It’s a long way from his interest in ancient Egypt while going to grade school in St. James, Minn., to becoming assistant to the dean at the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies.
For Matthew Kuehl, 22, a 2006 graduate of St. Thomas – and its first Arabic major, Middle Eastern minor – it’s a natural progression from his study-abroad experiences.
“This stems from a long history of learning about ancient Egypt when I was young,” Kuehl recalled. “Eventually as I grew older, I started to explore the region’s modern history and politics, which equally intrigued me. The next logical step was to take Arabic. My studies in the Arabic language and the Middle East derive from a genuine love and interest of the Middle East, its peoples, cultures and language.”
Kuehl, who started St. Thomas in fall 2002, studied at the American University in Cairo from fall 2004 to spring 2005. He also traveled throughout Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Turkey during that year.
During his senior year, Kuehl worked as an Arabic teaching assistant and tutor. He also was the student assistant for the Middle Eastern studies minor, under St. Thomas faculty member Dr. Pam Nice, who coordinates the Associated Colleges of the Twin Cities Middle Eastern program.
When he went to Washington, D.C., to look for a job, Kuehl was told that if he wanted to work in the Middle East, it would be best to do so while he was young. “I learn much more from experience than from textbooks, so I was itching to return to the Arab world,” he said.
“I wanted to work in the People’s Republic of Yemen because it is one of the least-known places of the Arab world. It is virtually isolated in the southwestern corner of the Arabian Peninsula, and therefore has retained most of its culture and traditions.”
Kuehl resides in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen, situated between Saudi Arabia to the north and Somalia to the south. The old city quarter with its distinctive four and five-story houses dating back centuries is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
“Although you won’t find many Western amenities such as movies, malls or bars,” Kuehl said, “the city’s quiet charm and warm people offer unique alternatives. You forget how different it really is from Minneapolis-St. Paul.”
“My current job is assistant to the dean of the Yemen College of Middle Eastern Studies, opening fall 2008. Since we are transitioning from a language school into an American-accredited study-abroad college, there is a lot of work to carry out right now. For instance, we are doing a tour of American universities this winter and spring, promoting our college as a place to study abroad. I am also working on hiring faculty and staff.
“While much of our focus is on students studying Arabic, we also host U.S. State Department scholarship recipients, congressional staff and scholars from think tanks.”
Middle Eastern studies is very important today because “mutual understanding is needed to break cross-cultural stereotype,” Kuehl said.
“I am a firm believer in citizen diplomacy – a one-on-one interaction between Americans and Arabs. That is why I love bringing students over to Yemen. It helps in showing a true image of an Arab to an American, but also the reverse. Although this is minute on the larger scale of change, true images in Middle East diplomacy are most effective.
“I do think that there would be much better relations between the two regions if people really understood one another instead of just assuming certain myths to be true, or over-generalizing an entire population.”