Reaching out to Croatia

The MacArthur Foundation awarded Middle East expert Eve Troutt Powell its coveted “Genius” award and a prize of $500,000—not for the considerable talent the UGA history professor has shown in the past, but for what she will accomplish in the future

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After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1983, Troutt Powell earned a presidential internship at the American University in Cairo, where she fell in love with Egyptian history and culture—and with her future husband, UGA English professor Tim Powell. She has written two books on modern Egypt.
bumper sticker on a car outside Canopy Studio in Athens reads: “Women Fly.” Inside—wispy tapestries partitioning a converted warehouse with artfully exposed wooden beams, vent ducts, and steel girders—10 people, mainly women, hang upside-down and swing from trapezes. The instructor, a svelte, middle-aged woman, walks between her dangling pupils and says, “Now, while you’re in that position, let’s see some expressive movements with your arms.” The students comply, tentatively at first, but then find gestures to articulate what it means to be suspended in an inverted bob—barefoot and in spandex—five feet off the ground.

UGA history professor Eve Troutt Powell is in the front row of the class, and, by any account, this weekly, hour-long trapeze class is a much-needed diversion. Named in October as one of 24 MacArthur Fellows, Troutt Powell, who specializes in Middle Eastern studies, has been on call non-stop since the 2003 MacArthur list was announced. The press has hounded her, and people she’s never met—including prison inmates—have filled her mailbox, e-mail account, and answering machine, all demanding time with UGA’s first recipient of the MacArthur Foundation’s “Genius” award, which carries with it a no-strings-attached $500,000 prize.

“Trying to live up to the so-called ‘Genius’ award,” said Troutt Powell to a packed house of graduates at commencement in late December, “is almost as difficult as trying to live up to my other title: Mommy.”

Difficult, maybe, but with her new moniker as a MacArthur Fellow—acquired through a selection process so veiled that the nominee will never know her nominator—she has been given the equivalent of a lifetime’s research money. This type of financial liberty for Troutt Powell—whose main area of interest is modern Egypt, about which she’s authored two books, several articles, and given dozens of presentations—is one few liberal arts professors ever know.

“From what I know of the MacArthur, it was made for Evie,” says Troutt Powell’s sister Margot, a social worker living in Woodstock, N.Y. “Designed to embrace creativity and intellect, it’s a comprehensive human award. In that way, it isn’t surprising that she would win . . . she’s brilliant. In fact, I can’t think of any reason why she wouldn’t win.”

Pausing for a rare moment of rest in trapeze class, Troutt Powell takes a deep breath and then asks her partner, “Do you mind if we raise it a little?” She then unfastens the rope from the cleat bolted to the wall and hoists the wooden bar another foot. With a leap, Troutt Powell—a former dancer—grabs, rocks, and contorts her legs through her arms until she grips the bar again with the backs of her knees. A few minutes later, after performing a couple of moves, she sags tiredly and says with a laugh and her hair falling straight down, “Help!”

“I love being in this trapeze class because it provides me a chance to just be free for a little while,” says Troutt Powell, a self-proclaimed “attitudinous” New York girl. “The trapeze, like the MacArthur award, defies gravity—one a physical defiance, the other budgetary.”

“[Troutt Powell’s] approach to to the curriculum turns what could be a mediocre
survey of material into an interactive journey of the Middle East, infusing lectures
with her unique fervor for the subject.” – UGA Goldwater Scholar Ellen Downs

n the first day of spring semester, Troutt Powell walks into 338 LeConte Hall, where her “Modern History of Egypt” class is already assembled. She gets half way through the roll and then stops, looks up, and asks, “How many of you are here because you thought this was a class about ancient Egypt?” Several hands shoot up. She tells them if they want to drop the class for one more closely aligned with their expectations, that’s their business. “I happen to think Egypt’s modern history—one overlooked by many historians—is 1,000 times more interesting,” she says with elegant fire in her eyes.

