Professor’s death leaves future of Arabic program uncertain
It was as if Tawhida El-Askary never left.
The shoes of the late director of the UH Arabic Language Program still sat under her desk, her bookshelves full of signs of recent rummaging and her teacups propped upside down, as if still drying.
A picture of her grandchildren lay on the shelf beneath diplomas still nailed into the wall.
“You know, everybody says, ‘Oh she was here,’ but for me, she still is here,” lecturer Nahid Mohamed said, gazing over at the untouched half of her once-shared office.
The death of professor El-Askary in late December brought about many changes in the Arabic Language Program, but those in charge hope to continue the late director’s efforts to see the program progress.
El-Askary, who began working at UH in the late ’90s, died of cancer on Dec. 30, left the program with only one professor.
“She was a very outgoing woman, a go-getter, very energetic,” said Mohamed, the remaining Arabic language instructor. “She always had a smile on her face.”
Mohamed and El-Askary worked together for several years in the Arabic Language Program, sharing a joint office until El-Askary fell sick in Spring 2009.
“She was having some trouble with her stomach,” Mohamed said, “but they couldn’t find anything because it was inside the wall of the stomach. They only discovered it in May (2009).”
Mohamed said even though El-Askary was sick, she continued teaching for as long as she could.
“She worked through May, and she wanted to come back during the fall semester (of 2009), but she was advised to take rest and concentrate on her health first.”
As director, El-Askary hoped to expand the Arabic Language Program into at least a minor. To advance the program, El-Askary introduced online classes with the American University in Cairo. The classes were accredited by UH as upper-level courses.
“Those were advanced culture and also language classes for heritage speakers and native speakers,” head of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages Hildegard Glass said. “She would monitor students’ progress here and be the contact person.”
Glass stepped in last semester to coordinate the online classes after El-Askary was hospitalized in September. After news of her death arose, online classes for Spring 2010 were cancelled.
“Unfortunately, I had to suspend it for the current semester,” Glass said. “I could not take this on myself; I don’t speak Arabic. I felt that it wasn’t fair to put it on there but not provide support that is needed on our end.”
Mohamed, who manages the lower-level Arabic classes, says the program’s future is uncertain at this time.
“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mohamed said. “I’m doing just what needs to be done in order to keep Arabic floating until further notice.”
Though Mohamed had considered retiring, the thought of ruining El-Askary’s dream stopped her.
“Actually, I was planning to quit this year, at the beginning of the last semester. But when she got sick, I couldn’t go anywhere,” Mohamed said. “I don’t want to refuse it and say no way. Otherwise, the Arabic department will close, and I’m going to be to blame, and her dreams will fade.”
Glass said there are a few issues the department will attempt to solve before the Fall 2010 semester.
“We are looking now to bring in someone, and I could not tell you in what exact type of position, but somebody who, together perhaps with the current teacher, would be part of the Arabic program,” Glass said.
Despite El-Askary’s death, Glass believes the Arabic program will continue to grow.
“It has been a priority in the department for some time to try to build up (the program),” Glass said. “We would very much like to build (the program) to a minor, offer more advanced courses, offer more culture and literature courses, possibly also in a configuration of Middle Eastern studies.
“We feel that there is a very rich cultural tradition linked to the language, and also that it is an important language to learn in the contemporary world.”