Denis Sullivan

Denis Sullivan

1984-1985 (CASA I); 2008-2009 (CASA III)
American University in Cairo (AUC)
Professor of Political Science and International Affairs & Co-Director, Middle East Center at Northeastern University
Director, Boston Consortium for Arab Region Studies

Boston, MA

How did CASA help inform your career path?

CASA has been the foundation for all of my subsequent successes in language acquisition (a life-long effort!), field research, study abroad programs that I lead, as well as grant-writing (Fulbright-Hays, Fulbright Senior Scholar, US Department of Education Title VI [UISFL], CASA III, etc.). 

What job or path of study did you pursue after graduating from the CASA program?

After my 1984 CASA program, I returned to Cairo two years later as a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Research fellow to conduct field research and complete my PhD. Thanks to CASA as well as Fulbright, I earned my PhD from University of Michigan and secured a tenure-track position at Northeastern University. I have built my career in Boston and the Arab region (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Oman, etc.) ever since.  

What was your favorite memory from CASA?

My favorite memory from CASA was the very first evening in Cairo after arriving with all the CASA fellows (CASAwiyiin) from JFK airport. I had never been outside the United States before that day, and here I was in Cairo of all places! I couldn’t wait to walk around the city. Two other CASAwiyiin and I left the old Falaki dorms, walked the few blocks to Tahrir Square, and “smelled the breeze” – we breathed in not only the air (no comment!) but the entire “feel” of Tahrir. The sounds and smells invaded our senses: the teeming masses of people and cars fighting for spaces on streets and sidewalks; the sight of all of this overwhelmed us and excited us. I felt totally out of my element (think: “Dorothy and Oz”). I drank it all in. If this was culture shock, then I wanted more!  

Suddenly, on the edge of AUC campus, where Hill House meets Tahrir, up come three Egyptian shabaab. “Welcome to Cairo!” were the three words, in English, one of them shouted to us as he also (literally) opened his arms to welcome us. In that split second, I felt at home in Cairo, felt welcomed as if by all the Egyptian people.

That young man – “my name is Muhammad Ali, not the boxer! Salem” – was the first Egyptian friend I ever made, and that chance encounter was the perfect starting point for my CASA experience and my subsequent life in the Arab Region. Muhammad and I became brothers. He taught me more Arabic than any language partner I ever had. He taught me about “real life” in Egypt, especially about the majority of al-sha’b and the Egyptian underclass. Of course I knew that I had so much more to learn – language, culture, history, politics – if I were to truly appreciate the Egyptian people. 

Over the past 30+ years post-CASA, I have been on my life-long journey to learn as much as possible about Egyptian politics, history, culture, and – again – the Arabic language, in particular Egyptian dialect. My mission is to give students the opportunity to find their own “Tahrir moments,” their own “brothers and sisters for life.” That’s not only my lasting memory; it is my lasting passion – thanks again to CASA for starting me on that journey.