A new student group hopes to move discussion of the Middle East beyond polarized political conflicts to explore culture of the complex region.
The USC Middle East Studies Student Association, which launched last week, is a student-run group affiliated with the university’s Middle East Studies program. The group is trying to raise interest and awareness in all aspects of the region, including its culture, history, religion and language.
Although several other clubs at USC already cater to specific political, religious and ethnic issues related to the region, MESSA will be the first to explore the cultural and intellectual diversity of the entire Middle East.
“I realized there really wasn’t any organization for people interested in the region as a whole,” said Daphne Wu, a senior majoring in history.
Wu co-founded the group with Phil Zager, a senior majoring in economics and international relations, after the two spent last semester in Cairo studying Arabic.
“We hope that people who are interested in the Middle East can come together and have a more open exchange,” Zager said. “I would love to see people talk rather than just take one side; to have dialogue rather than just debate, where you yell at each other over different sides and viewpoints.”
More than a dozen students gathered at the group’s first event Thursday to watch Persepolis, an award-winning animated film about a girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic revolution.
In addition to screening films and bringing in speakers, the group wants to make use of Los Angeles’ diverse population by conducting trips to Middle Eastern restaurants and concerts. It also plans to make contacts with the local communities and host language tables.
For those with an academic interest in the region, MESSA plans to connect students with professors who have contributed research on the field to offer their unique perspectives.
The group is hoping to use its contacts to invite professors from USC, as well as in the region, to hold lectures and seminars about the Middle East.
“We are really focusing on bringing students together with faculty members,” Wu said. “They deal with so many different topics in all different disciplines. And hopefully that way we can get students out of polarized ways of thinking.”
Sarah Gualtieri, an associate professor specializing in Arab-American and modern history, is working closely with MESSA to give students a rounded understanding of the region.
Gualtieri is working along with other professors in the Middle East Studies program — an interdisciplinary degree that explores Middle Eastern studies through such diverse fields as economics, religion and language — which expects to maintain a close connection with the student group.
“My goal as faculty adviser to the program is to promote interests in the region, to promote considerations for the diversity, including the diversity of opinions,” Gualtieri said.
The program supported the Persepolis screening by providing funding, and Wu said she expects to continue working with advisers and professors in the program because she wants to promote the program and classes.
While the Middle East is obviously a very conflict-ridden area, I think sometimes that gets too much attention in American media and in college campuses.”
Though MESSA has no particular agenda or bias other than an academic exploration of the region, maintaining a balance of views on what can be sensitive subjects still remains a concern for many members.
“We know bringing some
speakers may upset certain people, and we definitely take that into consideration,” Zager said.
But the point is we want to bring different perspectives, we’re not presenting it as, ‘Here, this guy has the absolute truth,’ it’s just another perspective. We want students to hear something new and think for themselves.”