Literary scholars have all heard of the novel, Midnight’s Children, by Salmon Rushdie, even if they haven’t tried, or succeeded in reading it. This is one of the texts Comparative Literature Professor Noha Radwan taught in her Fall 2013 Post-Colonial Literature class, COM 151. At 537 pages, written in a modernist style that can be very confusing, and depicting religious and historical events in South Asia that young adults in America may not be familiar with, Rushdie’s novel is not an easy project.
Professor Radwan got right to work filling in the blanks by lecturing on South Asian history and then screening a BBC documentary on the partition of India and Pakistan. Since the novel starts with the assumption that the reader knows all about this enormous event, anyone who doesn’t will be left in the dust by the fifth page.
Studying history was a regular part of this literature class, and students were assigned presentations on the historical periods and nations that the assigned novels are set in – Algeria in 1997, Cairo in 1980, Israel in 1948, Sudan in 1966.
Several of the novels are out of print in English but beloved in their nations of origin, and Professor Radwan provided old photocopied pages to the class. Given the political rhetoric inherent in many of the novels, discussions of geopolitics livened the class, touching on World Bank policies, British colonial withdrawal, the Israel-Palestine conflicts, and Shariah law. Many of the students had also studied Arabic with Professor Radwan, who also teaches the language.
A native of Egypt, Professor Radwan is an Arabic translator and literary scholar who focuses her research on poetry and prose from the Middle East and South Asia. Her English translation of Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s novel, The House of Jasmine, was published by Interlink Books in 2012. But it’s obvious that she enjoys teaching as much as her research. She has taken students to Egypt to study abroad, and went with a student, Jonathan Goh, this summer to do volunteer educational projects in one of Cairo’s poorest slums in partnership with Egyptian NGO Nebny.
Comparative Literature and Biochemistry major Tatyana Bodrug took Professor Radwan’s class on Utopia and Dystopia in World Literature from late the 16th to 20th century. “One aspect that she brings to the classroom that I found unique was her first-hand experience with one particular aspect of Utopias,” says Bodrug. “She used the 2011 Egyptian Revolution to illustrate some of the aspects we studied, and this made the course much more relevant and tangible.”
This habit of connecting literary narrative to history and politics and economy is what Professor Radwan emphasized in COM 151 as well, and comes from her background studying politics and economics.
“Literature is a way in which the reader can have both an intellectual and emotional connection with the world and also obtain a better understanding of it,” says Radwan. “With good literature, readers are engrossed in the events and have a pleasurable experience but they also go away with an understanding of why events happen the way they do which they may not be able to get from their own experience.”
It is clear from speaking to a number of her students that the empathy Professor Radwan hopes that students will develop for strangers in other nations through studying literature is also something she offers to them when they seek her out.
“I once stepped into her office to ask for advice for applying to graduate school,” says 2014 graduate Dana Hissen. “Advice quickly turned into Noha volunteering -- without hesitation -- to become my mentor, to help me write a thesis independent of the university. We walked from office to office in Sproul Hall to get advice on the matter.”
Saliem Shehadeh, who also just graduated, took Arabic first from Professor Radwan before having her for COM 151. “She was dedicated to one thing and one thing only, teaching the students,” he says of her. “She spent time both inside and outside of the classroom helping students progress at their own pace in Arabic.”
Empathy is key in the humanities, which seek at the university level to teach students how to analyze and understand the motivations and conditions that have lead humans to think and behave and express themselves throughout history. In this mission Professor Radwan has distinguished herself as a scholar of both events and words who is motivated to build the capacity of the next generation of scholars.