I wanted to write about this earlier but didn’t have the chance. I came back from the US last Wednesday. It was an amazing trip and I had a great time visiting the University of Alabama. It wouldn’t have happened without Cheryl Toman, Professor of French and Chair, Modern Languages and Classics. She is such a sweet heart and I am very thankful to her for inviting me.
It all started two years ago, in early 2020 when Cheryl messaged me on Facebook, telling me that she is teaching The Bride of Amman to her students at the University of Alabama in a special course about women in literature. I was thrilled to know this and she was planning to take her students on a trip to Jordan. She asked me if I will be there and meet them. Unfortunately that trip didn’t happen as we were hit with covid. But then fast forward till last summer in July 2021 when I did my book signing for the French version of the book L’Epouse D’Amman, I was surprised to see her attending the event. I was pleased to meet her in person and we had a chat during the event where she asked me if I’d be interested to visit the University and talk to her students who read the book. I said YES please! and she made it happen.
I spent 4 amazing days in Tuscaloosa. Cheryl made sure to arrange for a full schedule with students, chairs, professors and lecturers in other departments too. I was blessed to meet so many wonderful people. We started the first day with a talk to students learning Arabic. And I was happy to meet Manasar Al Harethi, lecturer of Arabic, who moved to the US from Saudi Arabia. It was followed by a lunch with Cheryl and Chair of English department, Steve Trout (such a nice guy). And in the afternoon, same day, I met Myles Williamson, a PhD students in the political science department, who is writing his dissertation about global transgender rights. I had such a nice talk with Myles over coffee and was pleased to hear his thoughts about the topic. Later on at night, I was honored to meet the Waleed Hazbun, Professor of Middle Easter Studies, who is mentoring Myles, and generously contributed to the funds that made this trip happen. We met at a nice restaurant where we had a nice dinner with him, his partner Michelle Woodward (managing editor of MERIP/Middle East Report), and his political science colleague Holger Albrecht and his partner Dina Bishara (both teach politics of the Middle East, Dina now teaches at Cornell). I was happy to meet all of them.
I have to admit that the second day at the University was my favorite one. It was the day dedicated to the students of Gender and Race department. I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed talking to everyone in this department. Chair of department, Utz Mcknight, is such a wonderful and warm man. He makes everyone comfortable and at ease, and I could see his love and passion towards gender and race and how he embraces his students and empower them. I enjoyed in particular the first session he planned for us, a private talk with the students of the department at the Anderson room. We spent around two hours and had a wonderful and open discussion about gender and race and me and my writings. It was followed by a public talk in LIoyed Hall, which I wasn’t prepared for, but he thankfully tipped me on how to handle it. He said, “use this space the way you like. You can ask the audience for help if you want”. And this is what I did. As I am working on the sequel for Heaven on Earth, my narrator and protagonist is genderless. And since the sequel is set after 100 years from now, I asked the audience about how they see the future of gender. We ended up having a wonderful discussion about the future, all of the recent advances in technology and their potential effect on us. And I got many good insights to help me progress with the book.
The day ended with a nice dinner and informal talk with the students of the department where Utz made sure I mingle with all of them. He was monitor the time and my location, and every few minutes, he kept on reminding that I need to switch table. Thanks to him, it was a memorable night.
I don’t want to forget to mention that Cheryl didn’t forget to hook me up with other professors during the lunches and I was honored to meet Alicia Cipria, Spanish Professor and Allesandra Montalbano, Italian professor in second day. And also Gina Stamm and Jennifer Car, French Professors, in third day. Amazing women, all of them.
We were looking forward to the last day as it was the day dedicated to Cheryl’s students who actually read the book. Cheryl planned two sessions, one for the students who read the book in English and the other one for those who read it in French. Unfortunately, the French class didn’t happen as we had a tornado warning. The University had to close early and everyone was advised to go and stay home that evening. Nevertheless, it was a great session with those students who read the book in English. I was so pleased to hear their feedback and answer their questions. Such smart students, full of curiosity and passion. I was happy to hear from them about their insights on women and gender from their own surroundings. We forgot to take photos from this session but you can find more photos of my US trip on my Instagram account.
It was an unforgettable visit. I had a great time and loved everyone I met. Despite the mainstream thinking of Alabama as a conservative state, the University is such a progressive heaven. I loved every moment of my stay there.