By Layla Younis

Several weeks ago, Paige DeDecker joined 10 other University of Nebraska-Lincoln students at the Arabic Conversation Tables to watch a documentary about Mandaeism, a minority religion practiced in the Middle East.

DeDecker, who grew up in a small town — Flower Mound, Texas — said she attends the weekly conversation tables to feel more worldly.

Student Paige DeDecker takes notes while watching a documentary about Mandaeism, as part of UNL's Arabic Conversation Tables. / Photo by Layla Younis

Student Paige DeDecker takes notes while watching a documentary about Mandaeism, as part of UNL’s Arabic Conversation Tables. / Photo by Layla Younis

The sophomore, who is studying music and minoring in Arabic, said she was exposed to stereotypes about the Middle East and North Africa while growing up.

“I know some people who make off-color jokes,” she said. “I know people who seeing a hijab makes them uncomfortable. Seeing the other side is interesting.”

The Arabic Conversation Tables is a weekly event hosted by  UNL’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures to dispel stereotypes about the Middle East and North Africa.

Abla Hasan, assistant professor of practice of Arabic language and culture at UNL, and Abdulameer Waly, a graduate student with the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, started the conversation tables in 2013.

The two said they try to schedule a guest speaker at each weekly event. The conversation tables are mostly in English, but the guest speakers are encouraged to use Arabic words, phrases and idioms, Hasan said.

Guest speakers are usually local members of the community who have lived or experienced life in Arabic speaking countries, such as international students or professors who are from the Middle East or North Africa, Hasan said.

“The Arabic Conversation Table is our window to the community,” Hasan said.

Abdulameer Waly, graduate student in the Department of Modern Languages & Literatures, initiates a Q&A session about Mandaeism, a minority religion practiced in the Middle East, with UNL students, as part of the Arabic Conversation Tables. /Photo by Layla Younis

Graduate student Abdulameer Waly leads a question and answer session at a weekly meeting of the Arabic Conversation Tables. /Photo by Layla Younis

Previous guest speakers have included Sara El Alaoui, a doctoral candidate in computer engineering at UNL, who presented on her home country of Morocco; Abdulallah Almisbahi, an international student from Saudi Arabia, who presented on the importance of Islam in Saudi Arabia; and Rajah Alhuni, a family educator at the Community Action Program, who is originally from Libya.

Anna Spethman, a junior global studies major, said coming to the conversation tables has helped her gain a better perspective and debunks a lot of stereotypes.

“Anybody who is remotely interested in the Arabic culture should come in.”

For more information about the conversation tables, check the UNL’s Arabic Studies Program Facebook page.