Arguments in Arabic: Duke debate team wins national championship

By Renata Schmidt

A coin spins in the air, casting a small shadow against the projected blues and reds behind it. Majed Al Munefi stands still and follows the coin with his eyes, but there is a confidence revealed in his smirk. The judge turns to Majed for a decision: does the team wish to argue pro or con?

Majed and his teammates Danah Younis, Saad Lahrichi and Zeinab Mukhtar are representing Duke University at the U.S. Arabic debating championship at Stanford University. By the coin flip, the team has competed in five rounds — each win pushing them closer to a spot in the international competition for the second time.

QatarDebate Center runs these debates. The organization was created in 2008 and sponsored by the former first lady of Qatar at the time — Sheikha Moza bint Nasser — according to the organization’s website.

The organization hosts events across the globe from Doha, Qatar to Davos, Switzerland. Last year, the Duke team placed eighth in the international championships held in Istanbul, Turkey.

An experienced leader

A large part of the team’s win was due to Majed’s training. The team captain has been debating in Arabic since eighth grade and was captain of Kuwait’s national debate team in 2021. 

Danah recalls her initial reaction to Majed’s dedication to the team, even before they made it to the international event.

“This kid is so intense,” she said. “I don’t know if he knows who he’s working with. I was like, I feel so bad, like I’m going to disappoint him.”

On the contrary, Majed’s no-nonsense approach to feedback — on top of the confidence he has in his teammates — has created team chemistry that is a mix of late-night talk show repartee and academic rigor.

“When I say something and don’t get to finish it, I know for a fact that Majed is gonna come up and finish what I said,” Danah attested. “And when Majed doesn’t get to something. I know that Saad is gonna come up and say what he didn’t finish.”

Familiar faces

The team’s first debate was scheduled for Saturday morning Oct. 15 against the Islamic University of Minnesota, and the four Duke teammates arrived at the Citrine Hotel at various points Friday night, with Danah being the last to arrive at 2 a.m. Despite the little sleep and the looming competition, she said there is a feeling of camaraderie amongst the participating teams.

“It’s not that I was scared that they would beat us. It’s that you know these people really well, and you don’t necessarily want to go against them and lose against them, or have them lose against you.”

Danah and her teammates have competed enough to recognize faces at competitions like these. She said the teams take over the hotel. 

Maha Houssami, an Arabic professor at Duke and the team’s coach, said the lobby was a place for coaches and judges to debrief.

‘A language that is alive’

The competition is a mix of university students, many of who are Arabs. Some of these competitors are native Arabic speakers — but not all, by any count.

Debaters need to have an intermediate command of Arabic, Danah explained, but your grammar and pronunciation don’t need to be perfect. It’s a speaker’s argument and logic that the judges grade.

“Arabic is a language that is alive,” Houssami said.

Arabic dialects range from regional, such as the Egyptian or Levantine dialect, to classical Arabic, which is used in the Quran. Modern Standard Arabic, also called Fusha, is a dialect somewhere in the middle of the register spectrum. It is used by news broadcasters, politicians, and student debaters.

The rounds are structured so each of the three debaters has seven minutes to speak, and can be interrupted by questions from the other team. After both teams have spoken, each team gets three uninterrupted minutes to make their final points.

Support from the sidelines

Duke alumni from the area came to watch the debate — a show of support unique to Duke despite being on the opposite coast, according to Houssami.

 Houssami said the alums grabbed the team coffee and Advil during their breaks. One alum, a friend of Danah, doesn’t speak Arabic so he couldn’t understand what was happening during the 45-minute rounds.

 She said, “He was just going off the vibes the whole time.” And the vibes were high as Duke beat Yale, securing their spot in the final round.

‘And in first place…’

 Once again, a coin spins in the air, casting a small shadow against the projected blues and reds behind it. Duke wins the toss.

 A few minutes later Majed huddles with his three other teammates backstage in Stanford University’s Dinkelspiel Auditorium. The wood planks and switchboards scattered backstage remind Danah of her middle school theater days, but instead of lines, she reads the motion to start the debate.

Danah isn’t confident in her pronunciation, so the team’s alternate, Zeinab, grabs the paper and begins underlining words in different colors under the dim lights.

On the other side of the curtain, the audience is filling up. Seven judges sit in front, some of their knees brushing the underside of the small wooden desks attached to the chairs, no larger than a dinner plate. The carpeted auditorium may have once been as cardinal red as the school that owns it, but now is a muddy burgundy. As the students file onto the stage, the light on them casts a deep shadow on their audience.

Since Duke won the coin flip, Danah takes to the podium first to read the motion. Above her in clear script is “جامعة ديوك” and “جامعة هرفارد”:

Duke University and Harvard University.

The topic for the final round is climate change, and Duke is arguing that countries should take action against countries that allow environmental abuses. 

An hour or so later, the four students are seated in the front row of the auditorium with the Harvard students directly behind them. The announcer says the vote was not unanimous, leaving Danah to wonder what that could mean for her team.

“And in first place…” the announcer says in Arabic as the audience begins drumming their hands on the rickety desks.

 “Of the U.S. Universities Arabic Debate championships…” he laughs, drawing out the suspense.

 “Duke University!”

 Danah turns to hug Zeinab before the rest of the team collides in a group hug. The Harvard students are on their feet as well.

 “I remember waiting and knowing that we won, but I don’t remember the buildup or him announcing it,” Danah said. “It’s a blur.”

 Edited by Jasmine Baker and Hannah Collett.