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Uncommon Languages. Uncommon Woman.

An Interview with Maggie Nabil Nassif

Photography by Bradley H. Slade

Maggie Nabil Nassif has lived her life between cultures—or rather, at the intersection of cultures. Born in Egypt, she attended an Irish Catholic School in Cairo, where she began to learn English in kindergarten before a formal study of her native Arabic. In her teens, an exchange program took her from her conservative Catholic, girls-only, uniformed school and placed her in a U.S. public high school in Oregon with a cornucopia of extracurricular activities. “The exchange program’s slogan is ‘turning places into faces,’ ” remembers Nassif, who has kept in touch with her Oregon host family for more than thirty years. “You make this personal connection, and it is a life-changing experience.”

Back in Egypt, Nassif studied English literature at Cairo University, then comparative literature at the American University in Cairo. She also received a PhD from Cairo University in postcolonial theory and an MBA from Arkansas State University. She has taught literature, women’s studies, and business culture at a wide spectrum of schools—from community colleges to Ivy League universities—in the United States and Egypt. Nassif’s research interest is in the intersection of pop culture, women’s issues, material culture, and consumerism.

Seven years ago Nassif came to BYU to help manage the National Middle East Language Resource Center (NMELRC). Headquartered at BYU and funded by the U.S. government, the NMELRC involves language experts at universities across the United States; together they work to improve the teaching and learning of key Middle Eastern languages.

Nassif’s siblings have also spread internationally: her two sisters are in Utah, and her three brothers are in Cairo, Dubai, and Cape Town. But Egypt, where her parents and many relatives live, remains the family’s gravitational center, and she visits at least once a year. “We are still very much connected to Cairo,” she says.

How is it that the world of foreign language policy converges through NMELRC?

Our goal is academic, and our mission is to increase national capacity in the four gateway languages of the Middle East: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish. They all have commonalities, but they also all have their own very specific needs and challenges and wonderful resources and perks.

We strategize and put together teams for major projects. What we do most is research and development. We do a lot of surveys, collecting data on enrollment, on trends, on the needs of students, teachers, and administrators, and then we compile these reports and advise on policy.

We concentrate on three program areas: teacher training, professional development, and a project called Pathways to Proficiency. Our target audience is K–12 and higher education, from Ivy Leagues to state colleges to small private and community schools.

In Utah in the last seven years we have established teaching-Arabic programs in seven schools—mostly high schools, but we have a middle school and an elementary school program now.

We have been working on pushing accountability and measuring success.There have never been standardized tests for these less commonly taught languages. BYU is huge on testing, and Ray Clifford, director of the Center for Language Studies, is our guru. BYU also has the infrastructure to build teaching models.

What has the NMELRC been doing recently?

Over the summer I was in Jordan and Egypt, and Kirk Belnap, the NMELRC director, was in Jordan. We work in North Africa, West Asia, the Gulf, and Turkey. We have good contacts with study abroad providers (beyond the BYU programs). The David M. Kennedy Center has sponsored what we call Foreign Study Abroad Summits in Cairo, Casablanca, and Amman. This provides us the ability to leverage change in the field, which is exciting.

We are working on two exciting new projects. The first is to create internships for students of Arabic. Next we will do that for Turkish. The idea is for students who graduate from BYU (we always work with BYU as the first model) to participate in internships abroad to utilize and improve their language skills. We create models that can be mirrored and utilized on other campuses.

For BYU’s newly established Arabic major, the students are required to study abroad for a semester in Jordan. The internship would be optional beyond that. The model was created by sociology professor Ralph Brown; he has internships and volunteer opportunities for students all over the world, and he had a program in Jordan that he created with the help of Erlend Peterson, associate international vice president.

Seven students were in Jordan doing internships at the Ministry of Social Development. The students conducted research on topics such as pop culture, the position of women, the political situation, etc. We also identified Jordanian students—their peers—who teamed up with them to help with the research. They also took an Arabic class.

