Arab Americans fund university Arab Studies
Houston - Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the United States, is the only city in the country with two locally funded endowed chairs in Arab Studies. The Arab American Education Foundation (AAEF), a Houston-based non-profit founded in 1985 to advance education about the Arab world, spearheaded the fundraising campaign.
In 2011, the AAEF struck a deal with the University of Houston to endow an Arab Studies chair in the history department: If AAEF raised $1 million, the university promised to match it. AAEF announced a four-year campaign. In the meantime, the university hired Emran El-Badawi as director of the Arab Studies programme. “Our standards are on par with those of the University of Texas, Georgetown and the University of Chicago,” El- Badawi told The Arab Weekly.
By 2013 — two years ahead of schedule — Houston’s Arab-American community had met the fundraising goal needed to establish a chair and the AAEF Chair in Modern Arab History was officially endowed.
The enthusiastic donor response belied the cliché that Arab Americans are fickle philanthropists. Issa Cook and Nijad Fares, two prominent members of Houston’s Arab-American community, each donated $250,000, which enabled scholarship support for students wanting to study in Arab countries and an open lecture series in modern Arab history. Aramco donated another $100,000. University of Houston Dean John W. Roberts said the new endowment “will be used to strengthen the Arab cultural research that significantly enhances scholarly diversity.”
At a gala celebration in April, AAEF President Dr Aziz Shaibani, announced the installation of AAEF’s second chair at the University of Houston, welcoming Abdel Razzaq Takriti as assistant professor of modern Arab history. Takriti is an eminent, Oxford-educated historian and the author of Monsoon Revolution. “Contrary to Reagan’s euphemism,” El-Badawi predicted, “Takriti’s appointment to the chair in Arab history will have a ‘trickle-up’ effect, allowing our programme to expand and making Arab studies at Houston an international landmark.”
Shaibani stressed the importance of educating Americans about the Arab world and noted how the exclusion and suppression of history “allow[s] stereotypes to flourish. “The study of history,” he said, “is the battleground to fight stereotypes.
“Historians do not teach about the past only but they [also] offer a road for liberation from images and stereotypes that imprison us and our children,” he said. “The AAEF chair at Houston emerges exactly from this need and from the desire to assert that Arab history is a worthy subject to be taught and researched and [that] its subjects are real people with aspirations and dreams… who are not different than any other people in the world… the foundation starts in the classroom.”
Financing of university positions by Arabs and Arab Americans has been criticised by some groups as “campaign contributions or bribes” aimed at promoting a pro-Arab Middle East policy. Such scrutiny is ironic considering the many wealthy philanthropists who unapologetically demand pro-Israel positions as a pre-requisite for their funding.
El-Badawi lauded the “remarkable partnership with the community as the secret to our success,” mentioning the World Affairs Council, the Bilateral US-Arab Chamber, the Houston School District and the mayor’s office.
Chamber Chief Executive Officer Aida Araissi expressed confidence that “the chair will result in better business, diplomatic and security decisions that promote stability and mutual benefits for both our regions.”
Meanwhile, “demand for Arabic in the Houston community is at a four-year high across all levels,” said El-Badawi. “An Arabic language emersion secondary school was just approved and 425 applicants are competing for 137 spots.”
AAEF’s first Arab chair was established in 1997 at Houston’s Rice University and remains held by Ussama Makdisi, professor of history. A nephew of the late scholar Edward Said, Makdisi is a prominent scholar of modern Arab history and author of several books. Investment company owner Jamal Daniel’s Levant Foundation was AAEF’s major donor for the Rice chair.
AAEF’s success in Houston demonstrates the power of organic philanthropy, by which Arab Americans, contributing and collaborating directly within their own communities, can be a powerful force for change.