Professor Spotlight: Reverend Leyla King


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By Maxwell Saltman

Contributing Writer

The Reverend Leyla King never thought she would be an Arabic professor. She studied English literature at Dartmouth and took Arabic there for only two semesters. “At the time, they only offered one year of Arabic,” said King. “I fulfilled my language requirement with Arabic my freshman year at Dartmouth.”


King, a visiting professor at the University and a full-time priest in the Episcopal Church, is one of two Arabic instructors at Sewanee. The other is her mother, May Kamalik, who has taught temporarily at the school since the start of the Advent semester.


Since there is no Arabic department at Sewanee, both are professors in the International and Global Studies department. The current IGS chair Nicholas Roberts has been one of the Arabic program’s biggest champions at Sewanee, according to King.


Following a year teaching high school English at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, King attended Middlebury College’s famed summer language program  in Vermont. “Then I was teaching in a high school in Buffalo, New York, doing English Lit,” said King, “and I had a little Arabic club on the side for students who were interested.”


King explained that she was exposed to Arabic at a young age, “My mom is from a big Palestinian family, and my grandmother and seven of her eight siblings lived within about a 20 minute radius of us in Houston, where I grew up, and they all spoke Arabic.” Because her father did not speak the language, King’s family spoke English at home. An interest in learning the language as an exploration of her heritage prompted her to become fluent.


“I spent two summers as a student at Middlebury and three summers as a staff member,” said King. “Throughout that time, my main goal was to immerse myself in the language.” Would she consider herself a testament to the program’s success? “Yes,” said King, with a laugh. “Go to the Middlebury program if you want to learn a language!”  


The Arabic program at Sewanee has grown in the past two years but still faces significant obstacles. The University only offers the program up to the 203 level, which has led many to believe that Arabic does not fulfill the foreign language requirement. While this was once true, it has changed, said King. “Since students have been able to use Arabic to fulfill their language requirement, there has certainly been more interest.”


King believes that Arabic and Middle Eastern studies should be expanded at Sewanee and said that “it would be great for the college, long term, to offer some Middle Eastern studies programs, like they do at other liberal arts colleges.”


“The way the world is right now,” said King, “I think it’s necessary for a good liberal arts college to have a robust Middle Eastern and North Africa studies program, and right now, Sewanee doesn’t have that.”


King sincerely hopes that more students will continue to learn the language at Sewanee, both as a way of creating better global citizens and to show the administration that Arabic is “a worthwhile way to spend resources.”  


When asked why students should consider studying Arabic, King stresses that, while the learning curve is steep, “If you put in the time and effort, [Arabic is] really worthwhile, and not that difficult to learn.”


King went on to say that although students “have to commit to Arabic in a way that you don’t have to with some of the Romance languages…it’s a very satisfying language!”