Story by H. Roger Segelken, Cornell Chronicle
When Arabic-speaking students in Cornell’s Language House began planning last fall, the proposed trip seemed timely: Visit the Republic of Tunisia to study outcomes of the 2011 Arab Spring revolution during spring break 2015.
The functioning Tunisian democracy – after the overthrow of an autocratic leader – was worth scholarly examination, the undergraduates reasoned. Language House administrators agreed, allocating partial funding for seven students to travel and conduct research in the language they were striving to learn.
The students looked forward with eager anticipation. Parents were relieved their children’s’ spring break destination was a peaceful nation in north Africa – and not some raucous south Florida beach. Ten days before the trip was to begin, terrorist gunmen attacked the Bardo National Museum in the capital city, Tunis, taking tourists as hostages and killing 21 people.
“A couple hours after the attack my mom seemed okay with me still going,” recalls Nicole Bakhoum ’15, a biology major in the College of Arts and Sciences. “She said, ‘Check with the State Department and Cornell Risk Management.’ But the next day when [the Tunisian government] found out the attacks were linked to ISIS, that’s when my parents’ opinion changed. They said, ‘We very much prefer you don’t go, but ultimately it’s up to you.’”
Alternate arrangements were made. Language House students could visit Germany and talk to Arabic-speaking immigrants there. Ultimately, two students took that route.
Not so Bakhoum and two housemates – Arwah Yaqub ’16, a junior majoring in Near Eastern studies, and Varqa Kalantar ‘17, an engineering physics major – who embarked for Tunisia with Language House fellow Munther Younes and Astrid Jirka, director of Language House.
“We were not deterred at all by the attack, especially getting there and seeing the reaction of the natives,” said Kalantar. The Tunisian people, he said, “are kind of continuing their lives (after the museum attack) in a regular fashion. So we did the same, and continued on as planned.”
Yaqub said she was expecting gun-toting police everywhere: “Most of the police we saw were simply directing traffic. There was still heightened security in some areas we visited. However it wasn’t extremely conspicuous or intimidating. … People were freely walking along the street.”
Language House students interviewed people in the street in their well-practiced Arabic and had some surprises, Kalantar reported: “A lot of people we talked to are kind of unsure whether the changes in Tunisia are good or bad,” he said.
Adds Bakhoum, “Some people said conditions were worse after the revolution, in terms of economic disparity, but even then they do not regret what happened. They said they are willing to sacrifice better economic conditions for the sake of freedom and democracy.”
What are the students’ concerned parents thinking now? “As soon as I returned to Ithaca I Skyped my parents and told them about the conversations with (Tunisian) academics and students my age (who were) pursuing an education in architecture or business,” Yaqub said.
“My parents feel extremely grateful, as do I, for this opportunity.” Bakhoum thinks her parents are “somewhat happy,” explaining: “They thought the research question was very important and they are happy I was able to explore my interest in the Arab Spring and the Arab world.”
Meanwhile back in Language House (where other spoken languages include French, German, Japanese, Spanish and Mandarin) everyone is happy the traveling residents returned safely – and are looking ahead to spring break 2016.