Leyla Rouhi is a John B. McCoy and John T. McCoy Professor of Romance Languages, and has taught at Williams since 1993. Her work focuses especially on the interplay between Western and Islamic intellectual thought in medieval Spanish literature, as well as on Cervantes and contemporary Persian fiction.
What do you study? How did you become interested in it?
Currently I study mostly the work of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616). I became interested in this after teaching his fiction, and realizing — from conversations with students and colleagues, and from reading tons of scholarship — that there was much about his work that could help us understand numerous perplexing problems of cultural interaction, identity formation, conflicts between Islam and Christianity, and the role of fiction in real life, to mention just a few of the topics he explores. He is one of those authors whose work, if you study it in depth and with a lot of attention to context, will make you a better person.
Many Americans might think of the Middle Ages or of Islam as remote and irrelevant to their daily lives. Why do you think that it’s important to study these, and how do they affect modern international relations and issues?
To understand our present, we have to have some knowledge of our past. Many of the clear cut assumptions we make today, many of the values we call important, many of the definitions we have etched in stone, and many of the ways in which we organize our daily reality come from the period often called the Middle Ages. The more we know about the way ideas and ‘realities’ came to be what they are, the better off we are. As for Islam, I imagine that there is a lot of interest in some circles in learning about these. The curiosity is definitely there, in some sectors anyway. The danger is when people form reductive, simplistic opinions on either side of the spectrum (getting overly defensive or overly aggressive). If I can do just a tiny bit to illuminate any nuances and contextual issues that I happen to know well, I will at least have helped formulate better questions for anyone who is curious, and who happens to be listening to me or reading my work.
If you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?
Teheran, in the 1950s. (I appreciate that the question leaves the date open, because I am not terribly impressed with the present at this point. So I take the liberty to request a different date, in this case before my own time). Perhaps it was not a good time politically for many reasons, but it was very exciting culturally. New ideas were coming in, all kinds of great artists and thinkers were working to communicate important things to anyone they could, and fresh ways of interpreting a very rich classical heritage were emerging. The city, which today is horrendously overpopulated and polluted, plagued by traffic, bizarre architecture and confusing planning, was at that time a city of large gardens, untouched mountains, quiet streets lined with trees, neighborhoods that had a real identity, no traffic. Of course it had difficulties and bad parts too, but because this is a fantasy, I choose to think about the nice bits. It must have been so much fun to be there.
Why is it important for Williams students to have an awareness of other cultures and of international issues?
Because it will help them have empathy and a three-dimensional understanding of anyone who is not themselves. Without empathy we are doomed. Also, when you immerse yourself in another culture (unless you are so arrogant that you think that with a few weeks of language study and a quick visit to anther country you “know it all,”) you learn to be humble. You learn that you don’t know everything, and that there are mysteries and puzzles everywhere. This is a very good thing for everyone to be reminded of periodically. No one knows everything. It takes a long, long, long time to become familiar with another culture. Listening to a different language and studying other cultures will remind you of that every time.
Do you see a difference in how international and domestic students approach their time at Williams?
I don’t have enough data to say anything important about that. I know there are some general assumptions about this, but I’d love to see some actual data. My experience on the whole has been that Williams students are very smart and very motivated. And those who make the study of language and foreign literature a part of their curriculum (among whom there are many international students) tend to do really interesting and wonderful things with the skills that they learn. I have no doubts that this is true of every discipline, but I of course know the language and ‘foreign’ literature types best; and they are awesome!