As the child of a white Lithuanian Jewish father and a black mother, Troutt Powell’s light-skinned beauty often convinces people that she is Egyptian—particularly when she’s in Cairo doing research. “But if you’re here to find out about one of the most interesting parts of the world and what it feels like to be an Arab in a place that combines Judaism, Christianity, and Arabic ways of life, then this course should be truly compelling. You’ll learn that I am biased though, my specialty is Egyptian/Sudanese history, and I am probably the biggest Egyptian nationalist you’ll find.”

After roll, she launches into her lesson, which does, in fact, start in ancient history. The entire class is swept up in Troutt Powell’s lecture, including the ones who misunderstood the course title (none of those students will drop the class). Midway into the oration, which is part historic chronicle and part personal memoir, she tells students that a “haram” was once a sanctified place where ancient worshipers and poets, “like today’s freestyle rappers,” went to feel safe. She then shuffles through an easel stuffed with three-foot-by-three-foot maps that illustrate, in different colors, the empires of history, searching for one that best portrays the growing Muslim faith of the seventh century. “All these maps are so worthless,” she says, “they are so Eurocentric.” She opts to draw her own map.

Troutt Powell’s books analyze the often overlooked dynamics between different religious/ethnic groups in the Middle East.
“I think Middle East courses are incredibly important for students because all we see on the news about the region are suicide bombers,” says Troutt Powell in her office after class. On the walls around her desk, jammed with books and papers, are a map of Africa, an antique-looking cloth map of the Middle East, and hastily snipped newspaper and magazine photos of New York Knicks players: Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, and Patrick Ewing. “Do you ever hear about the new literary trends in Lebanon? No. It’s always just about violence and religious fanaticism. If you dehumanize people, you can do anything to them—colonize them, bomb them—and that’s what we’re doing. If you take over their countries, then you no longer care about their outcome as a group.

“I can remember the first time I went to Egypt after college in 1983. I was just so mad. Nobody told me that people there watched TV, read the newspapers, and were funny and artistic.”

In her classrooms since 1995, when she arrived at UGA after receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard in Middle East studies, Troutt Powell has worked to dislodge those dehumanizing stereotypes in courses such as “Modern Egypt” and “The Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Though the reasons why someone is chosen as a MacArthur Fellow are as enigmatic as the nomination process, it’s a safe bet that her desire to shine an accurate light on a severely misunderstood people is at or near the top of the list.

“The Middle East is one of, if not the most ‘loaded’ and important academic subjects to teach presently,” says John Morrow, the Franklin Professor of History. As associate dean of Franklin College, Morrow put together the package that brought Troutt Powell and her husband, English professor Tim Powell, to UGA. “Eve’s great knowledge, her concern for her students, and her emphasis on knowledge as the basis for assessments that are usually based on prejudice or ignorance make her an excellent specialist in the history of the modern Middle East.”

That concern is magnified when one realizes that Troutt Powell’s history courses are often the first and sometimes the only academic view of the region many college students will ever have.

“[Troutt Powell’s] approach to the curriculum turns what could be a mediocre survey of material into an interactive journey of the Middle East, infusing lectures with her unique fervor for the subject,” says Ellen Downs, a fourth-year chemistry student and Goldwater Scholar from West Point. “No longer can I stand idly by in a conversation that begins, ‘Well they have been fighting over there for a million years . . . why should we care?’ I no longer harbor that kind of apathy common to the younger generations of Americans.”

I had this need for people to see me reading the Iliad or histories of Tudor England.
I hoped secretly that people would see me and not say, ‘Oh, gum-cracking,
neck-twisting black girl,’ but would say, ‘Wow, brainy.’” – Eve Troutt Powell

he John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation” is a familiar phrase to National Public Radio listeners because it is the oft-heard tagline following many NPR broadcasts. But the foundation is known internationally as one “that fosters the development of knowledge, nurtures individual creativity, helps strengthen institutions, participates in the formation of effective policy, and provides information to the public.” One of the nation’s 10 largest private philanthropic organizations, the MacArthur Foundation has awarded more than $3 billion in grants since its beginnings in 1978 and annually gives approximately $175 million. Its charitable giving includes programs on global security and sustainability, human and community development, as well as the MacArthur Fellowship. The fellowship is intended to em-phasize the importance of the creative individual in society. Fellows are selected for the originality and creativity of their work—and for their potential to do more of it in the future. Candidates are nominated, evaluated, and selected through a rigorous and confidential process, but no one may apply for the awards and no interviews are conducted with nominees.

