Faculty Film 'The Wedding' Looks Beyond the Altar

Local to Global
March 1, 2023
Emiko stock

What's in a wedding? Emiko Stock, assistant professor of anthropology, explores this question and more in her film, The Wedding, which is being screened at the UK Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival and Conference this month. She will also be chairing and presenting at the festival a roundtable titled "Shadowing Meanings: the things we do (or not) with subtitles."

The festival can be attended online throughout March.

News@AUC caught up with Stock to learn more about the film and her research.

1. Tell us about your film, The Wedding.

The Wedding follows a day in a Cham Cambodian Muslim wedding. The film pays particular attention to the mundane gesturesThe wedding film poster

of turning a wedding into a "picture perfect" moment: a good prayer, a well-crafted meal, the well put together makeup-outfit-nails combo, the casual hanging outs, the laughs (or the boredom) and finally the ideal couple photograph.

2. What impact do you hope the film will have on viewers?

By layering gendered perspectives and breaking down the conventions of stability and singularity in camera movement and editing, the film aims to transcribe a partial experience: I hope viewers will leave the film thinking about how we all shape the peculiarity of any wedding, but also reflect on how all ethnographic and filmic endeavors are situated and textured.

3. Tell us about your research.

I work as a visual and historical anthropologist among Chams (a Muslim minority in Cambodia, which is a vastly Buddhist country). On one hand, I focus on how people think, use, and live with visual media (family photo albums, selfies, analog DIY practices, wedding videography...) but also how I, as an anthropologist doubling as photographer/filmmaker, can use the visual medium to tell alternative stories.

On the other hand, I also document Cham perspectives on a difficult history: one that requires silences, erasures and the refusal of archives. This is where visuals come to make even more sense: sometimes, when history is too hard to talk about, let alone inscribe, we need more than words. Images then, especially images considered as mundane, open a path through a history that can only be seen in its very absence.

4. What drew you to this topic?

My work in this community started very informally: I was first taken-in as a relative of sorts, but because I was always an amateur photographer/videographer, people would always ask me to come take pictures of their weddings. And since I always had an interest in history that was shared by many in the community, the two sides of the project sort of naturally merged together. 

The Wedding is an example of how this relationship materializes: it was first shot, edited and distributed for the families themselves. It's only later on that I started to look at the film in a different way, one that might be of interest to anthropologists and documentary filmmakers. For me this is an essential lesson of ethical grounding that anthropology brings to the world: how can we be with each other, in resonance and reciprocity, so that we can live a little better with ourselves?

5. Is your research related to the roundtable you are chairing? Can you talk a bit about this?

The roundtable that I am organizing and chairing titled "Shadowing Meanings: the things we do (or not) with subtitles" looks at how subtitles are used (and misused) in documentary filmmaking. We take a feminist and counter-colonial stand in our rationale: if subtitles often aim for accessibility, transparency and information, they also carry a certain violence. When we choose what to inscribe, we invariably also produce erasures. The roundtable aims to explore the various shapes and contexts of such erasures. 

What we ask ourselves is: what are the limits of subtitling? How can we embed documentary and ethnographic filmmaking in an opacity that is generative: one that relies on an active engagement with the medium rather than a passive consumption of clear-to-go meaning? The roundtable brings a wide range of case studies into discussion: from an analysis of classical Western ethnographic movies focusing on the audiences excluded by the subtitling process, to an examination of experimental media produced with refugee youth in Iran. Instead of aiming to produce content and information, we wonder if documentary could strive to bring viewers in the kind of attention and intentionality that brings us closer to life, and life's very own signature lack of clarity.

6. What are you teaching at AUC?

Next semester I will be teaching Film and Anthropology: Off-Screen Creativity in Cairo. The course aims to bring students of anthropology and film studies together to think through the idea of creation in the fields of film, video, and media making. I love teaching this course! For me it brings the best of both worlds: for students who have never taken a film class in their lives, it's a way to think about the medium and how it constructs our envisioning of the world. For students new to anthropology, it's a way to think about ethical avenues to document the world with constant wonder and generosity.

