Undergraduate Study in MESAAS

The undergraduate program in Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies offers students the opportunity to study in depth the cultures, ideas, histories, and politics of several overlapping world regions. The program emphasizes the close reading of intellectual traditions, creative movements, and political debates, drawing on a wide variety of historical and contemporary sources in literature, religion, political thought, the visual and performing arts, and new media. Courses also examine the historical and cultural contexts in which these traditions and debates have been produced.

The department has recently expanded to include African languages and cultures, alongside the Middle East and South Asia. The MESAAS profile enables students to combine the study of Africa with courses on South Asia or the Middle East in a unique manner.

Major and Concentration

Majoring in the Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies means developing two closely related skills. The first is linguistic expertise. A minimum of two years of course work in one language is required, and further work (including intensive summer language study) is greatly encouraged, with the aim of learning how to study a cultural field through its own texts. MESAAS offers courses in Arabic and several other Middle Eastern languages, in Hindi/Urdu and a number of other South Asian languages, and in at least three African languages, including Swahili, Pulaar and Wolof.

The second skill is learning how to think and write about complex cultural formations, drawing on a variety of methods and disciplinary approaches. The approaches vary according to the faculty members' expertise, incorporating methods from various fields in the humanities and social sciences, including literary criticism, cultural studies, intellectual history, political theory, film studies, and other fields.

Majors and concentrators begin their work with an introductory course that emphasizes a particular area (the Middle East, South Asia, or Africa). They then take AHUM V3399 Asian humanities or AFCV C1020, African civilizations. These are both small-group seminar courses in which they explore some of the classic texts of the region. Five additional courses are chosen in consultation with the Director of Undergraduate Studies. These may include six points of course work from other departments, subject to the approval of the Director of Undergraduate Studies. Although students typically choose a particular focus (for example, Arab political thought, Urdu literature, Armenian history, Iranian cinema, or contemporary West Africa), students are encouraged to gain exposure to the fullest range of topics and approaches offered by the faculty of the department.

With this background, students are ready to take, preferably in their senior year, MDES W3000 Theories and Culture: Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. This examination of various critical approaches to the study of language, culture, and politics enables students to reflect on their own work from a number of different perspectives. Students may also wish to write a thesis. While not required for graduation, the thesis enables a student to be considered for departmental honors.

Language Courses, Placement, and Requirements

Enrollment in language courses is in some cases determined by placement examinations.

For more information, see Languages and if necessary consult the Coordinator for the language, listed on that page. Language courses must be taken for a letter grade. Pass/D/Fail or Registration credit (R) is not permitted.


Newly declared majors and concentrators should consult the director of undergraduate studies in order to plan a program of study. The goal is to strike a balance between courses that will help a student achieve depth in a particular area/discipline and those that foster a wider perspective. Although students are encouraged to approach faculty in the department based on their specific interests, the director of undergraduate studies functions as an ad hoc adviser for all entering students, addressing issues of course requirements, credit and approval for courses in other departments or other schools, study abroad, and, eventually, honors requirements (including the senior thesis). For more information on advising, see Frequently Asked Questions. Please do not hesitate to contact the director of undergraduate studies by e-mail or in person during office hours. For an overview of requirements for major/concentrator pathways for your studies, please see this worksheet. Please bring it with you when meeting the DUS for advising purposes.

Honors Program/Senior Thesis

Students may wish to write a thesis. While not required for graduation, the thesis enables a student to be considered for departmental honors. It is advisable to begin planning for your thesis during your junior year. Interested students should attend the relevant information sessions and identify a potential faculty adviser.

All students who wish to write a thesis must enroll in MDES W3960 Honors thesis seminar, a full year course consisting of a 1-point segment in the Fall semester and a 3-point segment in the Spring semester. Students work closely with their peers in a supportive environment to produce a substantial piece of research (in the range of 40 pages). The primary intellectual guidance is provided by the faculty adviser, whereas the director of undergraduate studies and the honors seminar teaching assistant oversee the general development of the project. Every year in April, MESAAS hosts a senior colloquium in which students present their research. For more information on the honors program, see Frequently Asked Questions on the department's website.

For additional guidelines, see Departmental Honors as outlined in the Academic Honors, Prizes, and Fellowships section of the Columbia College Bulletin.

The 2013 Undergraduate Honors Theses

Philip Balboni
Domesticating the religious: Secularism, gender and the family in the turkish penal code

Hélène Barthélemy
Discursive manipulations, material consequences: creating the muslim exception in the us legal and carceral system

Tyler Benedict
Avadh punch, political cartoons and print culture in colonial North India

Katie Bentivoglio
Article Two of the egyptian constitution: transformations of the shari’a in contemporary egypt

Sameea Butt
State Consciousness and Subject Creation in Pakistani Education

Jazmin Graves
Translation and transculturation in the production and transmission of the awadhi sufi romances

Leah Greenstein
“A Boor Does Not Fear Sin:” Joseph Hayyim and the Women of Qanun Al-Nisa

Damian Harris-Hernandez
Prowling the Avenues of Contested Imaginings: Detective Fiction in the Late Ottoman Empire and Early Turkish Republic

Alia Massoud
The politics of archaeology and of national self-identification: the unraveling of an alternative Jewish identity

Lewis West
Killable Subjects: The Ahmadi and the Pakistani State