Originally published in the June 12, 2002 issue of the Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier
Dr. Ali Ahmida sees himself as a bridge builder. As the chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of New England, Ahmida weaves a globalized, multi-cultural view into his classes, asking his students to see the similarities, rather than the differences in people of different cultures.
“I consider myself a bridge builder,” Ahmida said. “I am a Muslim and an American, I am both, and I look for the similarities in people. I think it’s unfortunate that we are taught to first see the differences because there are so many things that bind us together.”
The founder of UNE’s political science department, Ahmida was honored this year as the 17th recipient of the Kenneally Cup, an annual award given to one of the school’s faculty or staff members for distinguished academic service.
Ahmida is proud of the silver-plated award that sits on a shelf in his small office on the third floor of Marcil Hall. “Look at it,” he points. “It looks like the Stanley Cup.” But the award is only a small part of his success, Ahmida says. In large part, he credits UNE for having the vision to strengthen its humanities programs and for allowing its faculty the flexibility necessary to be innovative in their teaching approaches.
“UNE has a nice, civil atmosphere,” says Ahmida, relaxing in front of a window that overlooks an easterly portion of the school’s Biddeford Campus near the lower end of the SacoRiver. “You don’t find the elitism here that you do at other schools. We have great potential, and we’re not hampered by an overbearing bureaucracy. UNE trusted my knowledge to build a program. ”
Ahmida teaches several undergraduate courses at the university, ranging from Globalization: Origins, Cultures and Politics to European Fascism and Egypt through the Eyes of Mahfouz.
In all of his classes, Ahmida says, students can expect to work hard and have their traditional viewpoints challenged.
An opportunity to learn
Raised in a small town in southern Libya, Ahmida was a voracious reader and an outstanding scholar. Shortly after graduating from high school, he earned a scholarship to study at CairoUniversity in Egypt.
“That was quite an experience,” he laughed. “It’s like taking a kid from Saco and sending him to New York City.” Although his time in Cairo was troubled; he was labeled a student activist and blacklisted by the government, he was able to earn a bachelor’s degree and a small scholarship to further his education in the United States.
Ahmida says his time in Cairo allowed him to overcome his “parochialized view of the world” and exposed to him to many new veins of thought and culture.
“I read many American novels,” he said. “I watched American movies and listened to American music, but it wasn’t an easy choice to leave. My family was still in Libya, but I was becoming a problem for them. It wasn’t an easy decision. They talk here about Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt, but believe me — Muslim guilt is much worse.”
Upon arriving in the United States, Ahmida began his graduate work at the University of Washington in Seattle. “I told my father that God needed to fix the roof here,” he laughs. “Because it was always leaking.”
Part of a community
Today, Ahmida and his wife, Beth Flora, a former Olympic figure skater, are raising their children in Saco, where he says the community has become an integral part of his life.
“This community has been very good to us,” Ahmida says. “It was tough in the beginning because I felt as if we were starting from scratch. It’s true what they say; it takes New Englanders a while to open up, but once they do the process is over and you’re accepted.”
Until it was destroyed by fire last month, Ahmida was a regular at the Lily Moon Café in Pepperell Square. “I feel very much a part of this community,” he said.
But on Sept. 11, 2001, Ali Ahmida’s sense of security and acceptance in his adopted hometown seemed to shatter, if only briefly. While many Muslims around the country were taunted, beaten and ostracized in the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C, Ahmida’s life seemed to stay on track.
Only a few days after the attacks, Ahmida found himself grocery shopping at Hannaford in Saco — and he’ll never forget the face he saw staring back at him.
“It never happened to me in Maine before,” Ahmida explained. “Sure, people have gazed at me, but I always chalked that up to curiosity. They were probably trying to figure out my nationality . . . is he Muslim? An Indian? An African? But this one man was looking at me in a very nasty way. It really bothered me, and I was unable to finish my shopping because I was so shaken.”
Ahmida, who is constantly traveling these days to lecture in Rome, Canada and Africa, said he fully supports stepped-up security efforts at U.S. airports and other anti-terrorist measures.
“The terrorists were nothing but ignorant bigots,” Ahmida said. “They couldn’t control their hatred or find a point of dialogue to discuss their grievances. For the vast and overwhelming majority of Muslims, that was a day when their religion was hijacked from them.”
In his classes, Ahmida teaches his students about humanity’s common threads: the struggles of class, the pressures of family life and about the internal battles with one’s own ego. “My courses are not conventional,” he said. “I want to push my students forward into a new way of thinking. To be exposed to a larger world view.”
As part of that mission, Ahmida established UNE’s Core Connections program that has attracted dozens of notable guest speakers, such as feminist Betty Friedan, to the school’s Biddeford campus.
“It’s all about expanding our learning horizons,” Ahmida says. “I am building the bridges. It’s up to my students to cross them.”