The Importance of Lifelong Learning: 74 Year Old Master's Student Shares Her Story

Campus Community
Abigail Flynn
March 1, 2023
Abdel-Motaal speaks at a podium during commencement while wearing a cap and gown

“I am 74 years old – I know it is strange for a woman to confess her age.  Our societies are aging and the concept of age is changing. As humanity begins to live longer, lifelong learning will become vital for societies to re-skill and re-adapt individuals to the times and to new economic needs,” said Kadria Abdel-Motaal (MA ‘23) in a  speech she gave as the representative of the graduate class of 2023.

Abdel-Motaal recently graduated from AUC with a master’s in educational leadership. With 74 years of life experience, she agreed to sit down with News@AUC and share her story.

Have you always intended to pursue a master’s degree?

I always wanted to go to medical school, and I was always at the top of my class during the first three years of my bachelor’s degree at Ein Shams University. But at the end of my studies, I got married and had two kids, so I wasn’t at the top of my class as usual. We didn’t have cumulative GPAs at the time — only the last year counted — so I was not allowed to go to postgraduate studies. This left a hole inside myself that I was always determined to fill, one way or another.

What did you do after completing your undergraduate degree?

I first worked as a specialist at the Egyptian National Blood Bank VACSERA, eventually becoming chairwoman and chief executive officer of one of Vacsera’s affiliated companies, the Egyptian Company for Biotech Industries. When I retired from that company at the age of 60, I served as the president of the Heliopolis Academy for Research. We focused on developing and attracting funds for multi-partner research projects. After that, I led the establishment project of Heliopolis University and became the director of its research department.

Abdel-Motaal poses with her degree at commencement, wearing a cap and gown
Abdel-Motaal poses with her
degree at commencement

Wow, you’ve really kept busy. How did you decide to join AUC?

After I retired from Heliopolis University, I asked myself, “What do I want to do?” And I remembered my big old problem, the hole I’ve been wanting to fill. I knew I had to go to postgraduate studies. So I joined the educational leadership program.

Why educational leadership?

I worked closely within academia during the establishment of Heliopolis University, but I never truly belonged to the field of education. I really wanted the academic background on education, and I thought educational leadership was a beautiful program for that goal.

What did being in the classroom teach you that your practical experience had not?

It introduced me to areas I had never considered before, like the social foundation of education, theories of education and theories of human development. I also learned about the professional way to develop a program, based on pedagogical theories and different delivery methods. I learned how to write in a professional and academic way. It was a well-rounded experience from all sides.

What was it like studying with students who are younger than you?

 From day one, I was in the mindset of being a student. I was not the boss or the director, I was just a simple student. So, the other students dealt with me as their colleague, there was no real age barrier. If anything, they injected me with some youth. I was very pleased that there were no complications at all. I was able to meet a group of people that were different from my usual social network, and the majority were women — which is very impressive. It was an enlightening and humbling experience.

Abdel-Motaal walks hand-in-hand with her son on campus to commencement, wearing her cap and gown
Abdel-Motaal walks with her son to
the commencement ceremony

What did your family think of your decision to pursue a master’s degree?

They were incredibly supportive; they were really the driving force behind me. They would tell me, “Remember to apply, you’re going to miss the deadline!” or “What did you write for your application, let me see.” Even at graduation, they drove me to the ceremony like I was a child whose parents were taking me to my first day of school. Learning and education is very important in my family.

Why do you think lifelong learning is so important?

Continuous learning is crucial. People are living so long now that they can retire and still have another 20 years of life, yet many spend those years sitting and waiting. There’s a misconception that your life is done after your career. It’s not! Knowledge continues to be discovered, and the things my generation learned 50 years ago are totally different now. We need to continue to educate and recreate ourselves.

What’s next for you?

I have many things I want to do. I hope to join a PhD program and I also want to publish my master’s thesis. My thesis was on expanding the culinary arts higher education in Egypt. Culinary arts is not represented in Egyptian higher education, even though it is a multidisciplinary field that involves different areas of study, such as food biology, food chemistry, history and sociology. This is a major pillar of the tourism industry; you hear people talking about the pyramids when they visit, but not the local cuisine. There are not many Egyptian restaurants abroad and our food is misappropriated into other nationalities’ cuisines. My next step is to use my education and my experience to contribute to filling this gap in higher education.

