Ahmad Sharafeldin is a visting professor of Arabic language and literature for the 2014-2015 academic year. He teaches the Arabic language at intermediate and advanced levels, as well as a class in Arabic literature.
Sharafeldin is a native of Egypt, though he was born in Kuwait and has lived in numerous different countries in the Middle East. He attended Al Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, earning a B.A. in Simultaneous Translation and Interpretation and an M.A. and Ph.D. in Linguistics.
He taught at the State University of New York after being awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and has also lectured at the College of William & Mary and Middlebury Language College. He has presented his work at institutions as prestigious as the United States Naval Academy and worked in an interpreter capacity in both Egypt and Turkey.
Where were you born?
I was born in Kuwait, and I spent my childhood in Kuwait, and then after that I moved to different Middle Eastern countries. I lived in Qatar, in Sudan and in Saudi Arabia. Usually, nowadays I work as an academic, but I also work as a simultaneous interpreter from English into Arabic and vice versa in Turkey, so I travel there every summer. Then I spent awhile in Egypt — that's my homeland. I graduated from an Egyptian university, which I consider the Oxford of the Middle East. It's an Islamic university in Egypt called Al Azhar University. It's one of the oldest and most historic universities in the Islamic world. It was built thousands of years ago and was originally a mosque.
What made you come to the U.S.?
That's a very big question [laughs]. It's interesting, because I've never worked in Europe. When I was a child, I was fascinated by American movies. It was my dream to come and discover this country. I was obsessed with American history, and I just wanted to know more about how a country like the U.S. get the amount of skills necessary to be a superpower. I was influenced by the American media when I was a child.
The first chance that I got to have a genuine experience in the United States was through a Fulbright Scholarship, when I was a graduate student getting my master's in linguistics to teach Arabic for a year at the State University of New York. I was in upstate New York in a very tiny village — it was funny, because when I found myself in a tiny village, I thought, I'm coming from the capital of my country, a very big city. I can't stay here. But believe it or not, it just took two or three days and I started to become very familiar with the people and the town, and with the cows and the farms. It was a very intriguing experience for me.
What are some unique methods you use to teach Arabic to American students?
Learning Arabic is a difficult job for the American student. It's very different from most European languages. Students can get bored after awhile since it's so challenging to learn the language. I like to engage students in innovative and untraditional ways. I've found that students especially love songs. So I told them, let's put that in an Arabic context. Now, of course there are songs in Arabic, so I tell them to choose one that they like and want to sing, and they're going to practice singing it. They're going to learn the vocabulary from the song and how to pronounce the words. They enjoy their time, it's entertainment, it's something they'll be educated through and they'll get a grade at the end.
Did you find that students remembered the language better through this method of teaching?
They remembered it perfectly. No question about it. When you put students in the context of practicing language in a very natural way, it works, and that's my way all the time. Your role at the end is to facilitate the process of learning in general. You can give some guidance, but let them be in control.
I felt like they enjoyed [the songs], so I wanted to find other creative ways to do things: not just music, but also acting, and that way I felt is very helpful. The problem that students have with learning Arabic is that they have no way to practice Arabic outside of class, unlike other languages like Spanish. I wanted to find a way for them to connect what they were doing in class with something outside of the class.
What do you teach in your class on Arabic literature?
I was teaching them novels and poetry translated into English so the students were able to understand. We read some articles from Middle Eastern newspapers as well. The bottom line is the students were exposed to something they'd never heard about or watched. I would bring in guest speakers and also show movies. I exposed them to a movie that is very controversial in Egypt and in the Middle East. I was deliberately and intentionally doing that because I was trying to open their minds to different ways to understand what's going on in the Middle East. I was so excited when I heard that it was their first time seeing or watching something like that. What I wanted was to make students explore different human values. Why do we learn language and why do we learn the literature of language? So that we can see something that goes beyond the surface of society.
You're leaving Wake Forest at the end of the semester. Will you go back to Egypt and teach there?
I want to serve my country in the end. I feel that you reach certain moments and certain times where you know that you have a responsibility toward your society. You can find students in Egypt who want experience and want to be educated.
Are you coming back to teach in America?
After the end of this semester, I'll spend a month or so in Egypt, and then I will be in California to teach summer programs there. My relationship with the U.S. will never be cut off. It's going to be back and forth. I would love to strengthen the relationship between my country and the U.S., and one of the ways I can do that is by bringing students from Egypt to the U.S. and bringing students from the U.S. to Egypt. When you travel abroad, you will be more tolerant, more open-minded, you will be more flexible towards challenges that you might face in your lifetime.