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Professor Issa Boullata has gone through a lot of red pens in his 56 years as a teacher of Arabic literature. He has been awarded the 2004 MESA Mentoring Award by the Middle East Studies Association of North America, in recognition of his work in Middle East Studies. The award certificate makes special mention of his "critiques, renowned for their comprehensiveness and the quantities of red ink used to convey them."
He laughs when asked about this, and explains, "The students submit written work and I don't accept anything that is wrong either in grammar or in logical arrangement, therefore I use my red pen."
Eric Ormsby, director of the Institute of Islamic Studies, says Boullata, who has been at McGill for 30 years, is well known for his relentless attention to detail. "He's extremely scrupulous, and it's something we all respect in him and expect of him. He's very mild-mannered but can be quite fierce when it comes to accuracy. It's one of his most obvious characteristics, but it never seems harsh or unkind."
Demanding high standards and yet being able to communicate in a friendly manner is one of his strengths. Boullata says he has noticed over the years that students do not approach their studies as seriously as they used to, so he began to include anecdotes and jokes to maintain their interest. Despite his reputation as a strict professor, Boullata's enthusiasm inspires students and colleagues alike, says Ormsby. "He's very gentle, courteous, and warm. He takes a lot of interest in his students, is very concerned for them and goes way beyond the call of duty to help them."
Ormsby points out that, in addition to being a professor and scholar, Boullata is a creative writer with a distinguished career as a translator. Boullata has published English translations of poetry and novels such as Emily Nasrallah's Flight Against Time as well as his own study of Arab intellectuals in his 1990 book, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought, and, in 1998, a novel in Arabic, Aa'ed ila al-Quds (Returning to Jerusalem).
Boullata describes Arab literature with a fondness and admiration most people reserve for beloved family members. "The Qur'an, the holy book of Islam is written in such a beautiful Arabic language that one cannot be ignorant of its powerful effect. Although I'm not a Muslim myself, having grown up in the Middle East in Palestine, I read the Qur'an a long time ago — even before I specialized in teaching it — and found that it is a beautifully written book."
He seems to spend as much time as ever reading and leading a scholarly life even though he is now officially retired as a professor. Boullata's translation of Arab creative writer and art critic Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's autobiography Princesses Street is due for release later this year. He recently completed the translation of the first volume of 10th Century Andalusian writer Ibn Abd Rabbih's work entitled The Unique Necklace also out this year. Boullata notes that he has nine volumes left to translate by this author, who he believes "collected the best and most impressive things in Arabic literature before him in the previous 300 years since the beginning of Islam, and even before the beginning of Islam."
Boullata says he feels fortunate to have been at the Institute of Islamic Studies. "It is rare in that it approaches the whole civilization of Islam, not only the Arabs, to show how Islam has informed everything that Muslims have done for example in the Arts or Literature. All Islam is reflected in these things really deeply."
"He has brought great integrity and passion for his subject in addition to complete devotion to his students and the Institute," says Ormsby.
One of his former students, Kamal Abdel-Malek, along with McGill Islamic Studies professor Wael Hallaq, edited Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature; Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata, published in 2000. Abdel-Malek profiles Boullata in his introduction thus, "His intellectual rigor, which he exhibits and expects in others, is always tempered by his warmth towards his students and his genuine concern for their interest and well being. What has struck me about Professor Boullata is his resilience, his ability, despite national and family tragedies, to forge ahead, and not only survive, as an intellectual exile, but build and prosper, and in the process contribute to the life of the mind."
Boullata is touched by the MESA award and the homage paid to him by his former students and colleagues through the book. Even so, he is still a professor at heart and remembers to provide positive comments to work well executed, "Twenty scholars from among my friends, colleagues, and former students contributed articles to this book from various countries of the world, and I am proud of them all."
On February 15, Boullata lectures on his current research on the writing of Ibn Abd Rabbih. The Institute will host a dinner in his honour at the Faculty Club.