Ella Topolnicki

Arabic Language and Cultures

Why did you study Arabic Language and Literature?

In high school I wrote my modern history major work on the American invasion of Iraq. When I was choosing my subjects for university I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I decided I really wanted to pursue that issue. In a way I sort of just fell into this area, but I am very glad I did!

Why are you passionate about this topic area?

So much of what people hear about the Middle East, its peoples and its religions, is negative. It’s always framed in terms of war and conflict. In fact, my own interest started from that angle. I’m still passionate about Iraq, but I’ve also been able to learn about 1950’s Egyptian film comedies, and LGBTQI activists in Lebanon, and traditional dance forms in Algeria. These are the things that people never get to hear about the Middle East.

What internships or placement programs have you participated in?

I haven’t participated in any internships, but last year I travelled to Qatar with four other students from USYD on a scholarship for an intensive three week language program. It was such a valuable experience. The language tuition was excellent and speaking to the other University of Qatar students (who were from all over the world) was absolutely fascinating.

What did you enjoy most about this major – could be something you have learnt or experienced?

Aside from all the incredible things I’ve learnt, honestly, I think the thing I enjoy the most is just engaging with friends, family and even strangers (I’ve literally had conversations with strangers on the street) about the Middle East. There is so much misunderstanding (and often fear) out there that it can be really valuable to just sit down with people and chat about the things I know about the region.

Who inspires you?

The scholar Edward Said, author of the seminal text Orientalism. I think his book should be required reading for everyone in the media who speaks about the Middle East! Also the Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi and the Egyptian author Leila Ahmed, who writes about Islamic feminism.

What are you doing now and what is next for you?

I am currently doing my Honours year jointly between the Department of Arabic Language and Cultures and the American Studies Department. I am looking at how the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 exacerbated and institutionalised sectarianism in the country. Next year, I’d like to pursue my study of the region through a PhD.

What advice would you give someone considering the major?

Don’t be intimidated by the language component (I certainly was)! Arabic can be challenging but learning the script and learning to write from right to left really comes quicker than you’d expect. The more I learn the more I appreciate how rich and beautiful the Arabic language is. It’s also one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, so it’s very useful.

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