vocal student from Damascus, enrolled at Davidson this semester, two weeks before Trump was inaugurated.

Once again, Dr. Joubin is the inspiration behind these initiatives. In the wake of ongoing bloodshed, she has opened our eyes to a cradle of civilization where ethnic communities maintained centuries of peace and prosperity living side-byside. She has allowed us to see beyond the absurd politics and sensationalist media to understand the power of cultural study and the potential for human connection made by dismantling stereotypes.

Thanks to her, Davidson’s Arab Studies students can differentiate between the various dialects in Syria, talk for hours about famous and controversial television dramas, and drop widely used Syrian colloquial proverbs in speech. Through cooking sessions with the Syrian family, we can make falafel from scratch and bake baklava by hand. Our Arabic skills and cultural knowledge have translated into our ability to conduct original research, as each year Arab Studies students are sent on Kemp, Abernathy, and Fulbright fellowships. We’ve even spent time with renowned Syrian intellectuals such as novelist and screenwriter Khaled Khalifa and dissident author Nihad Siris.

For these reasons, the suffering we see on our screens matched with the international community’s lack of care has only made the situation in Syria that much more poignant, more powerful, and more personal. While great emphasis is placed on art, history and culture, I would be remiss to say that politics are taboo. When finally the last student in my Arabic class stood up to present her news story, she chose the video of blue-lipped Syrian children dying from the gas, but only after warning us. We grimaced and squinted, but this sort of horror perpetrated by the regime was nothing new. Rather than discuss the atrocities in great detail, we chose to switch our focus to Syrian television drama for the remainder of the class.

In a time of otherwise despair and destruction, there is one positive take that we, as Arab Studies students at Davidson, can draw. Dr. Joubin has connected us with the rich Syrian culture that no amount of books, political-science courses or media could have taught us alone. With the media’s obsession on the horror and the dissemination of myriad fake news stories, this is especially important. Her passion and devotion to the language have made the plight very personal to some of us, creating activists for years to come. Now it is our duty to continue sharing the deep culture and optimistic stories of the region that so few appear to be doing.

AJ Naddaff is an Arab Studies and Political Science double major from Dedham, Massachusetts. Contact him at ajnaddaff@