Having absorbed the English canon from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf, Radwa Ashour might have deemed her literary education complete. The young scholar saw gaps, however, where the African-American writers should have been.
As a university student in her native Cairo in the early 1970s, says Ashour, she'd found no one who considered writers in the African diaspora worthy of study. But in 1973, a joyfully-cultivated friendship with Shirley Graham Du Bois world traveler, litterateur, and widow of W.E.B. led Ashour to UMass. Madame Du Bois, as the école-educated Ashour still calls her late liaison to Amherst, was living in Cairo at the time, and pointed the young Egyptian toward the then-infant Afro-American Studies department here.
"She said, 'the best department in the United States is at UMass,' says Ashour, remembering how Du Bois returned from a visit to Massachusetts with an application and a scholarship for her protegé.
Here Ashour became the first doctoral candidate in English to specialize in black American literature. Afro-Am didn't have its own graduate program until 1996, but founding faculty member Michael Thelwell '69G says Ashour is regarded as his department's first Ph.D. Today, as chair of English Language and Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo, Ashour has watched her field blossom into one of the most popular in the department. She remains a vital link between UMass and Cairo, sending two of her proteges stateside recently: one to write a dissertation on playwright Amiri Baraka, another to research the influence of the Vietnam War on theater.
Why the interest in African-American literature in Africa in the last decade or so? Because, said Ashour on a visit to UMass last March, works on oppression and the overcoming of oppression speak deeply to readers in the Arab world.
Ashour found a receptive audience at her alma mater, where graduate students from several departments and many of UMass's Palestinian students turned out to hear her lecture, entitled "Eyewitness, Scribe and Storyteller: My Experience as a Novelist." For Ashour is now a creative writer as well as a scholar; a decade after her sojourn in Prince House, she turned to historical fiction. Her trilogy Granada, Mariama, and Al-Rahil (The Departure), which deals with the 1492 expulsion of Arabs from Spain, was named as Best Book of the Year by the General Egyptian Book Organization in 1994, and won first prize in the first Arab Women's Book Fair two years later.
"The exceptional alertness to time and place, and the need to record, are characteristics common to the writers of my generation," Ashour said at UMass. Egypt's turbulent history during her lifetime the British occupation, the struggle for the Suez Canal, and war with Israel have left Ashour with a compulsion to understand the past. "Writing is a retrieval of a human will negated," she said.
Despite Ashour's popularity at home, only two of her short stories have been translated into English. A memoir of her two years in Amherst Al-Rihlah: Ayyam Talibah Misriyyah fi Amrikah [The Journey: American Memoirs of An Egyptian Student] is among her untranslated works. Even with the bestowal of the Nobel Prize on Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz last year, the Arab literary mind remains opaque to the West, Ashour says.
"In Egypt, we have a flag, an airline of our own, we are an independent country," she said. "But there is this feeling we are not free to be who we are in the new world order." I am always conscious I'm a person from the Third World. I'm an Egyptian, an Arab, and an African all in one. Also, I'm a woman. I know to be all these things is to be particularly conscious of constraint."
From UMass Magazine, Fall 1999, online at http://www.umass.edu/umassmag/archives/1999/fall_99/fall99_ugath.html