April 11, 2019

Debate in Doha: UCalgary team takes silver in Arabic-language competition

Sole Canadian team shows off critical thinking skills at International Universities Debating Championship in Qatar

A team from the University of Calgary has won silver debating in Classical Arabic at an international competition in Qatar. The team was the only Canadian entry and one of only two all-female squads among the 106 teams from 53 countries competing at the International Universities Debating Championship in Doha last month. 

“It was amazing,” says Mais Abu Saleh, a fourth-year student in the Faculty of Kinesiology who wants to be a certified exercise physiologist. “It was a great experience. They were so hospitable and we felt very welcome.”

She signed up for the team last fall to brush up on her Classical Arabic, a different dialect from the more commonly spoken Modern Standard Arabic. Tackling topics from health to democracy honed her critical thinking skills, too. “In kines we have a huge focus on exercise and health,” she says. “Debate has taught me to see a different viewpoint and look for different perspectives. Some people lack income or the knowledge or opportunity for wellness.”

The team — Abu Saleh, Hager Ben Mansour of the Faculty of Science, and Heyam Abdulrahman and Rineem Saleh  from the Faculty of Arts — took a little good-natured trash talk from other teams about being an all-female crew. “That was a really interesting experience," says Saleh, who is in her fourth year studying political science, international relations and Russian. “Most of the people really underestimated us: ‘Oh you’re all girls and you still want to talk about sports?’ ”

Pictured above, from left are Hager Ben Mansour, Faculty of Science; Mais Abu Saleh, Faculty of Kinesiology; Rineem Saleh and Heyam Abdulrahman, Faculty of Arts; Machaille Al-Naimi, of the Qatar Foundation; Ziad Abusara, team coach from the Faculty of Kinesiology; and Hayat Abdullah Marafi, the executive director of QatarDebate.

Canadian team member Heyam Abdulrahman celebrates the win, while teammate Rineem Saleh applauds.

Canadian team member Heyam Abdulrahman celebrates the win, while teammate Rineem Saleh applauds.

Ziad Abusara

Not only did the women want to talk about sports, they “crushed it” says their coach Dr. Ziad Abusara, PhD, a researcher in the Faculty of Kinesiology. “We picked the right team and we had the right training.”

A couple of Abusara’s former debaters, Amjad Al Absi and Taher Youssouf helped the women prepare. “We were a very strong team.”  

This is Abusara’s first win. He has taken three teams to the Qatar competition over the last six years to to encourage students to have more open discussions. “I like to train them to put themselves in the shoes of the other person. Many people have only their opinion and their opinion only,” says the Palestinian-born researcher. “I have had lots of discussions in my life and I found that it is really interesting to put yourself in the shoes of the other person.”

The debate, which is funded by the state of Qatar, has two categories: native and non-native Arabic speaking teams. UCalgary was among the 43 non-native speaking teams. Saleh, who started learning Arabic in university, says her newfound proficiency will help when she moves to Jordan to work with an NGO after graduation. Abu Saleh will use her improved Arabic to converse with family and pave the way for opportunities to work in other countries.

The team accepted their silver medals on stage with a big Canadian flag borrowed just hours before from the Canadian Embassy in Doha. After discovering they had misplaced the maple leaf they brought from home, coach Abusara dashed to the embassy where officials happily lent him one of the Canadian flags hanging in the foyer.