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Emily Koppelman
College of Arts and Sciences

Class of 2013

Whenever Emily Koppelman ’13 travels in the Middle East people want to talk to her. And she wants the whole world to know what they say.

“It’s really difficult; it weighs on you a lot to hear these heart-wrenching stories of injustice and oppression—even the inspiring ones,” Koppelman says of the conversations she’s had on the streets, in homes, restaurants, and refugee encampments in Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Palestine. That burden is the very reason she wants to be a voice for people who seem faintly heard in the West.

Learning to listen—and speak

To speak for them, Koppelman first had to learn to listen—in Arabic. It’s the toughest thing she’s ever done.

While she came to Cornell to throw shot put and discus for the women’s track and field team, Koppelman had no idea what she wanted to study. Then, as she scrolled through the online course catalog, Arabic caught her eye. She decided to take it, thinking nothing more, she says, than that knowing Arabic “might come in handy someday.”

Learning Arabic set her on the path of championing social justice when her advisor made a simple suggestion. The suggestion went like this: If you’re studying Arabic, why not take another related course, say history of the modern Middle East?

“I always had a knack for languages, and I think more like a historian than a social scientist,” explains Koppelman.

She loved—and excelled in—both courses.

“By April I declared a major in Near Eastern Studies and never looked back.”

Koppelman devoted her second year to the Intensive Arabic Program (IAP), which emphasizes the ability to understand and communicate ideas in the dialect speakers use, along with facility in Modern Standard Arabic, the form of the language used throughout the Arab world for reading, writing, and formal speech.

“For four months I stared at Arabic all day every day: four hours of class, five hours of homework,” Koppelman recalls. “It was so mentally exhausting I’d get a study room in Uris and fall asleep on the floor in the middle of the day.”

In the spring she participated in the second semester of IAP at Philadelphia University in Amman, Jordan and focused on Arabic media. Koppelman couldn’t have arrived at a more historic moment. Popular uprisings had just begun that would shortly topple Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Coverage of the rapidly changing situation was non-stop on Al Jazeera and BBC Arabic. She followed the unfolding story from the point of view of the average Arab, analyzing news articles as her final project.

Finding her voice

By the time she’d finished the year, Koppelman spoke Arabic so well that she could be understood all across the Middle East. As a model of IAP’s success, Munther Younes, senior Arabic lecturer in Near Eastern Studies at Cornell, invited her back to Amman the following summer as the lead actor in filming the DVD companion to his new textbook. Meanwhile, out on the street, people couldn’t figure out where she was from, but they knew she hailed from a location nearby.

“Jordanians would look at me and say, “Your dialect is Jordanian, but you can’t be from here because you don’t look Jordanian. You must be Syrian or Lebanese, just lighter skinned than us, but of course you have to be an Arab,” Koppelman recalls.

Not only does she speak Arabic, but her ease with the dialect also draws people to her. They know, she says, how difficult the language is to learn and accord “a certain measure of respectful trust in you.” Her natural friendliness and the locations she frequents have something to do with their ease, too.

Last January, while on a visit to Jerusalem, she hiked 10 kilometers to visit a Palestinian tent village erected to protest the Israeli settlement project. Koppelman only stayed seven hours, but she ended up on Palestinian national television. “It’s very rare,” she says, “to have a Westerner who is fluent in the dialect and has an affinity with the Palestinian cause.”

While still learning and open to arguments on all sides of the conflicts in the Middle East, Koppelman has come to believe that as an American she can best support Palestinians by telling their stories here at home. Hence, to stand out, she often wears the keffiyeh, the scarf traditionally worn by Palestinian men and women as a symbol of their national identity. “If the scarf is a conversation starter,” she says, “all the better.”

Still, Koppelman allows that she still has much to learn. She is open to all arguments and undecided about many things. “What I do know is this,” she says. “I stand in solidarity with anyone who is oppressed by systems of injustice. While their struggle may not be my own, I feel compelled to do everything in my power to aid them in their endeavors.”

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