AUC's Theatre Program Debuts Original Plays Tackling Mental Health

Arts and Culture
February 20, 2023
Actors perform Piece of Mind plays

Part of AUC’s Mental Health and Well-being Initiative, Piece of Mind is a bilingual theatrical performance that aims to start conversations about mental well-being, ranging from depression to social media addiction. Written by members of the AUC community, Piece of Mind features five original 10-minute plays that will be performed at AUC's Gerhart Theatre from February 21 to 28. 

“The main goal of Piece of Mind is to raise awareness of mental health and to reduce the stigma around it,” explains Jillian Campana, theatre professor and associate dean for undergraduate education in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. “We hope that audience members will relate to the plays in some way and will feel seen and validated, knowing that they are not alone in what they're going through.”

Piece of Mind was created from scripts submitted in early Fall 2022 by members of the AUC community. Fifty scripts were submitted and a committee of staff, faculty, alumni and students ultimately selected five finalists who received feedback from professional script writers during workshops.

Actors perform piece of mind plays on stage at Gerhart theatre

The five plays were perfected over winter break and cover a range of topics, including body image (Hide, written by alumnus Omar Omar in English); attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Dawsha written by student Zeina Shalaby in Arabic); Grief (WARD, written by student Nour El Coptan in Arabic); social media addiction (Alive, written by Campana in English) and Depression (Lissa, written by alum Youssef Omran in English and Arabic). 

"The edits and rewrites helped me refine the play. Thanks to feedback and workshopping from the team, It went from an underdeveloped idea to a story, one that hopefully sends a supporting message about mental health," said Shalaby.

Actor performs piece of mind plays on stage at Gerhart theatre

In addition to being performed at the Gerhart Theatre, Piece of Mind will also be seen by local high school students for matinee performances during the week as part of the annual Educational Outreach Theatre production that brings original plays to local schools. 

Piece of Mind is supported by the Mental Health and Well-being Initiative, the Center for Student Well-Being, the Department of Psychology and the Associate Provost for Research and Creative Work. It is produced by the theatre program in the Department of the Arts, School of Humanities and Social Sciences and overseen by Campana and alumni Noah Abdel Razek ‘20.

New Faculty Book Spotlights Power of Women in Ancient Egypt

Research and Innovation
Devon Murray
February 8, 2023
Well-preserved hieroglyphs on the wall of a tomb in Luxor, Egypt
Photo by AXP Photography on Unsplash

FWomen in Ancient Egypt book coverrom Hatshepsut and Nefertiti to everyday women from the artisan village of Deir el-Medina, a new volume edited by Mariam Ayad ‘94, associate professor in AUC’s Department of Sociology, Egyptology and Anthropology, offers a comprehensive look into the autonomy of women in ancient Egyptian society.

Women in Ancient Egypt: Revisiting Power, Agency, and Autonomy (AUC Press, 2022) is the result of a 2019 conference held at AUC, during which Ayad and fellow scholars and Egyptologists discussed their research and findings on women in ancient Egypt across multiple domains such as law, portrayal in literature and access to power. Following the conference, Ayad began compiling and editing the book. 

“The volume provides an in-depth exploration of several facets of the female experience in ancient Egypt, examining their participation in the economic domain, their professional capacity and identity,” she explained. “Many of the papers in this volume are the result of recent doctoral research by their authors, so it really is hot-off-the-press, cutting-edge research.”

Sounds interesting? Join a virtual book talk with Ayad and contributors, hosted by AUC Press on March 15.

News@AUC sat down with Ayad to learn more about the book. 



Could you describe the book in a few sentences?

The volume is a collection of about 24 essays offering a corrective perspective on women in ancient Egypt. Each chapter delves into a specific case study, focusing on a particular period in time or historical figure. The essays show plenty of evidence for female agency in ancient Egypt, spanning  the earliest eras all the way to the Late Antique period.

What piqued your interest in this project?

My interest in ancient Egyptian women started early on; I did my dissertation and my first book on the women who held the title of God’s Wife of Amun. These were women of power who had religious access, who were single, as far as we know, and yet they were on par with the king in temple ritual. So there was already this idea that women had more access to power than they're typically given credit for. 

How did the idea for the conference and book come about?

The idea for the conference and subsequent book stemmed from my frustration with gender bias in Egyptology. Although today the majority of Egyptologists are female, it’s clear that many “facts” about women in ancient Egypt are not true and were actually tailored to the preconceived notions of white, middle-aged, male Western scholars.

Can you give us an example of this bias?

