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.


Traveling the states: Two BYU ‘Sisters’ spread the message of Christ

By Renata Schmidt

Every woman in the congregation is wearing a dress. A 2-year-old runs down the aisle while her ruffled dress is caught in her diaper. An 80-year-old woman moves slowly through the congregation wearing a straight, light-blue dress over black tights.

Sister Danielle Pace and Sister Sophia Madsen are no different. Their mid-calf floral dresses are styled classically with understated wedges. They are approachable. Elegant, but not intimidating. Clean, but not boring. 

Nobody in the congregation sticks out until Sister Pace ducks out during a prayer and guides Jhania Wilchr in. 

Wilchr is wearing a onesie. It looks like a cow suit, but the graying white hood has yellow horns and the costume has no udders. 

Although the church is known for its conservative views, traditional gender roles and limited caffeine intake, members welcome Wilchr’s version of Sunday best.  

“They’re really happy,” Wilchr said, describing her first impression of the Sisters. “I was really nervous.” 

Wilchr met them after filling out a request on the church’s website to meet with missionaries. Her goal is to be baptized. What transpired in the congregation that Sunday is exactly what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints promises.  

Request a visit from missionaries,” the church website says. “We’ll help you know what to expect at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Then we’ll be at the door to greet you and sit with you on Sunday!”

The Sisters

Pace and Madsen are two of the many missionaries the church sends out each year. The church reported it had 53,539 full-time missionaries in 2021. Male missionaries are Elders and female missionaries are Sisters, but their goal is the same: spend up to two years encouraging others to join the church and come closer to Jesus. 

Madsen is from La Grande, Oregon, and is studying to be a speech pathologist at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. She just celebrated her one-year anniversary of mission life.

Her companion, and fellow missionary, Pace, is a 19-year-old student at BYU from Ventura, California. She’s a surfer when she’s not on the opposite coast wearing long dresses and spreading the church’s message.

Their church is distinguished from other Christian denominations by its emphasis on the Book of Mormon, from which its members get their name. However, Pace said they prefer to be called “Latter-day Saints of Jesus Christ.”

“He’s at the center of everything we do,” she said.

 Paintings and printouts of Jesus cover a wall in their two-bedroom apartment. 

The women share a bedroom as it is an expectation for missionaries to always be in each other’s company for safety. This measure is also to ensure proper behavior. If they are meeting with someone of the opposite gender, they need a fourth person present as well.

They even share a SIM card, which they pass between their phones every few days so they can each take point on communicating with prospective members.

The bulk of their day is made up of heading into public spaces and speaking to strangers about the church and Jesus Christ.

The ‘good stuff’

Pace and her previous companion were strolling in a park when they passed a homeless man with an open wound on his arm.

“Oh, that conversation was actually really funny,” Pace said. “We were walking along the Tobacco Trail behinds Sprouts and he said, ‘Oh, y’all are nuns, aren’t you?’”

After explaining that they were missionaries, Pace discovered that the man, Ryan, had been in a severe accident last month and was scheduled for open-heart surgery in a few days.

As they walked with him, they assured him that God knew him and loved him. They told him about the Godhead: the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And then they prayed together.

Madsen and Pace admit that approaching strangers about their faith was strange, at first.

“I like to compare it to Nutella,” Pace said. “I love Nutella. And I could go up to anyone and be like, this is good stuff.” 

“It just kind of dawned on me when I was scared of going up to strangers: this is one of the greatest messages of all time. That Jesus Christ is our Lord, our savior. I’m like, why would I not want to share that?”

While Nutella occupies shelves worldwide, The Church of Latter-day Saints is not universally loved.

The church and its members have been critiqued for their conservative views on controversial topics, like abortion and LGBTQ rights. One of these topics is the traditional gender roles within the church.

According to the church, the priesthood is God’s power and authority, and it can only be held by male members of The Church of Latter-day Saints.

Sisters account for between 20% to 30% of the church’s missionaries, according to BYU. This means that between 10,000 and 16,000 young women spent 2021 promoting a church that does not allow them to become bishops, priests, deacons, or take up any of the roles within the priesthood.

Garth Despain is a member of the church and a spokesperson for the Raleigh, North Carolina mission. The priesthood is less about authority and more a reminder of the need to humble oneself, Despain said.

In his experience, women don’t need the priesthood as much as men. 

“Most women that I know already possess those attributes,” Despain said. “They’re more loving, they’re more nurturing. They don’t need that reminder to act that way, which many men do.”

The restriction does not bother Pace or Madsen, either. They have access to the benefits of the priesthood, like blessings, so they don’t need the positions.

The belief

Pace separates questions within the church into two categories: primary and secondary. There are four primary questions: Is God the heavenly father? Is Jesus Christ the savior of the world? Was Joseph Smith called to be the Prophet? Is the LDS church God’s kingdom on Earth? 

These primary questions are the backbone of the faith and church. Secondary questions involve issues like abortion, the history of the church or the hierarchy within it.

If a person believes the primary questions, the secondary ones become less relevant — Pace and Madsen believe all four statements.

They have received revelations from God which they say have made their testimonies strong.

One of these revelations happened to Madsen when she tried to visit a friend who lived in rural North Carolina. Madsen and her companion drove up a long dirt road, but the light was fading quickly and the house looked empty and unkept. They had barely gotten out of the car before deciding to leave.

“I definitely felt like that was God trying to protect us from something,” Madsen said.

Edited by Brianna Atkinson and Jasmine Baker