Different Backgrounds, Shared Experiences

Published March 08, 2019 by Emma Heyn, Alissa Symon and Tara Zammit

On International Women's Day (8 March 2019), Emma Heyn, Alissa Symon and Tara Zammit reflect on their time so far as students in the University of Cambridge MPhil programme in Middle Eastern Studies (Muslim-Jewish Relations) which is taught in collaboration with the Woolf Institute.

'We are all much more alike than we are unalike.' - Abherjhani

Coming from Ireland, Israel and Canada, we each brought with us our own preconceived notions and expectations of what this programme was going to look like and what we would both contribute to and get out of it. It has genuinely been so much more than that which we could have anticipated.

Tara, Emma and Alissa

Intellectually, the programme has been incredibly challenging, stimulating and, most of all, rewarding. Whether focusing on the relationship between merchants in medieval Cairo or discussing Maghrebi colonial politics, we have been exposed to a wide range of topics and sources that have proved invaluable for our understandings of interfaith relations. The ability to access some of the most precious resources in our fields, including ancient Genizah manuscripts, has made each day special and unique. The atmosphere at the Woolf Institute is welcoming and hospitable, and we could not be more grateful for the support that we have been offered both personally and academically.

An asset of studying this programme is the interdisciplinary nature of the subject of interfaith relations. This enables us to reach beyond the scope of our own departments and interact with scholars, speakers, and texts in other areas that prove indispensably useful. Our individual foci attests to this as well: Emma's work on medieval Almohad travelogues, Alissa's study of the American and Israeli political Left and Tara's research on ontological security and the IDF substantiates the value of studying Muslim-Jewish relations in a wide variety of contexts.

Dialogue between women in an academic setting is, unfortunately, rare even today. To be able to have such rigorous, challenging debates and conversations amongst the three of us has been nothing short of a joy. The foundations of this programme, laid in our first term by Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner and her incredible knowledge and sense of humour, made it clear how lucky we are to be here amongst such strong women.

Tara, Emma and Alissa with Dr Esther-Miriam Wagner (Acting Director & Director of Research, Woolf Institute) and Dunya Habash (Researcher, Woolf Institute)

This experience has also helped us all to become more confident in our places at this university. Cambridge can be a very overwhelming place at times, and you can sometimes feel a little lost trying to navigate your way through it all. The support network we have been able to form through our professors, classmates, and each other has been instrumentally helpful.

In some ways, we embody part of what the Woolf Institute was founded for. We all stem from very different religious and geographic backgrounds, but commonality is formed through the conversations and debates we engage in every week. This has been a treasured, formative learning experience and we have all been made the better by it.

Details of the MPhil programme in Middle Eastern Studies (Muslim-Jewish Relations) and Woolf Institute Cambridge Scholarship can be found here.

Back to Blog