“Not to be cute, but we never say why we chose one person or another,” says fellowship program director Daniel Socolow. “We invite hundreds and sometimes thousands of nominators to nominate, and it’s a surprise to them that we call. Then after these people nominate, we write to thousands of people from every area to research the nominated.”

Socolow says that MacArthur choices are based on creativity but also on the hope that creativity can be rewarded—in equal quarterly payments over five years—and, thus, expanded exponentially. This selection formula is singular among fellowships because it is less about what one has done than on one’s capability. This year’s class includes a children’s book author, an illustrator, and a graphic artist.

“It is basically a bet on what they will do,” says Socolow from the foundation’s offices in Chicago. “The way a crazy fellowship like this works is that it’s a leverage on their potential. If we have done our job well, everyone along the line is held in confidentiality. When we make the call, it’s out of the blue and we say, ‘We think you’re terrific and what you do is terrific and you’re never going to hear from us again.’ ”

For Troutt Powell, who says she’s “grateful, astounded, thrilled” that her sparsely spotlighted field is being represented, one call was enough.

“When I answered my cell phone, the first words I heard were, ‘Are you sitting down?’ ” says Troutt Powell. “When the voice told me that I had received the fellowship, my reaction was that it was a joke from a friend—and I almost said, ‘[Expletive] you!’ Immediately after that, I started missing my mom, who died in 1998 and was a huge inspiration to me. Later, I called everyone I knew and thought to myself, This is going to really piss some people off. Then we drank a lot of champagne and the rest of the week was a blur.”

Troutt Powell was one of only four public university faculty members to win the award and the only one from the Southeast.

“I have watched Eve Troutt Powell develop as a scholar since she came to the University of Georgia,” says Ed Larson, head of the history department and a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner. “Her most recent book, A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan (2003), is simply brilliant. It draws on a rich variety of sources and interprets them in important new ways. She richly deserves this fellowship. I could not be more proud or happy for her or for her family. Hearing this wonderful news made my day!”

hen UGA president Michael F. Adams introduced Troutt Powell as the distinguished speaker to the graduates and their families gathered in Stegeman Coliseum at winter commencement on Dec. 20, he was unaware what “one of the most incisive and exciting young scholars in America” would say. Just the day before, in fact, Troutt Powell did not know precisely what she would say. But she did know that if she were going to speak under the heightened designation of MacArthur Fellow, she would not merely wish graduates good luck with typical “seize the day” rhetoric.

At winter commencement, Troutt Powell didn’t merely wish students good luck. She talked about the need for affirmative action.
“Today, I’m here representing the University of Georgia and I’m a little ambivalent,” she said, launching into her address’ main theme. “I don’t want to be representative if that means that folks think they’ve done enough here at UGA to welcome students and faculty of color. . . . Affirmative Action can have the power to create poignant, unusual, and often beautiful learning environments. Let me tell you where your adopted daughter came from.”

Troutt Powell was born in 1961 and grew up in the Washington Heights area of New York City, two blocks from Harlem. Her family, which included a younger sister and brother, lived in an apartment below a brothel. Her father, who died when she was a teenager, was a beatnik, complete with beret, goatee, and bongo drum. Her mother was a coal miner’s daughter from Kentucky, who “worked like a dog” and earned her doctorate in psychology from Columbia while raising three children. From Troutt Powell’s earliest memories, she was aware that hers was an interracial family.

“My father’s family disinherited him because he married my mom—so yeah, being black was an issue,” says Troutt Powell, who identifies herself as black. “Every day when I was in the fourth grade, I’d have to fight my way out of a circle explaining that I was part black—and the kids around me would say, ‘If we beat the crap out of you, will it be striped?’ ”

Following her turbulent third-grade year, Troutt Powell’s mother put all of her children in an experimental private school, which led to Troutt Powell’s acceptance into Fieldstone, an elite preparatory high school. From there, she was accepted into Harvard, where she earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees.

