By Toshali Sengupta
I look up from my questions to see Hashim and Dalia caught up in a heated debate about the etymology of the Holy Month. Dalia, with her usual energy, jumps up to demonstrate “Ana my life is NOT based on Wikipedia” and Hashim chips in with the “but the Holy Month of the Islamic calendar IS Ramadan”. Hesitant to interrupt the lively Arabic-English-French conversation with my rather bland questions, I wait patiently for a window of quiet which is when I hear the following:
Dalia: I HATE MY CO-PRESIDENT.
Hashim: No ya3ani…this is to develop your character.
Dalia, with a pinch of salt coating her words: Thank you. Hashim is my saviour, my master. Thank you for developing my character.
A pause, where Hashim searches for a witty response and finally, my time to intervene.
T: Could you briefly introduce yourselves?
D: I’m Dalia Atalla, I am Lebanese, and I lived in Armenia for two years, studying at UWC, before coming to Sciences Po Menton.
H: I’m Hashim Shubbar, I am a student here at SciencesPo Menton. I am Iraqi and I grew up between Baghdad and the UAE. I have always had an interest in the Middle East, both in terms of history and current events.
T: How was the Arab Student Organisation (ASO) born? What was your personal motivation for starting this group?
H: The ASO was born over the summer of 2019 as Dalia and I realized that the Middle East and Mediterranean campus needed an association that promoted not just the academic aspect of the MENA but also the culture of the region through discussion and activities that go beyond the classroom. The ASO’s mission is deconstructing misconceptions by sharing different perspectives, and presenting the diversity, complexity and realities of the MENA by providing the campus with a mechanism for exposure to debate of the Arab world as a region: the peoples and societies within it. Its vision is to foster and share Arab identity and culture and bring to the spotlight the MENA’s issues and events while allowing for a forum of discussions on Arab society’s most prominent phenomena and beliefs. To date, we are dedicated to this mission and vision statement and we hope to fulfil it in an apolitical and objective manner.
D: Saraha, as Hashim said, coming to the campus de Moyen-Orient last year I was really surprised by a lack of specialization on the region. I also recognized that it was important to create a platform to get a first-hand understanding of the Arab world. We are on a campus where people have an abundance of academic knowledge but are not taught to develop emotional knowledge and intelligence to complement their academics; so, we wanted to create an organization that facilitates filling this gap. Moreover, the people in Menton are not known to be the most open minded about Arabs given their “complicated history” with North Africa…so our idea was to have initiatives that would also involve people from the town to help them connect to our campus, its students, and most importantly, to the Arab world.
T: Hashim, why did you say that you wanted to keep ASO apolitical?
H: Everything from the region seems to need to have a political angle, most news received is politicized and biased, the viewpoints people come with are biased and political. So, we thought that there needed to be an organisation on this campus that needed to represent all opinions. We wanted to bring people to the table but not necessarily impose on them anything of our own, thus we wanted to keep it as apolitical as we could.
T: What role do you two play in ASO? What is the Majless El Shaab?
D: ASO is kind of our brainchild and we are the founders and co-presidents of the organisation. The Majless El Shaab is our core group that is extremely passionate and dedicated to our mission and vision. What was so beautiful about the Majless El Shaab this year was that people who did not have personal connections to the Arab world were still so dedicated to the cause. Honestly, I too learnt a lot – I was a little ignorant about my own region before. The Majless El Shaab meets every Sunday to brainstorm and organise events that aim to have a powerful impact on the campus to fulfil our mission and vision.
T: What are the events ASO has been involved in and what are you most proud of?
H: ASO has been involved in 2 major events so far – a panel on identity that was introduced by Mme Azab and our production Tarikhna. We also continued more small-scale activities such as partnered language tutoring and screening of films in partnership with other associations on campus. I am most proud of our production – it was a long-term effort, it brought together a large portion of the campus as well as people from a variety of backgrounds. They came together to produce something that I, and I hope the rest of the campus, found impactful. Hopefully, everybody that was present in the audience felt something too.
D: We also organized a jam session with the music club! Honestly, I am proud of the smallest to the biggest events, the simplest to the most complex, the most challenging to the easiest. Every single event was able to fulfil its purpose and was able to show what the ASO stands for, which is, promoting Arab culture, showing the diversity of the Arab world, and triggering the interest of the participants.
T: What are the future events scheduled for this year?
D: We intend on continuing the Arabic lessons and perhaps even expanding its scope. Primarily, we want to organize more conferences, invite more people, and open ourselves to more collaborations.
H: For the last part of the year ASO hopes to focus on the Arabic language and the more political aspects of the MENA region. One of our more definitive plans is to invite Feurat Alani, an Iraqi journalist in France, to campus. He has made a documentary on his experience as an immigrant in France and Insha’Allah he will be available to share his thoughts with us soon.
T: Finally, where do you hope the next generation of Majless El Shaab takes ASO?
H: I want next year’s Majless El Shaab to take the ASO to new heights, to strive further, and hopefully, this will become a permanent organization on campus.
D: I believe that with passion anything can be accomplished. As long as the Majless El Shaab next year is working hard, passionate, and know their mission and vision – H: And adhere to them – D: and adhere to them, they will be able to take it to the next level and use the foundation that we have created as a stepping stone to build upon.
T: Wonderful. Thank you for taking time to do this and I’m looking forward to the next big thing the ASO will bring on to our campus!