Yale holds first-ever Arab conference

Monday, April 23, 2018

The following article appears in the April 23 Yale Daily News.

As a first year, Shady Qubaty ’20, the first Yemeni undergraduate at Yale, felt there was a need on campus for an accessible platform to hold multifaceted discussions about the Arab world. Last Friday — 15 months after he first presented the idea to the Yale Arab Students Association — Qubaty’s vision for such a platform became a reality, as roughly 400 students, professors and community members attended the University’s first ever Arab conference, titled “Amalna: Paving the Road Ahead.”

Sponsored by the Yale College Council, the Office of the President, the MacMillian Center and the Poynter Fellowship in Journalism, among other organizations, the conference focused on foreign policy, education, youth empowerment, refugees and women’s rights in the Middle East and featured a keynote address by Salam Fayyad, former prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority. Fayyad opened the conference with a speech on the importance of hope in an era of cynicism surrounding the prospects of establishing a democracy in the Arab world. Fayyad also emphasized that Palestinians must take their fate into their own hands, and he argued that political leaders should work together to end instability in the region.

Over the course of two days, the conference featured three panel discussions on women’s rights, America’s role in the Middle East and refugee crises in the region.

“I hope that this conference will raise much more awareness about what is happening in the Arab World,” Qubaty said. “With limited media coverage, the majority of the public in the U.S. are unsure about the developments in the Middle East since a lot of the events are unfortunately labelled as ‘more of the same thing’ and ‘natural developments’ and often under the framework of terrorism.”

In his keynote address, Fayyad said that, as a Palestinian, “pessimism is simply not an option” for him. Although he acknowledged that pessimism about the prospects of establishing a stable democracy in the Arab region is rooted in events of the past several years, he stressed that that attitude only hinders progress. As he closed his speech, he invited the audience to engage in conversations about how to best achieve democratization in the Middle East and what an ideal government model would look like.

The first panel on women’s rights featured Maya Alkateb-Chami, the managing director of the Human Rights Institute at Columbia University Law School; Mona Al-Naggar, reporter at The New York Times; and Rima Maktabi, a TV presenter and journalist at al-Arabiya. Moderated by women’s, gender and sexuality studies professor Eda Pepi, the panel discussed the stereotypes commonly associated with Arab women and the ways in which Arab women are challenging the traditional customs and roles imposed by society.

“The way Rima described the sexism Arabian women face today was very accurate,” co-director of the conference Malak Nasr ’19 told the News. “She said that if an Arab man is successful, no one questions who his parents are or what kind of connections he had. But if an Arab woman is successful, there is always an interrogation of what led her to be successful. This anecdote perfectly demonstrated the insane sexism and showed what we should start breaking down at this conference.”

The second panel focused on America’s role in the Middle East, and the third addressed issues pertaining to refugees and displacement in the region. The third panel explored the hardships refugees in the United States face, specifically in the fields of employment and education, featuring Ahmed Badr, a writer and social entrepreneur who relocated to Syria when his home in Baghdad was bombed in 2006, Chris George, the executive director of Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, Lorna Solis, founder of Blue Rose Compass — a nonprofit that provides scholarships to refugees from conflict zones — and Mohamed Hafez, an artist and architect born in Syria.

New Haven resident Peter Petite told the News that he found the third panel illuminating because it focused on discussing the potential solutions to the refugee crisis, rather than “describing how problematic the current situation is.”

“We explored possible solutions to the very urgent refugee problem in the United States,” Petite said. “I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase ‘amalna,’ which means hope. Obviously there is hope, but it’s a volatile hope because there are many problems to be fixed and issues to be addressed.”

In addition to the panel discussions, the conference included a screening of the contemporary Arab film “Soufra,” a multicultural festival and a presentation of initiatives to help refugees by Yale students.

Students and community members interviewed by the News said they found the conference enjoyable and meaningful.

“It is very important to show the side of Arab students at Yale,” attendee Beamlak Ashenafi ’21 said. “It also displays their culture and traditions to the rest of the Yale community. For every student here, it is very important to know more about the Arabic world, especially today.”

Omar Abu-Qamar, a member of the Harvard Arab Students Association who attended the event, told the News that he found every discussion relevant and informative.

“Everything was so interesting and relevant, at least because I am from that part of the world. I think the takeaway message is that everyone — or at least most people — want to help, but the problem is complex,” Abu-Qamar said. “Overall, I learned a lot and thought more deeply about the refugee problem in particular, and I commend the Yale students for organizing this.”

Written by Serena Cho