Powerful women like Queen Hatshepsut are seen as pawns in the hands of powerful men who operated behind the scenes. Again, there's no evidence for that at all, not really. 

Specifically, Hatshepsut is rumored to have had a sexual relationship with her chief architect, Senenmut, who was responsible for the building of her funerary temple at Deir al-Bahari; however, there is no evidence indicating that they were connected in that way. In fact, her claim to power relied on her appointment of several key officials — not just this man — who held religious, economic and military positions in various domains, and in this way, she had a finger in each pot.

Would you say that the misrepresentation of women’s power in history is common among scholars?

Yes. A major pet peeve of mine is the scholarly bias against evidence of female agency, whether it's in ancient Egypt or Coptic Egypt. Often it is assumed that women were powerless and couldn't do anything when in fact, in ancient Egypt, women owned and inherited property, initiated divorce and sat on city councils. 

You have an impressive background in Egyptology. Did you learn anything new while working on this book? 

I learned a lot from every single contribution. Whether it's how females chose to be represented in their funerary papyri or the significance of tattoos on the bodies of female mummies, there was something new for me in each chapter. 

Do you plan to use the book in your classes  at AUC?

Yes! In fact, I am teaching a course on women in ancient Egypt at AUC this spring, and I'm using almost all of the contributions in this book as part of the readings for the course. 

What else are you working on right now?

There are two main projects. The first is an entire volume that looks into the misrepresentation of ancient Egyptian women in previous scholarship, which I am co-authoring with Jaqueline Williamson and Sue Kelly. Rather than provide a history of women from scratch, our approach is to  examine/highlight case studies where evidence pertaining to women in ancient Egypt has been misrepresented. This will be published by the Liverpool University Press.

The second project is an anthology of texts in translation that deal with women in ancient Egypt. It would be a companion to Women in Ancient Egypt. I started work on this because I wanted my students to be able to read about ancient Egyptian women in their own words.

How has living in Egypt and teaching at AUC impacted your research and work in this field?

Teaching at AUC and living in Cairo has been really advantageous for my fieldwork. I can go to Luxor for a weekend to work on the tomb of a female scribe and come back in time to teach without having to deal with the burdensome logistics of international travel, jet lag and taking time off of work.

Al Maghreb Wa Al Mashreq: World-Renowned Moroccan Musician Nouamane Lahlou to Appear at AUC

Arts and Culture
December 20, 2022
Lahlou leans against a wall

As finals week comes to an end, AUC’s Department of the Arts, in collaboration with the Embassy of the Kingdom of Morocco in Cairo, is hosting a lecture-concert  by Moroccan artist Nouamane Lahlou as well as a Moroccan-themed reception at AUC New Cairo’s Malak Gabr Arts Theater this Thursday from 1 to 3 pm.

Lahlou is a singer, composer, author, music researcher and lecturer who is considered one of the most important Moroccan and Arab musicians of his generation. He has received multiple awards, including the Moroccan National Medal and Morocco’s Person of the Year Award.

Born in 1965 in Fez, Morocco, Lahlou entered the world of music and art at the age of 5 after being gifted a guitar. At 10 years old, he joined the Conservatory of Fez. Following years of playing with the group and studying, he left Morocco for the United States, where he further developed his musical talent while pursuing his studies.

Lahlou finally settled in Egypt, where his artistic career took off. In Cairo, he appeared as a singer and composer on radio and television and participated in the second conference of Arab music at the Egyptian Opera House. After gaining considerable acclaim, he returned to his home country to become a professional composer and researcher in Moroccan music.

Throughout his career, Lahlou has participated in festivals and has given lectures and workshops in major universities in Morocco, the Middle East, Europe and the United States.

The lecture-concert will be attended by Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to Egypt Ahmed Tazi. Lahlou will be accompanied by his band.

Learn more about the event here

AUC Offers New Behavioral Neuroscience Minor

Campus Community
December 18, 2022
Image of human brain

As an interdisciplinary program co-administered by AUC’s Department of Psychology and Department of Biology, the new behavioral neuroscience minor will allow students to study the relationship between the structure and function of the nervous system with an emphasis on the biological and psychological elements that affect emotions, behavior, learning and memory. 

