Shawkat Toorawa has been a professor of Arabic in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures department at Yale since 2016. He runs the “dr T projectT,” 30-minute sessions on Tuesday afternoons in which he teaches “three things worth knowing” about literature, pop culture, music — or anything else on his mind — over tea and shortbread. Toorawa began the project eight years ago while teaching at Cornell and says the Dr. T sessions are about “love of knowledge.” Last week’s topics were Israeli poet Tahel Frosh, German-American composer Kurt Weill and pudding. He refuses to reveal future weeks’ topics.
Toorawa’s roots are in the island of Mauritius, a country located in the Indian Ocean. Born in England, he spent his childhood in different countries across the world as his family relocated for work. Toorawa received his B.A, M.A and Ph.D from the University of Pennsylvania and went to teach at the University of Mauritius (at the time the only university in the country) when his mother fell ill. According to Yale’s official biography of Toorawa, “he taught medieval French literature and Indian Ocean studies” in that position. Toorawa himself says that in Mauritius he “taught the weirdest things, things I’m not qualified to teach. But I taught them and I had a lot of fun.” When his mother’s condition did not improve, Toorawa’s father urged him to apply for fellowships in the United States and settle there with his wife and two kids. He got a fellowship at Harvard and then a job at Cornell, where he taught for sixteen years. Popular among his students, one described him on “Rate my Professors” as so energetic and enthusiastic that it was “easy to go to his 8:40 am class!”
Toorawa’s academic interests include the Quran, classical and medieval Arabic literature, particularly of the Abbasid period, and modern literatures of the world. Of all of his academic achievements, he is proudest of the “inroads into Quranic studies” he has made with his cadenced rhyme prose translations.
Dr. T sessions take place Tuesdays between 4:30 and 5 p.m. in the Pierson Fellows Lounge.
Q: You have lived in so many places. Where do you consider home?
A: My parents were born in Mauritius but met in England. I was born in England and have lived in London, Paris, Hong Kong and Singapore. So home was where my parents were. Mauritius was their home because their parents were there. I felt an immediate connection to it but no deep attachment. I came to college in the U.S. but then later I got married — and it was fateful because I married a Mauritian, which created new ties.
Q: Did you always know you’d marry a Mauritian woman?
A: No, it shocked everyone. My parents most of all because I’d never grown up there. When you’re a guy and you go there for three weeks, you don’t really meet many girls. We were friends, and she once came over when I was there for a quick visit, and then we decided that we’d get married. It was kind of wild. When we got married, we left Mauritius thinking that was it. But we found ourselves living there for a few years soon after. We didn’t even speak creole at home when I was growing up. I learned it well only when I lived there. Our kids were born there so they’re Mauritians too. It’s weird. That’s the story.
Q: What was it like growing up as one of a very small national minority?
A: It wasn’t so much being a national minority as being brown. Or what is still called black in England. The thing that made it complicated is that we were both Anglophone and Francophone. We were very different from most brown people. Brown people traditionally spoke their ancestral language from India or Pakistan or Bangladesh, or spoke English with a Caribbean accent. But my mother and father spoke four languages — in Mauritius you grow up speaking Creole, English, French and maybe ancestral language too.
And in France, the issue is not so much being brown but being Muslim. France is … it’s something that’s so obvious to say, but France’s relationship to Muslims and Islam is very complicated. There, we also weren’t of the demography — we weren’t North Africans, we were these Indians from Mauritius, whose French was impeccable. And in France if you speak fluent French, you basically pass. Absolutely fluent French, and you’re a member of the Francophonie. You’re a citizen.
Q: Have you gone on Hajj recently?
A: I went again in 2008 with my wife and kids, and it was great. So my wife said to me one day, “We basically have the means, so why don’t we go on Hajj?” It’s very expensive but of course I said, “Sure.” We sold our house so that we could go. You can go “2.5 star,” or you can go “four star.” I saw no reason to do 2.5 star when we go comfortably on trips that are for fun — so why would we go do this important thing in some cost-saving way? So we went properly.
The kids were probably a little bit young to appreciate it fully. Sometimes people say you should wait until you’re older. Well yeah, but you might be dead.
Q: What’s so interesting about the Abbasid period?
A: Wow. Well, the Abbasid era was 750 to 1258. So 500 years of a dynasty in control, or putatively in control. Really by the 900s they are no longer in control — they become figureheads and Turkic Sultans are in charge and running the show. But by 762 the Abbasids had built Baghdad, and it goes on almost immediately to become the largest city in the world. It becomes the center for intellectual, scientific and — and what really interests me — literary activity. And it remains that for quite a long time. You’d see opulence and poverty, you’d see good municipal services in some parts, not in other parts. Universities, museums. It’s like saying 20th century New York. That’s what Baghdad was like. It thinks it’s the center of the world, mainly because it is the center of the world.
Also, people like to talk about convivencia in Spain. Baghdad was doing it before Spain! Baghdad was full of Jews, full of Christians. I used to say to my students, “Where in the world do you think the Jews were in the ninth century? They weren’t in Russia. In Baghdad!”
Another thing you learn from studying premodern societies is that there really is nothing new under the sun. There’s new technology — but there’s always been new technology. There weren’t computers, fine. But there was always a time that was some way, and then a new technology appeared.
Q: Do you have a perspective on the rise of Islamophobia?
A: Everything I’ve said on this has been controversial. Last year after my speech at the Eid Banquet I did a “Chaplain’s Chat,” and students asked me what I thought about rising Islamophobia. Numerically it’s there of course, and it’s horrible. But I expressed my concern about the perspective that things are getting worse for Muslims. I think things are bad when people are attacked on the streets, when there’s any kind of aggression. But I remember what it was like in 1981, when at the University there was no halal food, no mosque, no space accommodation and no chaplains. You know, it was a very different time. The number of Muslims was very small. The number is still very small; there are probably not more than three or four million Muslims in America. The reality is that 40 percent of Muslims in America are African-American, and the situation of African-Americans in America has not improved — at all. It seems to me the that the thing that requires our attention as part of a national discussion about what’s happening to African-Americans is that the forces of the state are involved in the persecution and the violence. I think that what has now has been authorized is bigotry. Islamophobia is a form of bigotry.
Q: Here’s an easier question to wrap up with. Why do you serve shortbread as opposed to something that starts with a “T” at your Dr. T events?
A: At Cornell, it was on Tuesdays. T for Tuesdays and Dr. T, and tea as well. But I just chose tea because I like tea. And also because typically you go to these events and you get coffee and cookies. That’s great, but no one serves tea, whereas here, all you get is tea. And then I thought, what cookies am I going to serve? English tea, so Scottish shortbread. It’s not just any tea and shortbread — it’s P.G. Tips tea and Walker’s shortbread. I told them this when I was doing the event at the Whitney Center. They said, “Well, what if we get a different shortbread?” and I said “Then I don’t do it.” I can do it without AV or whatever, but the show does not go on without P.G. Tips tea and Walker’s shortbread.
Hannah Kazis-Taylor | firstname.lastname@example.org