“My place in the experimental school and the elite prep high school were all part of affirmative action’s efforts to get black and Latino kids into the still barely integrated echelon of New York’s finest schools,” she says. “While riding the subway—because those schools were never in our neighborhoods—I had this need for people to see me reading the Iliad or histories of Tudor England. I hoped secretly that people would see me and not say, ‘Oh, gum-cracking, neck-twisting black girl,’ but would say, ‘Wow, brainy.’ ”

To the commencement crowd, Troutt Powell explained that even after considerable success in high school, her white friends’ parents argued that her admission into Harvard was due to affirmative action.

“My mother was torn between two reactions: distributing my report card to all comers, and a more physical response that had to do with her feet and their posteriors.”

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard in 1983, Troutt Powell earned a presidential internship at the American University in Cairo, where she taught English and served as assistant editor of the AUC press. During her stay, she realized how little she knew about contemporary Egypt. Her desire to learn more about the culture has become the driving force of all of her academic exploration since.

Also in 1983, she made another, less academic, landmark discovery: her future husband, Tim, who was also teaching English at AUC. They were married in 1987.

“Eve has this amazing ability to talk to people and treat everyone with respect,” says Tim Powell, who is the head of the multicultural area of UGA’s English department. “She’ll talk to janitors and cab drivers and ask them to help in her research. She really likes people and that puts them at ease and then she listens to voices that haven’t before been heard.”

It was during another junket to Egypt—she’s been four times—that she was inspired to write her latest book. She was in a taxi with a Sudanese friend, whom the cabbie called—in a conspiratorial tone to the fair-skinned Troutt Powell—an “abid,” the Arabic term for slave. The confrontation that followed, including choice words for the cabbie, roused Troutt Powell’s curiosity about the relationship between Egypt and the Sudan. Her book, A Different Shade of Colonialism, explores the dynamics between England’s Egyptian colonization, beginning in the late 19th century, while the Sudan was still an Egyptian colony.

“Her work is important because she throws new light into dark corners,” says Stanley Hoffman, the Buttenwieser University Professor at Harvard, who taught Troutt Powell as an undergraduate. “She is not focusing on relations between Arab countries, or the Middle East and the West, but on ethnic relations within those countries that have rarely been examined so searchingly.”

This summer, Troutt Powell and her family—Tim and their two sons, Jibreel, 9, and Gideon, 2, will return to Cairo, where she will work on a new book about the life of St. Josephine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who became a nun in 1896 and was later canonized.

“I would like to write a really beautiful book . . . better than the last one,” says Troutt Powell, who will use the MacArthur Fellowship to insure that her ability to travel will not be a limiting factor in her research. “I am constantly working with that idea in mind.”

Troutt Powell ended her graduation speech by reciting the lyrics of the recent pop hit “32 Flavors” by Alana Davis: “I am a poster girl with no poster/I am thirty-two flavors and then some/And I’m beyond your peripheral vision/So you might want to turn your head.”

“Her work is important because she throws new light into corners.”
– Harvard professor Stanley Hoffman

eople fall in line behind Trout Powell wherever she goes. Waiting outside her office after class, a group waits patiently as she greets each of the students’ queries with the same smiling grace afforded a janitor in Cairo or the director of the MacArthur Fellowship. After the last student leaves, she has to rush down the steps for an interview before hurrying home to more admirers—her children.

“I am driven because my mother raised me to be a very competitive person,” says Troutt Powell, who is seated on the couch in her Athens home. She seems oblivious to the fact that one of her sons is crawling over the top of her head while the other is continually taking off and putting on her shoes. “My mother was a beautiful person who we all loved dearly because she could be tough but she was also so goofy and funny.”

In trapeze class, Troutt Powell seems to lose herself in just that kind of goofy competition. She gets flustered when she can’t quite master one of the moves while swinging upside down with one leg pointed toward the ceiling and the other extended straight out toward the wall.

“Let me try that again,” she says, and then erupts with silly laughter, “But I’m so tired!”

As she gathers up her coat and car keys and hurries out of the studio to yet another appointment, she says she will take next year off to finish her book, continue her travels, and concentrate on research.

“Right now, I’m looking forward to all this MacArthur focus ending so I can get back to just being me with my family. ”

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