Thomas Hefter

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Office Location: 
24 Dillon Court West


My journey through Arabic began after graduating from college when I traveled to Cairo, Egypt, as a volunteer English teacher for young adults in a program run by the Coptic Orthodox church. Soon after arriving in Cairo I arranged a move to the working class quarter of Ain Shams. Learning Arabic for me went hand-in-hand with striving to understand more of the new and fascinatingly rich culture into which I had plunged myself with very little preparation. After four years in Egypt, working with an informal tutor in the Cairene dialect and acquiring what has turned out to be a lifelong fascination with the cultures of the Middle East, I decided to pursue further studies upon returning to N. America. Having been an English major as an undergraduate, I was determined to learn more about the traditions of poetry and prose writing in Arabic. I enrolled in a Ph.D. program in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago, where I worked with a number of excellent professors who challenged me to my limits, including Wadad al-Qadi, Joel Kraemer, and my advisor, Tahera Qutbuddin. My dissertation was on one of the most influential and inventive figures in the history of Arabic prose writing, the ninth-century CE theologian and polymath, ‘Amr ibn Bahr al-Jahiz. My work focused on ways the probably fictional addressees to whom some of his texts are addressed as letters are used to influence the reception of these texts by a broader audience. Al-Jahiz’s texts are skillfully arranged interplay of voices in which ironic humor often gives way to serious reflection. My study sought to show how understanding the structures of the author’s dialogue with his fictional addressee is often key to unravelling the complex threads of meaning in these texts. This project has recently come out as a book through Edinburgh University Press entitled, The Reader in al-Jahiz: The Epistolary Rhetoric of an Arabic Prose Master.

Since completing this book I have been working on an article discussing al-Jahiz’s Risalat al-Qiyan (“The Epistle of the Singing Girls”). My future research and publications include more work on al-Jahiz and will likely branch into other Arabic prose authors from later centuries. I also have a passion for translating pre-modern Arabic prose and hope to attempt developing English versions of several classic texts in the near future. Arabic poetry from the jahiliyya through our own age is also close to my heart, but so far I have not formulated specific research plans on verse texts.

Moving from my study of Arabic to teaching was quite natural given my early experience as an English as a Second Language teacher. While still working on my dissertation, I had an opportunity to teach Arabic in an excellent program at the College of William and Mary for two years, where I benefitted greatly from the experience of my colleagues. I also taught a summer at the University of Illinois Chicago, and then returned to Egypt, where I taught Arabic Literature, in Arabic and in English translation at the American University in Cairo. For the past five years I served as Assistant Professor of Arabic at the University of Oklahoma, where I helped get our star students ready for the competitive Flagship study abroad program and taught language and literature courses.

I am not sure I will ever get used to life and traffic in New Jersey, but I am very excited about working with my colleagues in the Arabic program here at Princeton.