The Newsletter 91 Spring 2022

Middle Eastern Studies at Tallinn University

Helen Geršman

Our B.A. programme in Middle Eastern Studies is grounded in two earlier disciplines: (1) Turkish studies, the beginning of which dates back to 1994 in Estonia; and (2) traditional Arabic studies, which was founded in Tallinn University by the renowned Semitist and dialectologist Dr. Otto Jastrow in 2007.

The students' compulsory language is Arabic, while Turkish is optional. At the moment, the university is planning to further expand the programme and enrich its offerings by developing a dedicated M.A. programme in Middle Eastern Studies. Although we do not yet offer an M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies, we enjoy the luxury of four students at the doctoral level.

Middle Eastern Studies relies on the dedicated work of three enthusiastic lecturers, whose primary research language is Arabic. The programme draws strength from the diversity and richness of the research topics in which the three of them are engaged. The pool of subjects that are traditionally part of a Middle Eastern Studies programme – such as the history of the Middle East, its culture, and its religions – is covered by junior lecturer Üllar Peterson. With his knowledge of both Arabic and Persian, Peterson’s research mainly concentrates on a critical study of the available collection of texts on Syrian Alawites and related topics, namely the varieties of Islam and the intricate history of the Islamic world.

The two main umbrella topics that bring together the research of the lecturers and the current pool of doctoral students are the study of Arabic or Persian orations and their consistent rhetorical analysis. This research direction is inspired by the PhD topic of our Lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies, Dr. Helen Geršman – that is, the rhetoric of Usāma ibn Lādin's speeches. Although Dr. Geršman started her career as a Turkologist, she chose to move forward in the field of Arabic rhetoric, motivated by the possibility of building a programme in Arabic Studies at Tallinn University together with Dr. Otto Jastrow. It is well-known that parallelism is a pervasive rhetorical feature of the tradition of the Arabic oration. Dr. Geršman has been studying specific orations carrying out a systematic rhetorical analysis of their composition. This is an innovative approach that employs a hermeneutic methodology of textual analysis mutuated from Biblical studies, which is founded on parallelisms and concentric construction. This methodological approach has inspired Helen Geršman not only to analyse the traditionalists' orations, but to also go further back in time, to the roots of the genre of the Arabic oration, and to apply the same analysis to pre-Islamic prose literature as well. The fascinating poetics which arises from the clear concentric formula of Arabic prose texts motivated our teacher of Arabic, Alice Volkonski, whose secondary research language is Hebrew, to compare the language features of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and Old Testament Wisdom literature, basing her study also partly on a rhetorical analysis of the same type. Our doctoral students' research includes rhetorical and content analysis of either Arabic or Persian orations.

Apart from maintaining our unique Middle Eastern Studies programme in Estonia, we also consider it one of our primary responsibilities to reach out to the Estonian public. We do so by making available both academic and more popular translations of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literature, where literature here is meant in the widest sense possible. We regularly contribute to the special translation series Bibliotheca Asiatica of Tallinn University Press. Also, Helen Geršman and Üllar Peterson are the cofounders of the “Islam in Context” Series at Tartu University Press.


Helen Geršman, Tallinn University, Estonia,