DKU senior stars in Duke Arabic Debate Team’s national triumph

A Duke Kunshan University student marked his first competitive debating experience by winning a national championship as part of the Duke Arabic Debate Team.

Saad Lahrichi and his Duke University teammates defeated the likes of Harvard and Yale on their way to victory in the third U.S. Universities Arabic Debating Championship (USADC), which was held on Oct. 14-16 at Stanford University.

The team also comprised Danah Younis, Zeinab Mukhtar and team captain Majed Al Munefi and was coached by Maha Houssami, lecturer of Arabic language in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Duke.

Lahrichi (pictured second from left) with the Duke Arabic Debate Team

During the Arabic-language contest involving 38 universities and 250 debaters, Lahrichi not only helped the recently formed team to national glory but came sixth in the individual contest.

“I feel extremely proud of our team,” said Lahrichi, who is from Morocco and a member of the Class of 2023.

“Throughout the championship, I grew close to my teammates and we made wonderful memories I will always cherish.”

Remarkably, Lahrichi had never previously taken part in a formal debate. He only joined the team a month prior to the championship following the departure of a teammate due to unforeseen circumstances and had time to squeeze in just one practice match over Zoom beforehand.

Lahrichi takes to the podium

On top of that, while competing he was having to adapt his Moroccan dialect to standard Arabic, which he has barely spoken since high school.

“Coming from nowhere with no experience of debating to national champion was absolutely crazy,” said Lahrichi.

The data science major, who is interested in machine learning and its applications to climate change, fintech and global health, said he used to be scared of public speaking and found preparations on the day of competition “very stressful”.

“I do my first round and I have no idea how I did,” Lahrichi said, reflecting on the first time he took to the floor.

“I go back to my teammates and their jaws are dropping to the ground saying ‘Wow, where did this come from? Where did all the nervousness go?’”

“I think right after that performance — of course there were still lots of things to improve — we started to feel confident.”

Saad El Hadi, who teaches Arabic at Duke, and Lahrichi appeared live on Al Jazeera to discuss the win

Duke beat Harvard in the final after defeating Yale in the semis and Islamic University of Minnesota, Texas Tech and Stanford in earlier rounds.

Team captain Al Munefi won the best speaker award to complete Duke’s clean sweep.

The topics of debate included China, climate change and the news media.

Coach Houssami said the “positive synergy” within the team was “key to their success”.

“Having taught two of the team members and coached the other two, I thought I knew them well but was happily surprised to discover their stage personae,” Houssami said.

“The team’s stellar performance in the USADC benefited from its experience in the International Universities Debating Championship back in June when the team placed eighth worldwide.”

The team and Coach Houssami (third from right) receive their prize

She said Lahrichi embraced the challenge as a novice, adding she was “particularly impressed with how he used constructive criticism to hone in on his skills”.

Lahrichi, who hopes to help defend the title next year, also attributes at least part of his success to listening to feedback from judges and others.

“Personally, I really like getting constructive criticism because I know this is something I can improve on next time,” said Lahrichi, who wants to pursue a Ph.D. in machine learning and climate science.

“There is always room for improvement.”

Read more about the Duke team here.

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