“There has been increasing interest and requests from AUC students for a Neuroscience program,” explains Patricia Correia, assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience in the Department of Psychology. “Internationally, behavioral neuroscience is a growing field, widely represented in top universities and research centers across the world. We believe this minor is an excellent first step towards opening a new, exciting field in Egypt at AUC.”

For students, this minor will provide a new perspective on biology and psychology and create a foundation for admission to graduate or professional programs, primarily for careers involving research, teaching, medicine, consulting and the pharmaceutical industry.

“Through this minor, I am hoping to broaden my knowledge and understanding of how the nervous system functions, and how the brain is involved in everything we think or do,” says Mariam Elnahhas, a biology major. “Hopefully, completing this minor will be a great first step for me to continue to study neuroscience after graduation and possibly make a career out of it someday.”

In terms of research, Jacquelyn Berry, visiting assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, uses behavioral neuroscience to study learning and expertise in humans. “I am super excited about the new minor. It works well with my research and teaching about how people learn and I can focus more on how different brain areas are involved,” Berry states.

In Photos: Mapping Time Exhibition Captures Decade of Experimental Art

Arts and Culture
December 18, 2022
Two displays at the Mapping Time exhibition at Tahrir Cultural Center

More than 87 art projects from AUC’s Visual Arts Program are on display now at the archival exhibition Mapping Time, held at Tahrir Cultural Center. The exhibition showcases drawings, digital prints, videos and installation art produced over the last ten years under the program.

Mapping Time Exhibition

Designed and supervised by Shady Elnoshokaty, associate professor of practice and director of AUC’s Visual Arts Program, the project explores how individuals understand time by examining three layers: present/reality, past/memory and future/fantasy. While varying greatly in appearance, each piece translates a well-researched idea into the visual structure of a map.

Mapping Time Exhibition

“The project was designed to create an educational experience that establishes a direct connection between experimental research and art education,” Elnoshokaty wrote. This individual and collective undertaking results in an experience that is both profound and extensive for the group at large.”

Mapping Time Exhibition

Mapping Time is on display at AUC's Marriott, Margo Veillon, Legacy and Future galleries through Friday, December 30.

AUC Receives $86 Million USAID Grant, Largest in University History, for Scholarships and Training

Local to Global
December 19, 2022
A student in class

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded The American University in Cairo (AUC) $86 million for USAID Egyptian Pioneers, a new program that provides scholarships and training to Egyptian students with emphasis on sectors that can advance Egypt’s climate goals. Through a nine-year cooperative agreement, AUC will administer the program in coordination with the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the Ministry of International Cooperation, and private and public sector institutions. Prioritizing women’s empowerment, diversity, inclusion and climate resilience, the USAID Egyptian Pioneers will build and develop the capacity of a cross-disciplinary network of public, private and academic entities. The program includes:

  • Scholarships for at least 700 young Egyptians (50% women) from underserved communities to obtain undergraduate degrees in Egypt
  • Scholarships for at least 60 midcareer government professionals to obtain master’s degrees in the United States or Egypt
  • Scholarships for at least 50 midcareer government professionals to pursue postdoctoral studies in the United States
  • U.S. and Egypt-based technical training for at least 280 midcareer Egyptian government professionals and at least 220 mid-career professionals from non-public entities
AUC President Dallal with USAID delegation at COP27
AUC President Ahmad Dallal and USAID delegation celebrate signing at COP27


Accordingly, more than 500 Egyptian women will engage in leadership and professional training, undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, and study-abroad programs in the United States.

AUC President Ahmad Dallal said, “Leading the USAID Egyptian Pioneers program is a great honor for AUC. We commit to extending our longstanding leadership and excellence in education, capacity development and training to ensure the sustainable integration of the public, private and academic sectors. Egyptian Pioneers will surely leave an enduring impact on Egyptian society, advancing Egypt’s economic development and progress toward its Vision 2030. We thank the U.S. government and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research as we endeavor together on this partnership journey,” 

USAID Deputy Mission Director Margaret Sancho stated, “Climate change is an enormous challenge for all people, all over the world. But we also know that women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of its impact. Despite this, women and girls are leading climate change solutions in their communities. That is why USAID’s Egyptian Pioneers program will include leadership and professional training, undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships, and study-abroad programs in the United States for more than 500 Egyptian women."

