In September 1973, within the first weeks of Professor Swartz’s beginning Arabic course, most students had dropped out, and three remaining women joined forces to conquer Thatcher’s “Arabic Grammar of the Written Language.” What an improbable trio we were! Jeri was a talented religion major from Miami who often swept into class wearing a mink coat. I was a politically-naïve dressed-down southerner who had become captivated by the Near East overseas the semester before. Holly, a pedigreed Corning, NY native, was classics major for whom Arabic complemented the ancient Greek and Roman she had begun to master. For us, Arabic was a discipline, a complicated, intricate enterprise not to be lightly tossed off: it was a badge of distinction to distinguish a seated-Hamza from a Hammam.
Holly’s commitment to Arabic and her passion for the classics belied a 1970s assumption that a beautiful blond with an over-sized personality might better enjoy weekends socializing on the Cape than studying a serious curriculum. But charting a clear path to her goals was Holly’s strong suit. Every time I ran into Holly, she had a book in her hand, a Greek or Roman text she was translating, often to the amusement or annoyance of anyone nearby. In spite of her endless capacity for mirth, scholarship and learning were foremost on Holly’s mind. It was clear that what mattered to Holly was that others take her as seriously as she took herself. She had a brain and she knew how to use it.
Yet, what I love and respect the most about Holly is her irrepressible spirit and her ability to surprise. The July after mastering “Thatcher’s Grammar,” Holly and I took an intermediate Arabic class, a serious, tedious summer session in sweltering-hot Cambridge. While running an errand at a break, Holly was caught in a rainstorm and returned to Harvard Yard thoroughly drenched, dripping hair, wet clinging tee-shirt and all. “I’ve just bumped into the man I’m going to marry,” she boldly declared. “What?” I replied incredulously. I had never heard her refer to a serious boyfriend much less a prospective husband. I could only imagine the scene: Holly, shivering in the bank line…some strange guy comes up to offer assistance and momentarily sweeps her off her feet.” “No,” she breathlessly insisted, “I’m going to marry Greg Nagy.” And so, she did. At the time, I didn’t know who Greg was. But like everything else, Holly’s vision for her life was clear and decisive, and the match was brilliant.
Festschrifts honor the scholar. I honor Holly, the scholar and the irrepressible young woman in an unlikely trio of Arabic language students forty-five years ago.
– January 2018