University of Wisconsin African cultural studies professor Samuel England started his career not as a teacher, but as a journalist in the Middle East during the nineties, where he advanced his knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs and the Arabic language.
A fresh graduate of the University of Michigan — Ann Arbor with a degree in near eastern studies, England said he received his first job at an English newspaper based out of Egypt. There was a gap in staff writers compared to freelance writers, so they needed people.
“In retrospect, I wish I had it more in mind to get involved with this paper earlier in college,” England said. “I only wrote one story for them.”
He returned to the Middle East, a place where he briefly grew up and studied, to pursue a career in international journalism.
As a child, England lived in Cairo, Egypt with his mother while she taught at the American University in Cairo. There, he lived in a fairly sheltered metropolitan area where he attended American school.
He said he didn’t learn Arabic in school, and, in fact, barely knew any Arabic by the time he left Cairo two years later.
“I knew basic phrases, like ‘Can I have a Coca-Cola,’ but I was by no means fluent,” England said.
He returned to Cairo during his college career to study abroad at the American University in Cairo, where he studied Arabic, literature, art and architecture.
While in college, he fostered a love for writing and worked at the university’s newspaper, which, he said, pushed him to be a professional journalist.
“I had people [at the University in Cairo] who cared about teaching and took an interest in young people who were interested in Arabic,” England said. “It made me want to study it more and more.”
In the Middle East, England interviewed for an international English newspaper based in Lebanon that was planned to merge with the International Herald Tribune, a newspaper that was co-owned by the Washington Post and the New York Times.
He described Lebanon as an epi-center of press activity during his time travelling throughout the Middle East.
“Unfortunately, this job didn’t work out,” England said. “If I would’ve stuck with it, I might’ve been a full-time journalist, but I don’t have any regrets.”
After some time in the Middle East, England returned to America and continued to pursue a job in journalism, he said. He continued his journey at a newspaper in Washington, D.C.
The work was more like a temp job, and it was only fun when he was able to go out into the field and interview people. This is when he decided to explore other career options.
“I decided to go into academia because I was worried about job security as a journalist,” he said.
He added current American journalistic interests in the Middle East are based around politics rather than culture.
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Soon enough, England attended graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley where he received a Ph. D. in comparative literature. Now he teaches African languages and literature through the College of Letters and Science’s African Cultural Studies Department at UW.
He said living in Madison is so easy. The people are friendly, it’s easy to get around and the university is functional.
This, however, is not to say Madison was his first choice. He said he went wherever he was needed. However, he is still very invested in the university and its students here.
England added he is glad he did not accept a job teaching at the American University in Cairo.
“I certainly don’t want to badmouth it [American University in Cairo]. It’s a really great institution,” England said. “I think it’s just hard living in Egypt right now if you dislike the current regime. I don’t like that regime very much.”
As an American faculty member in Egypt, if he were to speak out against the regime, colleagues or friends may shun him, he said.
Despite his opinion on the current affairs of the Egyptian government, England highly encourages people to travel to this region.
Places like Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan and Lebanon are all lovely and interesting, he said, and he rarely felt threatened during his times in the Middle East.
So many students come to him expressing a desire to study abroad in these areas, he said, but their parents won’t let them.
“If that’s what you want to do,” he said, “then you should do it.”
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Places where study abroad programs occur are generally in safe areas, he said.
The only moment there was potential for danger was when he lived in Cairo in the eighties as a child, he said. There were substantial riots, and he and his mother were under curfew for a few weeks.
“We as Americans are pressured to think that something bad will happen to us when we get to the Middle East,” he said. “Then you get there and realize things are pretty normal. The people are kind.”
England was perplexed as to why these ideas have currency in our society, but said the media may have a role.
He compared the fear of Americans travelling to the Middle East to a foreigner travelling to America. In this scenario, the foreigner would say, “Don’t go to America! You’ll get caught up in a mass shooting.”
While the U.S. country definitely has a mass shooting problem, he said, that doesn’t mean this happens day-to-day.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “I feel safer in the Middle East than I do in the states.”