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Fulbright Scholar in Residence Lends Insight into Arab Culture

Magda Mahalawy, Fulbright Grand Recipient.Fulbright Scholar in Residence Lends Insight to Arab Culture
By Jodi Fuson

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Cultural connections with the Arab world. That's what Magda El Mahalawy hopes to help Doane College students

make this year during her Fulbright Scholar-In-Residence stint on the Crete campus.

El Mahalawy's husband, Mohamed El Ghannam, sparked Doane's interest during his three-week visit to campus in the fall of 2007 through the Fulbright Visiting Specialists Program called "Direct Access to the Muslim World."

After his visit, Jan Willems, Director of International Programs at Doane, travelled to Egypt twice to visit and applied to have Magda El Mahalawy come to the United States. "It's a huge opportunity for Doane and Crete," Willems said. "It's difficult to find someone qualified to teach, who also wants to teach in small-town Nebraska."

Back in Cairo, El Mahalawy is a lecturer at the American University, where she has taught Arabic to undergraduate and graduate students, general managers of multinational organizations and diplomats from around the world for the last 10 years. She has a master's in teaching Arabic in a foreign language and a bachelor of arts in journalism and public relations.

Thinking about bringing all three of her children -- ninth-grader Abdel Rahman, sixth-grader Youssef and three-year-old Ashraqat -- was a bit of a concern. "After my husband coming here and experiencing the family-oriented people, I felt more comfortable," El Mahalawy said. "I have been to Washington, D.C., New York and Orlando a few years ago, and I couldn't imagine me living with the three kids there on our own," she said.

While at Doane, El Mahalawy is sharing her expertise in Islamic Studies and Arabic courses.  This semester, she is teaching Introduction to Spoken Arabic Part 1, Introduction to Written Arabic Part 2 and Introduction to Middle Eastern Studies (focusing on Arab countries in the Middle East). Her written Arabic classes focus on Modern Standard Arabic, the universal form of the written language.

El Mahalawy looked forward to teaching on American soil. "It was interesting for me to go through the experience of being where the student came from," she said.

El Mahalawy, a moderate Muslim who does not wear a veil, is enjoying giving her students an introduction to the Middle East and Islamic countries.

"It's different because these students are not that exposed to the outside world," she said. She highly encourages students to take advantage of the international studies programs, such as the interterm trip to Egypt that Willems led in January.

"She's very giving of her perspective and willing to answer questions students have," said Kim Jarvis, associate professor of history at Doane. Jarvis is one of two faculty sitting in on El Mahalawy's written Arabic class. "It really is a way to get a culture in a more personal way," Jarvis said.

El Mahalawy finds it interesting that some students believe Muslims don't recognize other religions. She said she appreciates Judaism and Christianity and believes that the three religions lay out the same rules from God but are of different eras.

The intermixing of cultures has been a learning experience for both Doane students and El Mahalawy's children. Her three-year-old tried speaking Arabic at Blue River pre-school. She soon found she had to speak English. All three children were well introduced to the English language prior to coming to the U.S., but El Mahalawy believes living here is the best way for them to practice it.

Differences in etiquette have caused her some minor irritation; however, she manages well with it as she has been interacting with Americans and Europeans for the last 24 years.

"Etiquette is very, very important for people in the Middle East," she said. For example, showing the bottom of your shoe and spitting are insults.

Life in Crete has meant a change in weather and the normal routine for the whole family. The kids were looking forward to snow and making snowmen and snowballs, El Mahalawy said. She prefers to appreciate the beauty of snow from behind glass.

Daily chores such as washing the dishes are now part of the routine in their three-bedroom apartment on campus. In Cairo the family is used to having a nanny and a house cleaner.  "I'm happy they're getting more independent," El Mahalawy said.

Additional benefits of coming to Crete include the air quality and natural aesthetics, El Mahalawy said.

"To come here to all of this greenery and fresh air is an asset, she said. "It makes you more relaxed."