Want to find your calling? Study abroad. So says contemporary Middle East historian Keith Watenpaugh, professor and founding director of the Human Rights Studies Program at the University of California, Davis. He traces his scholarly trajectory back to studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt, as an undergraduate at the University of Washington.
Author of Bread from Stones: The Middle East and the Making of Modern Humanitarianism (University of California Press, 2015) among many other works, Watenpaugh visits Whitman on Thursday as the Fiftieth Sivert O. and Marjorie Allen Skotheim Lecturer in History. His talk, titled "I Am a Historian of the Middle East and then the Wars Came: On Professional Responsibility in the Face of Mass Violence and the Flight of Millions," will address the implications of the war in Syria on the future of the region.
In anticipation of the talk, he explained in an email how his stay at the American University in Cairo 30 years ago led him to his area of specialization:
I was 19 years old in September 1986 when I took a cab from the airport to the American University in Cairo's dorm on Zamalek Island. As we crossed the 26 of July Bridge, I looked out on a long gray blue river, and with great joy and the widest of eyes, pointed at it and told the driver in Arabic, "the Nile!" He looked back at me, rolling his eyes and said: "You're in Egypt." I've been back to Cairo several times since, but I always stand in awe of the river. My experience as a junior-year abroad exchange fellow—I went there and someone from Cairo came to Seattle in my place—shaped me in ways I still feel today. It opened my eyes to more than the river: grinding poverty, refugees, sexual violence and the daily indignities of life in authoritarian societies. I also experienced the richness and diversity of the Middle East. Going abroad as an undergraduate is the most important single experience one can have in college. One sees the world, one's homeland and oneself in a completely different and more complex way while overseas and then upon return. I tell my own students to find the toughest possible study abroad opportunity, the hardest, most different and most discomforting experience. As Mark Twain, a man who knew a great deal about big rivers, wrote: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness..."