Culture Through Comedy: New Novel from AUC Professor Gretchen McCullough

Local to Global
Abigail Flynn
December 11, 2022
Cover of Confessions of a Knight Errant

A former expatriate environmentalist accused of cyber terrorism, a Greek dance teacher and a dead body on an art thief’s property in central Texas set the scene of Confessions of a Knight Errant, a recently published novel by Gretchen McCullough, senior instructor in the Department of Rhetoric and Composition. The comedy explores cultural differences through its witty characters and engaging dramas.

So, what is Confessions of a Knight Errant about?Photo of Professor Gretchen McCullough

The story is set in 2011 and follows two men on the run. They arrive on the Friday of Rage during the Egyptian uprising, Dr. Gary Watson, an environmental activist and professor who is accused of being a cyber terrorist, and Kharalombos, a Greek dancing teacher wanted by the secret police. They are tempted by a job offer from a German tourist they met in Cairo. They end up in a girls’ camp in central Texas but find themselves entangled in another drama involving a dead body and stolen Middle Eastern antiquities.

How did you decide to write a comedy about an Egyptian and a former expatriate running around Texas?

These two characters actually met in another novella I wrote, where the American guy was an expat living in Egypt. This was the last novella in my story collection, Shahrazad’s Tooth, published in 2013. At the end of the novella they are invited to a German woman’s girls camp in Texas, so this novel was an exploration of what would have happened had they accepted the invitation.

Why Texas?

My parents have a second home in central Texas in an area called the Hill Country where they have a lot of posh sleepaway camps for kids, the type where they stay for five weeks and do activities. One day while my mom was at the house painting there were suddenly helicopters flying overhead and police cars rolling up.

What happened?

There had been a murder at an adjoining property right behind my parent’s house. Apparently the guy who bought the property had paid for it in cash and had a collection of very expensive antique cars. He was mysterious and had hired some shady characters to maintain the cars who all did drugs. So, all of that played into the plot with the character in the book who is an art dealer.

How did you work that into the plot?

In the book, there’s a character who is an antiquities dealer. He’s basically an art thief. The long and the short of it is that there’s a murder on his property and Gary and Kharalombos get roped into the drama and end up on the run again.

Your novel features a lot of interesting personalities. What inspires your characters?

I’m inspired by the people I meet. The antiques dealer is an obvious one, but characters like Gary and Kharalombos are also inspired by my experiences as an expatriate living in Cairo. And there’s an Irish cook who is inspired by a woman I met in Monaghan County near the border of Northern Ireland.

In a story with such diverse characters, what message do you want your readers to walk away with?

I’m frustrated with this idea that comes from globalization — the idea that every place is the same. Since technology can transport us so quickly to different places and we can communicate more easily, people often have the misconception that all places are the same. But in reality, every place is local and cultural differences will still play out.

How do these cultural differences play out in your novel?

The novel is playful. It’s a comedy exploring the gaps between globalization and local cultures, the tensions there. In my previous writing I explored how foreigners react to living in Cairo and now I want to explore what it's like for expatriates to return to their home country. People have a really hard time adjusting and reintegrating when they come back. Gary, even though he’s an American, rebels against the very scheduled and uniform system of the girls’ camp, as does Kharalombos.

How has your time at AUC influenced this novel?

Living in Egypt and studying Arabic has been very important. I had many marvelous teachers in the Arabic Language Institute who encouraged me to learn Arabic.

My first collection of stories, Three Stories from Cairo (2011), was inspired by many of the stories I heard in Garden City. My husband, Mohamed Metwalli, a poet and translator, translated three of the stories into Arabic. The collection is bilingual. Three stories in English, then you flip the book, the same three stories in Arabic. 

How has AUC supported your writing process?

AUC has supported my writing. Two story collections, Three Stories in Cairo (2011) and Shahrazad’s Tooth (2013) were the fruit of a leave in 2006. The books were published locally by Afaq Publishers. I finished Confessions of a Knight Errant during a leave in 2016. I will be on leave in spring of 2023 to work on a book project set in West Texas in the 1930’s during the Depression, inspired by my grandfather’s life. I also have discovered that many Syrians immigrate to Texas through Mexico and I want to weave that into the new novel.

Besides the leaves, the university has granted me support to attend numerous writing conferences. This was an opportunity to meet writers and get feedback on my work.

What are some of the challenges that come with writing a novel?

