Assistant Professor of Arabic Sam England spent part of his childhood in Egypt, but it wasn’t until college that he jumped headfirst into the study of Arabic. He shares the lessons from ancient poetry and prose and why students should take risks when it comes to learning a language.
Field of Study: Arabic Literature and Language
Hometown: Technically, Madison (born here but left only a year afterward). I have two hometowns: Urbana, IL and Ann Arbor, MI.
What inspired you to learn Arabic?
I lived for two years in Egypt when I was little. It was a lot of fun but I didn’t learn any Arabic, and felt a sense of loss when I got older, especially when I was in the middle of my college studies. Luckily, I was at a school that offered Arabic classes of all levels—much as we do here—and I found it the most worthwhile challenge of anything I’d experienced as a student. I went back to Egypt with a sense of purpose the second time around.
What subjects or topics do you most enjoy teaching and why?
I love teaching about the connections between Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and our modern era. The more I research medieval literature and history—and I try to research that as much as I can—the more of that era seems to be at work in the 21st century.
Lyric, too, is thrilling to teach. You say it in the singular and many people think of it as abstract, confusing, maybe boring. You say it in the plural and it’s something we can relate to—who doesn’t listen to music with words? Who’s not tempted to sing once in the while, even if in the shower or under their breath? Those moments are vital. And so is recognizing how lyric poetry has developed to its current form. I know a decent amount about lyric in Arabic as well as in Western European languages, but last year, I was looking for Sub-Saharan poetry to teach. I came upon the Senegalese piece “She Who Destroys her Harp,” in the Wolof language. The imagery is fantastic: destroying one’s own means of making music, either because you can’t stand the idea of celebrating events that way anymore or because you play it so intensely that you ruin it. A lot of musicians we hear and see in videos and on stage now will wreck their instruments or make a show of overloading the sound system until it can’t keep projecting sound. I invite students to consider what they think is going on in that kind of performance. Is it self-aggrandizing, or nihilist, or just a way of saying enough is enough, or trying to wake up the audience from just nodding through the fun part of the performance?
What has been the most exciting moment of your career thus far?
There’s a job in Egyptian cities where all you do is help people park their cars in really tight spots (seems like they’re all tight spots in Egyptian cities). The employees wear brass badges and everything. They have a certain way of guiding you in and out, racing from one side of your car to another to catch your eye and shout out “crank it!” or “back up!” or whatever. Then they sidle up to your window so you can hand them a little cash.
So one day, this classic star of Egyptian movies and TV was visiting Middlebury College, where I was working on my Arabic in their intensive summer program. He came and spoke with the students, slaying the audience by quoting an Arabic version of Hamlet at length, and when we broke for lunch I saw him getting into the minivan driven by the school’s director, also Egyptian. I realized I’d only have one chance in my life to ever do this, so I leapt out to the curb and started doing what those parking guys do. Then I stood a little too close to Nour el-Sherif’s window, saluting him and smiling painfully wide, in the way that people do when they’re waiting for a tip. He and the director just laughed at me. But, as they pulled out, Nour el-Sherif gave me a thumbs-up as they left. I’m sure it didn’t mean that much to him but I was flying high for weeks after. He died last year—I remember him fondly and still enjoy watching his old shows.
Tell us a bit about your current research.
Last year I finished my book manuscript, on contests among authors (and, sometimes, their patrons or the characters in the literature itself) in medieval Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Spain, and Italy. I’m hoping it’ll come out in 2017, titled Medieval Empires and the Culture of Competition: Literary Duels at Islamic and Christian Courts. Obviously, if it does, everyone reading this owes it to me to buy at least one copy. I also recently finished an article on al-Andalus (sometimes called Muslim Spain) and the performance of short improvised poems there.
These days I’m reading a good deal of material from Egypt during the latter Crusades, which was also when the Mongols had taken over Iraq and many people fled to countries throughout the Mediterranean. I’m finishing an essay on their nostalgic refugee literature, planned for an edited volume coming out next year. This fall I want to start writing about al-Qadisiya, a settlement in the Arabian Peninsula that was the site of a major battle between Arabs and Persians at the very beginning of Islam. Al-Qadisiya continues to be a topic of conversation, in literature, music, theatre, and film. I guess that brings me right back to what I had to say about teaching—it’s a medieval-modern connection that I think we have to inspect more closely to understand contemporary culture, politics, Islamic history, etc.
What’s the most-thumbed book on your shelf?
The Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic (edited and published by neighbors of mine, the Cowan family). Of the more fun-type books, probably Bayn al-Qasrayn by Naguib Mahfouz, translated as Palace Walk. I learn a little more about the Arabic language and Egyptian culture every time I read it.
What advice would you give to students who are interested in studying Africa?
Especially here at UW, Africa matters in what we do—and that goes for everyone on this campus, not just African Studies folks. The relationship between the continent and this school is one of the great distinctions that we claim as an intellectual community. I’d encourage students to resist the pressure to become an expert right away, and spend at least a year or two taking classes that they didn’t foresee taking when entering college. A good teacher, and a good relationship between teacher and student, is more important than the subject matter. That’s why some of my department’s introductory classes are also some of the most dynamic—it’s there that students recognize the wealth to be gained from the general topic of Africa, and they start to recognize themselves as researchers.
I want to say, “Go to Africa!” And that’s a great experience, but going to our office hours is in many respects more important.
What can we learn from Arabic poetry and prose?
To be humble as students, teachers, writers, and speakers. It’s a huge field, the language has longevity and a continuum of development that we don’t find in just about any widely studied European language, and I think very few people inside and outside academia are aware of that.
With that being said, probably the most important advice I got from a colleague about learning and teaching Arabic is that we non-native speakers have just as much claim to it as anyone. It’s not, and shouldn’t be, an exclusive club for people who grew up using it. That’s true of any language but, unfortunately, some Arabic teachers still try to establish a hierarchy of who is and isn’t licensed to fully live in Arabic. I appreciate when my students take risks with it, set aside their nervousness that they might make a mistake, and I encourage my colleagues to do the same.
Profile produced by Kyra Fox.
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