Get to Know: Mona El-Sherif

Mona El-Sherif can’t wait to teach CC students Arabic.

She admits that learning Arabic may appear to be daunting, but says that by the end of two blocks, most students will be able to conduct a 10-minute presentation in Arabic.

El-Sherif, the newest member of CC’s Francophone and Mediterranean Studies department, says teaching Arabic, her native language, is challenging, but rewarding. “You can see the rewards – they are immediately visible. In class, you can see the difference between yesterday and today. It gives me happiness to know I am sharing my knowledge,” she says.

Born in Cairo but raised in Alexandria, Egypt, she grew up speaking an Egyptian dialect of Arabic. Here she will teach modern, standard Arabic, the form of Arabic that is used by media throughout the Near East and for all intellectual debate. Various countries throughout the region, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, have their own Arabic dialects, which have varying degrees of dissimilarity among them.

El-Sherif knows what it is like to learn a new language. A native Arabic speaker, she learned English starting at age 4 when she entered a British school. She began learning French when she was 9, and later added Farsi. In California, where she earned her Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, she realized she would need to add Spanish as well.

CC’s nascent Francophone and Mediterranean Studies program drew El-Sherif, the daughter of a lawyer and an accountant, to the college. “I’m very excited about the Mediterranean component, and how it looks at geography and its influence on culture. It’s a good fit with my research,” she says. Other programs she looked at were focused exclusively on Near Eastern studies or on the language component. “What CC is trying to establish is very unique. I feel I can contribute ideas here.”

El-Sherif took the long route to Colorado College. After graduating with a B.A. in English and American literatures from Alexandria University, she went on to earn an M.A. in Islamic, Jewish, and Near Eastern Studies from Washington University in St. Louis, and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley.

How did she get from Alexandria, Egypt, to St. Louis, Missouri? “A lot of people ask me that,” she says. She was friends with several British students at Alexandria University, and with their mentor, who had done his Ph.D. at Washington University. He recommended Washington University’s program, and she applied, only to find herself presented with an acceptance letter. She took the opportunity, which culminated with her getting her Ph.D. from Berkeley.

In addition to beginning and intermediate Arabic, El-Sherif also will teach Arabic literature, and culture. “Artistic Expressions of the Experience of Modernity in Various Arabic Cities,” which she will teach in Block 8, focuses on representations of urban modernity in different Arab cities.

El-Sherif believes it is important for everyone to learn more about the Arab world. “It takes a bit of effort on the part of students and educated people,” she says, noting that it especially takes effort for Americans, who are so far removed geographically from Arabic-speaking countries. “Here you are across the Atlantic – it’s not like in Europe,” she says. “You don’t get a rounded picture of what the Arab world is like. But it is huge, and very diverse and economically developing. There are so many reasons why people might want to learn about it.”

When El-Sherif is not teaching Arab language, culture, and literature look for her out running – jogging and athletic conditioning are some of her favorite pastimes.

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