May Telmissany

For a lifetime of elevating Arab thought and culture to new heights

It is difficult to contain the rush of excitement and urgency that comes with talking to May Telmissany. As someone who has spent her life at the forefront of the production, research, and nourishment of Arab culture, Telmissany is the embodiment of the contemporary intellectual. It is quickly obvious, however, it is not titles that define her, but her drive for creativity, knowledge, and co-creation.

From penning award-winning novels, to being a vital voice on transnational cinema, to co-pioneering the new discipline of Arab Canadian studies: Telmissany’s career has been deeply informed both by her lived experience as an Egyptian-Canadian nomad and her ideas on what Arab identity is and could be.

Currently, Telmissany is an Associate Professor of Cinema and Arabic Studies, Director of the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, and Director of World Film Studies at the University of Ottawa. She is also published extensively as a translator, film critic, and columnist.

While she is a prolific researcher, Telmissany is much more attached to her identity as a writer. Since the age of 15, creative writing has been an essential component of her life. “Crossing borders, refusing boxes – creativity is everything. It is a mode of survival for me.” Her novels and short stories have been translated into multiple languages and recognized with several awards. 

Telmissany’s years of work have culminated into a new, thrilling chapter in her life and Arab Canadian history as a whole. As a founding member of the Arab Canadian Studies Research Group (ACANS), she is now pursuing the mission of pioneering a brand new field of study.

While Arab American studies have existed robustly for several decades, and Islamic and Middle Eastern studies have been flourishing for even longer – Arab Canadian studies had remained in utero until 2011, when ACANS was founded.

Since the late nineteenth century until the present, Arab Canadians have grown to be one of the largest non-European ethnic groups in Canada. Despite their significant presence across all disciplines for so many decades, there has been practically no documentation of their history or contributions. This tragic gap caught the attention of May Telmissany and her peers.

Thus, ACANS was born.

By establishing an interdisciplinary field of research, it becomes possible to document, study, and better understand the history and influence of this unique community in Canada and the world at large. Constituting over 20 members from 11 different universities so far, ACANS has rooted itself as a research group that spans diverse fields including history, sociology, political science, Arabic studies, religious studies, literature, and media studies.

In the few years since its founding, ACANS has already achieved some key successes, including hosting two highly successful symposiums at the University of Ottawa (2013) and York University (2014), as well as accumulating a database of 150 Arab Canadians of note.

The landmark success of 2015 was the launch of a new course at the University of Ottawa: Special Topics in Arab Canadian Studies. The class embodies ACANS’ mission as a taboo-free space for students to discuss topics ranging from islamophobia to intergenerational conflict, bringing guest speakers from fields as diverse as gynecology and architecture. Telmissany’s passion when describing the animated, engaged culture of the class is only one indication of its importance and success.

This, however, is only the beginning of Professor Telmissany’s mission to evolve the academic landscape. She is currently proposing the establishment of the Institute of Arabic Studies (ICAS), a graduate institute dedicated to study the cultures and politics of the Arab World in modern times.

Due to Canada’s lack of graduate programs dedicated to Arabic Studies, Telmissany notes a tragic brain drain that has been process for decades now. Canadian students are departing to the United States and Europe to pursue their graduate studies, and as a result, the field’s rich potential in Canadian academia suffers. The first of its kind, the Institute of Contemporary Arabic Studies will offer MA and PhD programs in three fields of research: Contemporary Arabic Studies (post 19th century), Middle Eastern and North African Studies (19th and 20th centuries), and Arab-Islamic Cultures (medieval and pre-industrial to modern times).

In addition to filling gaps in cultural knowledge and intellectual discourse, the significance of ACANS and ICAS must also be considered within the wider context of Arab history and current affairs. What was once the cradle of civilization for centuries is now a region whose heritage is deeply threatened by extinction. With all that has already been lost through the eras of colonialism, independence, war, and upheaval, the responsibility to document, study, and understand is that much more urgent. Thankfully, Telmissany assures, the project has garnered solid support from scholars and community members alike, earliest among them being the Canadian Arab Institute. She profoundly pronounces:

“Writers, artists, and researchers will save the world. It is our responsibility to resist pessimism. I believe in hope, not out of naiveté, but for very practical, pragmatic reasons. Because we must.”

When ruminating upon the shifting nature of Arab identity over the past 30 years, Telmissany notes that now is a vital time to participate in its evolution. The use of “Arab”, she argues, should be fully reclaimed as a contemporary, inclusive, secular identity. Gone are the days where “Arab-ness” belongs exclusively to nationalist discourse. Rather, it is an identity that reflects the rich heritage and diverse cultural values abounding from the particular geographies of Arabic-speaking societies. 

May Telmissany speaks of identity with nuance, stressing the importance of being equally proud and aware of its limitations. “If we go too far”, she reminds us, “we risk exclusivity.” By nurturing criticality, we can transcend boxes and grow an Arab identity that goes well beyond nationalism and sectarianism. This lies at the crux of so much that Telmissany does, and why such work is crucial in our current age.