Shawkat M Toorawa '81
People say to me ‘Oh, you’re good at languages’ but what I like, and what my study of languages allows me, is access to the literatures in those languages. I study languages because I want to have access to the wondrous literatures to which I would otherwise not have any access, or only in translation. This may in part explain why I am also a translator.
At UWCSEA, I studied Spanish in IB with Mr Forbes. By the time we were in second year, he was conducting the class entirely in Spanish. There was no reason to use any English any more. We read the greats of Spanish literature together, including Machado, who is still one of my favourite poets, and one whom I am grateful to have first encountered in Spanish.
When I graduated from UWCSEA, I went to the University of Pennsylvania, where I planned to study languages. I had in mind Arabic, Gujarati and a Native American language, Hopi. When I arrived at Penn, the professor teaching Hopi was on leave, and my Arabic professor convinced me that I could learn Gujarati easily outside of class. So, I focused on Arabic.
I received my B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, and then taught Arabic at Duke University, medieval French literature and Indian Ocean studies at the University of Mauritius, and Arabic and other literatures at Cornell University. In 2016, I joined Yale as Professor of Arabic Literature.
I love language and literature. I write and think about classical and medieval Arabic literature, including the Qur'an; about modern world poetry; and about narrative broadly, especially science fiction film and literature.
In 2011, I started The Dr T Project at Cornell, and have continued it at Yale. These are informal weekly sessions, during which I speak about three items of cultural interest in 30 minutes—one literary item, one musical item, and one general cultural item. It’s not a course; it's an opportunity for students to encounter topics they might want to explore further, things worth knowing.
Attending UWCSEA was one of the most significant experiences of my life. And there is no doubt that the seven years I spent at UWCSEA were instrumental in so many of the choices I made subsequently. The way I interact with people, what I studied, the choices I made professionally, the values I imparted to our children. I can’t imagine my life without that influence. My wife joined me in Singapore about three days after I arrived to teach a course at Yale-NUS in 2018. When I met her at the airport she said that I looked happier than ever and I said, "I'm home.”