Friendship and Fulbright bring Egyptian academic to Mills

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The sequence of events that brought visiting professor Maha El Said to the Mills campus as a Fulbright Visiting Scholar for the fall semester can be traced as far back as 1993. That’s when she and Professor of English Elmaz Abinader first met at a conference in Cairo, where El Said has taught for decades, most recently as an English professor at Cairo University in Giza.

“There was this voice with a big laugh that came running up to me to introduce herself, and the energy was like an explosion,” Abinader says. “Ever since, we’ve been trying to manipulate ways to be in each other’s worlds.”

“We have become sisters, I have to say,” El Said adds.

That sisterhood is not just personal— it extends to their shared research interests as well, which include literature of various diasporas in the United States and gender studies. El Said was one of the Arab region’s first “Americanist” professors, and she introduced the discipline of American studies into Egyptian academia as a whole. “Of course, we have a transnational approach, so it’s all about studying the US from the other side of the world,” she says. “It’s not about America hating or America bashing; it’s about how the US-Middle East relationship actually impacts us and is reflected in our literature and media.”

Her courses have included The Laughing Militia, a look at standup comedy and the political commentary therein, and The Dismantling of the Empire, which examined literature from the Trump era. In her role as the founder of Cairo University’s Anti-Harassment and Violence Against Women Unit, El Said also worked with media studies students and won a grant to create the project “Rewriting the Story of Violence.”

While at Mills, El Said is teaching Arabic literature, and in the first few weeks of classes was already showing a documentary about the Arab Spring, the pro-democracy movement in which she was an enthusiastic participant.

“If Mills is going to have an international visitor, this is the international visitor,” Abinader says. “She’s a Muslim feminist revolutionary who works on anti-harassment, who’s a scholar and an English-language specialist. Mills couldn’t miss out on this.”

This is far from El Said’s first time as a scholar in the United States; in fact, on one of her previous trips, she studied spoken word and hip hop at UC Berkeley. This residency, though, has already taught her something new. “One of the first questions Maha asked me was why we have our pronouns at the bottom of our [Zoom] screens,” Abinader says.

“We haven’t gotten there yet in Egypt,” El Said says. “This [Fulbright scholarship] is offering me this beautiful campus and students, but it’s also offering me this opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.”