The other program is Arabic Without Walls. It was initially a project at UC Davis and UC Berkeley. They did Spanish Without Walls and then partnered with Kirk on Arabic Without Walls. We modified it for online use by high school students. This is very cutting edge, and it may be the answer to the shortage of certified Arabic teachers in U.S. high schools. We received funding from the Qatar Foundation to offer scholarships to students who want to learn Arabic, but because students are in Idaho or Minnesota and their schools do not offer Arabic, they can learn Arabic online. The program is heavily subsidized, and we offer scholarships on top of that, so the students take it free of charge. We have been going around the country doing camps for students to sign up.

Why is there such an interest in Arabic?

There is an interest in foreign languages due to globalization. People understand that we live in a global economy. We need a different set of skills, and not just math and science. Foreign language education is getting there, along with geography, as part of understanding the world around us. In 2006 President George W. Bush created the National Security Language Initiative to encourage competence in critical languages. Chinese gets a lot of attention because of the number of people who speak it and because it has a good story tied to the idea of industrialization. When it comes to Arabic, it is sometimes seen as important but for unpleasant and violent reasons. We need to work on creating a better story for Arabic, which we are doing through outreach. Some of this is done through citizen diplomacy and through good, average people. When students are on a study abroad and are lost on the street, native residents go out of their way to take the students where they need to be. That is better than any publicity from the media. That is personal connection.


How does BYU, as the leader of NMELRC, coordinate with the other institutions involved?

We have a consortium of language special-ists at about twenty universities all over the country. They are the best people at whatever they do. When you put them together, they have very diverse experiences. We brainstorm, we strategize, and we try to capitalize on the resources we have—our competitive advantage—and try to work with the challenges. We are lucky to have smart people to work with.

We have boards divided by language and then by project. Each language has a director and members who sit on that board. BYU creates the vision, we oversee budgeting and reporting to the government, and we subcontract to these groups to do the projects. We also meet at national conferences. They come to our teacher training meetings, and we are in almost daily contact with them.

How is BYU viewed both nationally and internationally?

BYU is a known entity and certainly has name recognition, but in addition to the institutional part, the individual professors have great name recognition: people like Dilworth Parkinson, who was the executive director of the Arabic Linguistics Society, and Donna Lee Bowen, who was on the board of the Middle East Studies Association, as well as Kirk Belnap, James Toronto, and Daniel Peterson. These professors certainly have name recognition for their scholarship and contributions. And graduate students who come out of BYU are doing the best word-of-mouth advertising.

What is your perspective on the Arab Spring, particularly in Egypt?

I am optimistic, very optimistic, about what is happening in Egypt. I am very sad for the people who have lost their lives—and who will lose their lives, because it always gets a little worse before it gets better. I have a friend who is a professor at Cairo University. She says the difference between people in Egypt and the Middle East who can support the revolution and those who cannot is imagination—the idea being that they have been inspired and they have the imagination to see what this brave new world can look like. I speak to my mother almost every day on Skype. They have been awakened to this newfound freedom, and they are exercising it. Having said that, there may be some dark days ahead, but I think people need to understand and need to be patient.

There are different degrees of involvement and enthusiasm. There are the trailblazers who are revolutionary leaders, but there are also the people who get excited and young people who want change and people who did not choose to change but who, now that there is so much change, realize they need to get involved. I had a professor at Arkansas State who had a plaque on his desk that said, “The only way around a problem is through.” So there are some people who realize, “We did not start this, but we are in the middle of it and we need to deliver.”

What do you miss most about Cairo?

I miss the crowds and the noises and the bustling city. I miss walking, because Cairo is a great walking city. Provo is very hard to walk in. Even Salt Lake is not a very -pedestrian-friendly city.

Of the places you have visited, which is your favorite?

I love Casablanca, and I really like Cape Town, where my brother lives.

What has been the most surprising thing about being at BYU?

Probably the mountains; I cannot believe how close they are to campus. And I have also been surprised at how friendly the people are. The Kennedy Center is an outstanding place for what I do because we are all involved internationally. The Kennedy Center team is an amazing team, and our NMELRC group is outstanding.