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Cultural Kaleidoscope: Caesar Farah

By Kate TylerWriting on a laptop computer in the dining room of his suburban Minneapolis home, Middle East historian Caesar Farah sometimes finds his glance wandering to the curved dagger adorning a wall near the window. Sheathed in wood and crisscrossed with a woven brocade belt, the sword is a janbiyi, a traditional dagger worn by Yemeni men for centuries. It's rarely used as a weapon today, Farah notes. But for him it is an evocative reminder of the complex and often violent history of the Middle East, where ethno-religious conflict and epic struggles over oil, land, and power have pushed the region--and the entire world--to the dagger's edge of catastrophe.

7.jpgFarah has worked to get a fix on the turbulent Middle East since long before such enterprise became a geopolitical necessity. A son of Lebanese immigrants who grew up in both Oregon and Beirut, Farah studied at Princeton in the 1950s with Philip K. Hitti, the legendary historian who introduced Arab cultural studies to the United States. Even so, few universities at the time had slots for Middle Eastern specialists; when Farah completed his Ph.D., he had to settle at first for a foreign service post in New Delhi. Things improved only incrementally in the 1960s. When Farah was hired at the end of the decade by the University of Minnesota, it was less for his faculty experience at two other universities--not to mention his pioneering publications on the Ottoman Empire--than for his Arabic language proficiency.

In the 1970s, however, the field of Middle Eastern studies began to coalesce, with Farah a leading exponent. At Minnesota, his teaching and leadership in multiple departments helped the new multidisciplinary area of study take root (with the history department's thriving Middle Eastern subfield one culmination). At the same time, Farah made his own mark as a widely respected scholar. He has published 12 books and hundreds of articles, including the country's first Arabic language textbook and important studies of Yemen and Lebanon under the 400-year Ottoman reign that lasted until World War I.

Farah is perhaps best known as a meticulous and at times unflinching expert on the history of Islam. His 500-page guide to the history and culture of the Arab Peninsula long has been a staple of college classrooms. It covers Islam as a major political and social force and details the practices and beliefs of Islam as a religion. In its latest editions, Farah offers post-9/11 analysis of the motivations that inspire Islamic extremism--a topic he is also tapped to address in interviews and speeches around the globe.

"We can learn a lot by taking a clear-eyed look at history," says Farah. Conflicts over religion, nationalism, ideology, and land have roiled the Middle East for centuries. Yet present-day unrest owes much to 20th-century politics, he observes.

"The United States stayed out of it after World War I when the British and French took over the Middle East--set up colonies in Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine; created Iraq. Even amid growing Arab nationalism, the United States remained the most admired country in the world. So what changed? How is it that today we are so mistrusted and even despised across the Middle East?"

What changed, Farah says, is that by World War II the United States was advancing its own interests in the region. The discovery of huge oil fields came into play; so, too, did U.S.-Soviet power struggles. Another factor: The state of Israel, whose 1948 establishment in the heart of the Arab world displaced 700,000 native Palestinians.

Farah's deep interest in the Middle East took hold from a front-row seat. He spent his formative years in Beirut, where he and his mother were stranded during World War II. He returned briefly to his Portland hometown (where his father owned a department store) before heading off to Stanford University, where he soon was engrossed in historical studies. "One of my professors was a former World War II intelligence officer who was impressed that I knew Arabic. He said, 'We need people like you,'" Farah recalls.

He has never been one to keep the world at arm's length. In a planned memoir, he hopes to revisit his travels across India and Pakistan as a cultural attaché during the turbulent years after India's partition. He met pivotal Pakistani figures such as Ayub Khan, Ziya ul-Haqq, and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He also enjoyed friendships with his Soviet counterparts--under the wary eyes of both the CIA (which tapped his phone) and the KGB (which insisted he down several vodkas before mingling with guests at a Soviet Embassy reception).

He has since journeyed often to the Middle East (and elsewhere), especially as a lecturer for the U.S. State Department. He met his spouse, Irmgard Tenkamp, a German scholar, while lecturing in Istanbul, and notes that his six children grew up "getting to know dozens of international airports."

Even for a historian, the conflicts between Arab nationalism and political Zionism pose political minefields, Farah has found. "But I've always seen my role as working toward reconciliation in the Middle East--between feuding parties in that part of the world and between those parties and the U.S," he says.

Today's war in Iraq does not give Farah much cause for optimism. "My view is that our foreign policies toward the Middle East have failed-- they were really failing when Bin Laden showed up," he says. "We do need to look at our foreign policies in historical perspective. We also need to bring into our policymaking a stronger understanding of the cultural and religious history of the Middle East. Looking at history is really going to be our best hope for peace in the long run, and that means looking at history from all sides."

07/02/09

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