Americans may be familiar with the romantic tragedy of “Romeo and Juliet,” but few know about “Antar and Abla,” a pre-Islamic Arabic story chronicling the budding and controversial relationship between two mismatched lovers.
This was one of many literary works discussed in an Arabic studies course taught by professor Abla Hasan on love, sex and femininity in Arabic culture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Hasan said some students admitted Antar and Abla’s story was more inspirational than that of Romeo and Juliet when it comes to depicting the meaning of love. For Hasan, sharing the story to the class was an opportunity to illustrate the often-misunderstood idea of Arabic love.
Born and raised in Damascus, Syria, Hasan is a native speaker of Arabic. Since moving to the United States, she has focused on creating an open space for students to have an intercultural academic experience.
Hasan taught at Damascus University before she came to UNL in 2007 as a Fulbright Master of Arts student. Hasan received a doctorate in philosophy of language at UNL and then began teaching at the university. In the fall of 2015, she proposed ARAB 288 to the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures.
The class can fulfill requirements for minoring in Arabic studies and is cross-listed with religious studies and women’s and gender studies.
Hasan said she wasn’t nervous on the first day of the course but rather was excited for the course to be part of the Arabic studies program.
“This course introduces students to one lost and widely misunderstood aspect of the Arabic culture: love,” Hasan said. “The Arabic and the Islamic culture is a culture that celebrates love and peace.”
When Americans talk about the Arabic culture or language in academic or political debates, it would be an understatement to say most conversations do not touch on the topic of love, according to Hasan. Instead, she said they too often focus on the negative stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims.
“The Arabic language itself has more than 20 different well-known words for love. Some counted up to 60 words for love in Arabic,” she said. “However, the many misunderstandings in the West makes this part of the culture vague and hard for many to understand and makes it a priority for us educators interested in global learning and intercultural dialogue to highlight.”
Patricia Simpson, chairperson of the Department of Modern Languages and Literature, said Hasan is leading the way for Arabic culture at UNL to have a meaningful and global impact.
“With her training in the philosophy of language and her profound expertise in the Arabic language, literature and cultures from pre-Islamic Arabia to the modern Arab ‘street,’ Simpson said. “Hasan joins a departmental effort to provide students with a rich intercultural educational experience.”
This course is used as a way to enhance students’ global awareness, according to Hasan. ARAB 288 is one of the few courses about Arab culture that is taught in English at UNL. This creates an opportunity for students to have an intercultural experience within a classroom setting.
Hasan uses a variety of teaching methods, including media analysis, in-class readings, videos and games. Hasan said the class introduces several works by Arabic and Muslim poets, so it is mainly discussion-based.
Rayan Alshibli, a junior economics major, said one of her favorite parts of the class was the debates they would have regarding the literary works.
“The debates wouldn’t be planned,” Alshibli said. “Ms. Abla would ask the class their thoughts, but it would naturally turn into debates.”
Hasan said she always tries her best to use any resources that could be beneficial to the students, including her own first-hand experiences related to the topics.
To teach the themes of love, sex and femininity in Arab cultures, Hasan decided to frame the course with history reaching back to pre-Islamic Arabia. According to Hasan, this historical approach was important because students learning about the culture for the first time would become familiar with related topics, names, terms and concepts that came up later in the course.
“Introducing the three studied themes in their historical and sociopolitical context allows students a better chance to understand them,” she said. “Also, the historical approach allows students to understand the way the three themes have developed in the Arab world starting from pre-Islamic Arabia and ending by the modern Arab world.”
As an Arab woman, Alshibli said the class was particularly interesting because it gave her and others from Arabic cultures a chance to have discussions they might not have otherwise.
“Love, sex and femininity are kind of forbidden topics in Arab culture,” she said. “So, just to talk about it at all, I think, was a great opportunity.”
Simpson said Hasan has worked diligently to create an environment at UNL that reminds students to widen their perspectives and to see what is beyond the surface since love and language can connect people globally and locally.
“I think Hasan’s research and teaching reminds us that Arabic is a sacred language, a language of Islamic feminism, of poetry, of song, a language of prayer and not least, a language spoken in Lincoln,” Simpson said.
Simpson said love is a universal experience, and ARAB 288 gave students the opportunity to look at the role love plays within a culture. By the end of the semester, students who went into the class knowing little to nothing about love, sex and femininity may have finished with a clearer understanding of such topics in relation to Arabic culture.
This course is a transformative experience for all participants, according to Simpson. She said it brings attention to a topic that is hardly touched on and gives students the opportunity to understand a culture that is often misinterpreted.
“Students’ interest, continuous support and positive evaluations have created an equal opportunity for everyone to discuss these topics and keep asserting the need to add similar courses to the already exciting courses UNL provides,” she said.
Although the course’s success is largely due to Hasan’s methods of engaging with students on the topic and creating an open and interactive environment, she does not hesitate to give her students credit.
“I am so proud of my UNL students and how well they do when provided the right environment to freely express themselves,” Hasan said. “As an educator, I strive to turn every class I teach into a learning community where every voice is heard and where every opinion matters.”
This article was originally published in the February 2019 edition of The DN.