On Wednesdays at 7:00 p.m. in the Intercultural Center (IC) kitchen, one can take in the aroma of chai steeping and the sonorities of people gathering around and chatting about their weeks, poetry, and films –– all in Urdu. This is Bazm-e-Urdu, the student-run Urdu language table at Swarthmore.
Founded toward the end of the Spring 2023 semester, Yusra Ali ’24 and Aalimah ’25 have worked in conjunction with Professor Hopkins from the religion department to create a space for speakers of Urdu to gather and engage with the language.
Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, and according to a census data conducted in 2019, there are about half a million Urdu speakers in the U.S. Given how the population of the U.S. now exceeds 330 million people, it’s not hard to imagine how it might be difficult to engage with the language outside of one’s home.
In an interview with The Phoenix, Ali and Aalimah described how they envision Bazm-e-Urdu as a place for Urdu speakers to become more comfortable speaking the language, and how they hope to provide the necessary space to do that.
“We want it to be a welcoming and comforting space for Urdu speakers because I think a lot of us on campus feel a disconnect from the language,” Ali said. “At the core of it, we want it to feel like you can come in and no one is going to judge you based on your proficiency level.”
A new member of the language table, Ahmad Fayyaz ’27, explained how Bazm-e-Urdu acts as a fun opportunity for him to speak Urdu with other people.
“There is not a set of things we have to talk about. We just talk about whatever we want to talk about. General stuff –– a fun conversation in Urdu,” Fayyaz said.
The formation of the language table wasn’t without its tribulations, though. As Aalimah explained, the very need for the language table was predicated on the fact that there are so few opportunities for cultural or academic activities on campus surrounding South Asia and South Asian students.
“I think this table was born out of this deep, deep sense of frustration that there’s very little room for South Asia on this campus, that there’s very little representation in terms of curriculum, in terms of faculty,” Aalimah said. “Even in terms of student groups; the South Asian student group on campus is not only heavily underfunded, it is also very restrictive in terms of the things that it does. We barely have any South Asian faculty, and the curriculum is heavily American.”
Ali and Aalimah believe that setting up an Urdu language table is just one of many steps that should be taken to engage more with South Asia on campus. They highlighted how the burden should be held by the institution and not by any individual groups or organizations.
“There are also limitations to what this language table can do,” Aalimah said. “I think it would function a lot better if we had greater institutional support. We have an Islamic Studies program, and we have an Asian Studies program. I’d say it’s about time that we pushed for more engagement with Urdu … I think, if anything, Bazm-e-Urdu was an attempt to initiate that broader conversation.”
The duo highlighted some of their observations regarding the course offerings relating to South Asia and the Asian continent more broadly. They ascertained that most courses pertaining to areas abroad serve the interest of the American state.
“If you were to analyze a Swarthmore course catalog, you’d see courses offered only about regions that are of some interest to the United States politically,” Aalimah observed. “We have a lot in the Middle East because, well, oil and politics. We have a lot in Afghanistan, because –– of course –– we fucked up. And then there’s China because oh my god! That could be an economic challenge for us, and we need to train our people to speak Chinese; there’s a whole thing on business Chinese.”
This context begs several questions for the founders of Bazm-e-Urdu, the most notable of which is how can Swarthmore, an institution that prides itself on diversity and inclusivity, focus on the world through such a narrow lens of its own self interest?
“This calls for a broader conversation on what Swarthmore means by diversity and inclusivity. Are we to be diverse only in the number of students we take from a certain country and virtue signal in their names?” Aalimah asked. “Because those students have room to be here while we have nothing to offer them, or no substantial engagement with where they come from. I think it’s part of that conversation on how our ideas of inclusivity and diversity need to be taken into account when we are designing a curriculum or offering courses or selecting faculty.”
In creating a space for Urdu speakers devoid of the context of American politics, Aalimah questioned the necessity of viewing the world through the myopic perspective of America.
“Swarthmore needs to be a little un-American in its approach to literature and language. There is a world outside of America and American interest. Let’s learn to look at it, let’s widen our horizons.”
In creating Bazm-e-Urdu, Ali and Aalimah hope that it will spark a new wave of South Asian courses and activities at Swarthmore. To better achieve this goal, they were particular about making the Urdu language table a student group and specifically not a club.
“[Bazm-e-Urdu] is supposed to initiate a broader conversation,” Aalimha said. “We’ve stuck, very stubbornly, even if it means not having funding and not having food on the table, to the label of a student group. A student group supported by Asian Studies with the hope that it could develop into something bigger. And the next step would maybe be that they start offering Urdu at Swarthmore.”
Part of the problem, in their view, is that there are not many opportunities for people to become interested in Urdu or other parts of South Asian culture at the college.
“One thing that I can think about is [that Swarthmore doesn’t] have that many Urdu speaking students, so I could see that being an issue for the college, but if you don’t have the language offered in the first place, how do you expect students to develop the interest?” Ali questioned.
Even so, Bazm-e-Urdu doesn’t put up fliers or QR codes to publicize themselves. Ali and Aalimah feel as though they don’t yet have the necessary resources to properly teach non-heritage and non-native speakers of Urdu about the language. If the program were to expand and have a faculty member attached who spoke Urdu, it could reach far more people, they asserted. This is what they hope for the language table going forward. With the backing of faculty members, they want it to flourish and reach people all across Swarthmore.
For now though, the table is a small space for people already with some proximity to the language who want to preserve it, and continue sharing in the community that it provides.
“If there was not a table, I would definitely have started one myself,” said Fayyaz. “[Ali and Aalimah are] doing a great job. [They are] keeping the language alive. It’s awesome.”
Despite its limited scope, Bazm-e-Urdu acts as a harbor for Urdu speakers to engage with their language alongside other Urdu speakers. The whole endeavor is to celebrate Urdu, and as Aalimah noted, the name was chosen for that very reason.
“[Urdu] has heavy influences from Sanskrit, from Persian, from Arabic, from Turkish, and from a lot of other indigenous South Asian languages,” Aalimah explained. “Bazm is a Persian word that means celebration, but because of the way Urdu works, because of how diverse of a language and how expensive Urdu is, some of the words have become incorporated into the language itself. So Bazm-e-Urdu just means a celebration of Urdu.”