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Matt Malczycki

Assistant professor in the Department of History
College of Liberal Arts

Matt Malczycki is an assistant professor in Auburn's Department of History where he specializes in Islamic history with an emphasis on the Middle East. He earned his bachelor's degree in history in 1997 from the University of Arkansas, master's degree in Middle East studies from the University of Utah in 2001 and doctorate in history in 2006, also from Utah. He did his doctoral research in the field of Arabic papyrology, a small but growing subfield of Islamic studies devoted to the examination of primary source texts from the first three Islamic centuries. From 2005 to 2008 he taught at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, before joining the Auburn faculty in 2008. His current research interest is the interplay of politics, religion and society in early Islamic North Africa. Malczycki serves on the Department of History's undergraduate committee and assessment committee and he is the secretary for the Auburn chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and secretary-treasurer of the International Society for Arabic Papyrology.

1. Tell us about your study abroad experiences, such as teaching in Cairo, Egypt, and how they have benefited your educational experience.

Learning to communicate with people in another language was only one of the gifts I got from language learning. For me the real gift, the one I get to keep even if I never have another chance to use foreign languages for practical purposes, is that it forever opened my mind. My language study led to study abroad experiences, and those experiences led to living abroad for a time. That has made my life much richer than it might otherwise have been. I visited the Sphinx, and I touched the Great Pyramids with my own hand. I climbed to the top of Mount Sinai where Moses is believed to have received the Ten Commandments. I walked the Via Dolorosa where Jesus of Nazareth walked in Jerusalem. I have also visited scores of other places in the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Europe. If I died today, I'd have to say that it's already been a pretty full life.

My first study abroad experience was in the summer of 1995. I had finished the first year of Arabic at the University of Arkansas and I won a scholarship to continue my studies in Jordan over the summer. My second study abroad experience was in 2001-2002 in Cairo, Egypt, when I won a scholarship to study at the Center for Arabic Studies Abroad at the American University in Cairo. It is a total immersion program. I got off the plane, spent the night in a hotel, and then hit the streets looking for an apartment. I had to report to class in a week. That was just before 9/11 and there wasn't as much interest in the Middle East as there is now. There also wasn't as much scholarship money, and, on top of that, the value of the Egyptian pound (the currency in which we got our stipends) was plummeting. I had about $500 per month for rent, food and everything else. There is nothing like being a little cold and hungry to make you learn a language in a hurry. I must point out, however, that even though $500 per month isn't much to an American, it is more than the majority of Egyptians live on every day of their lives.

2. How did you develop an interest in papyrology, the study of ancient manuscripts?

Historians use primary sources to "make" history. Papyrus was the most important writing surface in the Mediterranean world from the time of the pharaohs until around the year 900 CE/AD. Papyrus documents are some of the most revealing primary sources that any historian can work with. Working with these texts is the best way to gain some idea of "what really happened" in the past. I did my graduate work at the University of Utah; its Marriott Library is home to the largest Arabic papyrus collection in North America. At the time, no one was doing much with the collection. It just made sense to use it for historical research. Shortly after getting into it, however, I understood why no one was working with the Utah collection: Papyrus texts are notoriously difficult to decipher. Only about 2,000 of the more than 50,000 known Arabic papyri have been edited and published.

3. You recently spoke at an academic conference in Tunisia. Tell us about the Auburn University Department of History's involvement in this international gathering.

The International Society for Arabic Papyrology, or ISAP, held its fifth research conference in Tunisia back in late March. The Department of History and the College of Liberal Arts were unbelievably supportive of the conference. They really put Auburn University's best foot forward. Auburn's sponsorship of the conference generated a lot of good will not only for the university, but for the South and the United States in general. All of the Tunisian newspapers covered the event. There were more than 50 research papers given by scholars from all over the world, from Tokyo to Tashkent, from Cairo to Colorado. We brought in leading experts in Arabic, Coptic and Greek papyrology. Ask any historian and she'll tell you that this kind of primary source research is the stuff that history is made of. The groundbreaking work presented at the 2012 ISAP Conference will be common knowledge in 25 or 50 years. Thanks to the Department of History and the College of Liberal Arts, Auburn University played a part in that.

4. What are your hobbies and interests outside of the classroom?

I am an avid freshwater kayak fisherman. I go after whatever species happen to be biting at the time. Right now I'm all about catching channel catfish in the local rivers and small lakes. In August when the oxygen is low, I'll go after spotted and long nose gar on rope jigs. This fall when the weather gets cool enough, I'll go after crappie and maybe stripers. I'll do the same in the cooler part of the spring. Bass are always a target, too. I also enjoy NCAA basketball and baseball. My wife and I get season tickets for Tigers hoops. (Is the Auburn Arena sweet or what?) We also try to catch as many baseball games as we can. Honestly, year-in-year-out, the SEC is as good at baseball as it is at football. I'm in the minority, but I believe the game is even better with the new bats. (I hope that someday we see wooden bats in college ball.) Plainsman Park is as nice a venue as you could ask for.

5. When you were an undergraduate student, what were your most difficult subjects?

I had the most trouble with math and science. I managed to survive and that's all I have to say about that. Oddly enough, I also had trouble with languages and with history classes that forced me to think of history in new ways. I don't have a gift for languages. I just keep beating my head against a rock until I start speaking in tongues. As for history, when I was an undergraduate, I had very fixed ideas about what history was. I really believed that it was all about memorizing names and dates. When some of my professors suggested that there might be more to it than that, I balked. I really resisted the idea that there was more than one way to do history. In my mind, I set out to "show them," but the harder I tried, the less firm I became in my conviction. Now, 20 years later, here I am trying to get Auburn undergraduates to think of history as more than just names and dates.

June 18, 2012