None of the three students on Connecticut College’s Arabic Debate Team had ever participated in a formal debate competition before—so they didn’t expect to make it past the preliminary rounds of the second U.S. Universities Arabic Debating Championship.
After all, there were more than 40 teams representing 34 of the most prestigious universities in the U.S. at the QatarDebate event, hosted by the University of Chicago in mid-November. Maged Hassan ’25, Iyad Ait Hou ’22 and Abubakr El Sobky ’23 were proud of how they had performed in the first two days of the tournament, winning three of four preliminary debates. But they were mostly just enjoying the experience of practicing Fusha Arabic and the opportunity to connect with other Arabic-speaking people from across the country.
Then the semifinalist teams—which are automatically qualified to participate in the international championship in Doha, Qatar, in the spring of 2022—were announced as the teams’ school logos appeared on the venue’s big screen: Harvard, Georgetown, Duke and Connecticut College.
“The announcement of our team as one of the semifinalists was definitely surprising yet exciting,” said El Sobky, a self-designed Computational Biology and Bioinformatics major and scholar in Conn’s Holleran Center for Community Action.
Adding to the excitement, in addition to the team awards, the competition awards medals to the top 10 speakers from among the 150 participants, selected based on numerous criteria including language clarity, conciseness of argument and intonation. El Sobky was awarded the eighth-place medal.
Hassan, a first-year student who is hoping to design a major in education administration, put the team together after hearing about the competition from a high school classmate.
“QatarDebate assigns a professional coach for each team to help them prepare for the championship. None of us had debated before, and we did not know a lot about the structure of the competition,” Hassan said. “Our coach, Meriem Talbi, was very supportive during the preparation of the event. We had endless Zoom meetings discussing debating strategies and techniques, practicing mock rounds and analyzing [recordings].”
While the team was surprised to qualify for the finals on their very first try, Hassan admits that Talbi knew the three were strong contenders based on their ability to make strong arguments, present relevant evidence, debate fluently and disqualify opposing arguments.
Hassan, El Sobky and Ait Hou, an Economics and Mathematics double major and scholar in the College’s Toor Cummings Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts, are now working with Talbi to prepare for the international championship.
“The team is continuing our weekly practice meetings with our coach to go through the insights from the event, learn from our mistakes and strengthen our strategies,” Hassan said.
The group will travel to Qatar in March to compete with qualifying teams from universities all over the world.