Nabil Al-Tikriti doesn’t just teach about the Middle East, he lives it.
Aboard the Bourbon Argos rescue ship this month, the University of Mary Washington professor has seen the desperation of Eritrean, Bangladeshi, Palestinian, and Syrian refugees and migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Greece and Italy. As a relief worker in Somalia, he witnessed how famine ravaged millions in the country during the ’90s. As an official observer, he experienced the emotional 2014 presidential election in Ukraine in the aftermath of the country’s violent revolution.
“I feel I can lecture more effectively about countries I’ve worked in,” said Al-Tikriti, associate professor of history and American studies who has taught at UMW since 2004. “You can learn a lot quite quickly when you’re there.”
An Iraqi American and consummate New Orleanian, Al-Tikriti has traveled to more than 50 countries as professor, election observer and relief worker.
“I guess you can say I have three careers going on at once,” said Al-Tikriti, who has studied six languages, lectures internationally and provides commentary to international media.
His original scholarly interest in Arab studies began as a “rootsie” curiosity. His Iraqi father immigrated to the U.S. in the ’60s as a graduate student and settled in New Orleans, where he met an Air Force colonel’s daughter studying for a biology doctorate, and where the younger Al-Tikriti was born and raised.
At first, Al-Tikriti aimed for a diplomatic career, graduating from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He then earned a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University, where he became intrigued by international economic development and relief work.
Al-Tikriti began a career in international relief with Catholic Relief Services in Iraq in the early ’90s, then gravitated to the international medical humanitarian aid organization Médecins sans Frontières (MSF-Doctors Without Borders), which took him to Somalia, Iran, Albania, Turkey, Jordan and Syria. As a field administrator, he negotiated with community leaders; served as liaison with United Nations, nongovernmental organizations and local government personnel; and dealt with staff personnel issues in a war zone.
Along the way, he decided to study further, eventually completing a doctorate in Ottoman History at the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He considers that experience the most difficult mental and psychological challenge he’s faced.
He continues his work today. Since 2011, he’s served on the MSF-USA Board of Directors and was gratified to be a member of the organization when it was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. He joined an MSF team on a humanitarian mission to Syria in 2013, and, for a month this summer, is volunteering as a cultural facilitator on the MSF relief ship which has already rescued hundreds from the Mediterranean waters off of Libya.
“The stories individuals told us about simply trying to reach the Mediterranean, combined with the risks they faced once on the sea, really showed me how dangerous life can be when you’re poor and carrying the wrong passport,” said Al-Tikriti.
Since 1997, he has served as a polling station supervisor and election monitor, through the Peace Corps and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, observing 11 elections in seven countries, including Bosnia, Kosovo, Ukraine, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Albania.
In Ukraine, he understood the angst voters experienced after the 2014 revolution that resulted in the ousting of the then President Viktor Yanukovych.
“Where I was, they felt the elections were about the survival of the country,” he said. “It was very emotional.”
When the polls closed on the final day, revelers played Ukraine’s national anthem and voters cried.
These firsthand accounts make current events come alive for his students. Junior history major Megan Connor said Al-Tikriti’s classes have broadened her view of the world and history.
“Professor Al-Tikriti was the first professor who included non-western topics into [a history] syllabus, said Connor, who got hooked on history after Al-Tikriti’s history of genocides course her freshman year. “He has extensive knowledge about the subject matter as well as real life experience, particularly in the topic of humanitarianism.”
Al-Tikriti’s mentoring extends beyond the classroom.
“He’s always willing to go the extra mile for his students,” said Connor.
Perhaps his most notable counsel at UMW is in assisting students and faculty in securing prestigious Fulbright grants for international study. Since he started advising in 2006, 13 students have received the scholarships, prompting Mary Washington’s recognition as a top producer of Fulbright scholars by the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the Department of State, is the nation’s flagship international exchange program.
A two-time Fulbright recipient himself, Al-Tikriti understands the exceptional opportunity the grants provide for research and networking around the world and has set up a committee that supports grant-seekers through the application and interview process.
One such scholar, Eric Halsey ’11, credits Al-Tikriti with encouraging him to apply for a Fulbright, even though he was never able to take one of his classes and had already graduated.
The experience opened a world of possibilities for Halsey who studied in Bulgaria in 2012.
“Professor Al-Tikriti showed me that the life I’m living now is possible,” said Halsey a digital marketing specialist for Hop Online in Sofia, Bulgaria. Like his mentor, Halsey juggles multiple interests. In addition to his career, he gives private lessons in English and history, creates Bulgarian podcasts and provides political and historical commentary for Bulgarian radio and TV.
He still keeps in close contact with his adviser. Like a proud father, Al-Tikriti respects his students’ accomplishments. And he’s quick to offer unsolicited advice to ensure a fulfilling future.
“Learn as many languages as possible and study abroad,” he said, “not just for a week or three, but for a semester or a year. If you live abroad, you’ll learn so much more than if you’re just passing through. It’s a completely different experience.”