Writing a novel and becoming an author is a very long process. I worked on this book for five years and received a lot of feedback and then I had to find a publisher. You really have to be internally motivated to write a novel because there’s no guarantee that any publisher will take it.

As a published author and a professor, what advice would you give to people who want to start writing?

Start small. Find local opportunities. Students will come to me and say, “I want to write a book,” and I say “How about an article? Or a short story?” I wrote a full length novel at the University of Alabama and didn’t publish it, which was disappointing. This is very common. Many novelists have “a novel in the drawer.”

A friend at the time gave me some really good advice; he told me to set aside the novel and work on smaller projects. Writing shorter essays and publishing them gave me a lot of confidence. I regularly publish essays, reviews and translations in venues like: World Literature Today, The Literary Review, Brooklyn Rail in Translation, the LA Review of Books.

Things don’t happen overnight. It’s risky.  It’s a little like being a marathon runner. You just have to keep persisting.

A Comic Book, A Serious Subject: Alumna Haidy Helmy Reflects on Senior Project

Local to Global
Kara Fitzgerald Elgarhy
November 17, 2022
Comic picture, خمسة وراجع

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” is an oft-repeated adage that shines through the work of Haidy Helmy ‘20. The young artist is harnessing the power of illustration to raise awareness and foster a dialogue about mental health issues in an intuitive and engaging format, avoiding the uneasiness that is often associated with such subjects. Her comic book, Khamsa w Rage’  (خمسة و راجع),  is infused with Helmy’s striking visual style as well as critical reflections on mental health.

The Main Character“I wanted to help create something that will make it easier for people to give [mental health] their attention, without the discomfort of discussing mental health.” She saw illustration and animation as a powerful medium to capture interest, drawing people to engage – even unknowingly – with sensitive mental health conversations that, while needed, are often hushed. 

The narrative follows a protagonist with depression, who navigates through a mythical land with an invented language, culture, and creatures. Readers follow along on the journey in search of purpose, love, and acceptance, including confrontations with pervasive misconceptions about depression and lessons about detecting the signs of depression. 

Helmy discovered her interest in mental health and depression during her second semester at AUC, in Introduction to Psychology. “It really opened my eyes — being introduced to this other world I never truly knew anything about,” she reflected. 

Forced Happiness CharacterA graphic design major, Helmy had the chance to enroll in this course outside of her area of specialization because of AUC’s core curriculum requirements. Her academic exposure to mental health was complemented by the array of well-being-oriented services on campus, now formalized under the university’s Mental Health Well-being Initiative. Helmy described, “During my time at AUC, seeing all the initiatives to help students all over the campus…it really shaped my perspective on this topic.” Helmy credits these experiences both in and outside of the classroom with inspiring her to envision the innovative comic book as her senior project.

Beyond graduation, Helmy seeks to battle the stigma surrounding mental health, which can be paralyzing for any young adult — perhaps even more so in the Middle East. “Here in the Middle East, it’s harder,” she said, “as young adults feel scared and uncomfortable talking about mental health or even thinking of seeking help, and even if they did, it is not easy to talk to their parents about such a topic.” Khamsa w Rage’ therefore targets both young people who may need help and the community, who needs to recognize the signs and respond with empathy, support and knowledge. According to Helmy, “the comic book tackles both ends, the depressed [person] and [their] surrounding environment, enabling readers to help others and themselves.”

Haidy Helmy
          Haidy Helmy

In a full-circle moment, Helmy was able to share her work with the University that inspired and equipped her to create it. During AUC’s Mental Health Week in October, Helmy’s characters and illustrations were posted across campus and online, attracting interest to her art and the powerful message behind it. Her project was spotlighted by AUC's Department of the Arts in collaboration with the Office of Student Life with the goal of bridging the gap between the arts and AUC initiatives.

"What is astonishing about Haidy's work is her ability to visualize every mental illness as a dynamic character with certain characteristics," said Amena El Defrawy, senior specialist for Educational Outreach at AUC's Department of the Arts. "This helps people visualize the characters and create stronger connections with mental health."

Helmy’s hope for Khamsa w Rage’ is simultaneously simple and ambitious: helping people to see themselves more clearly and to look more closely at those around them. “That’s what I wish this project can achieve,” she expressed, “to reach others and to help them and the community to talk about depression and other mental health topics. To notice the signs and seek help or help others.”