The Book of Roger

May 15, 2017

Roger Owen, A.J. Meyer Professor of Middle Eastern History Emeritus and a former CMES director, first encountered the Middle East as a young soldier during his national military service in Cyprus from 1955 to 1956, during which time he visited Cairo, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Beirut. He has lived and traveled throughout the region, and spent his academic and professional life at Oxford and Harvard, where he taught, studied, made friends, and tried to understand the Middle East through its politics, economic life, history, and popular culture. He kept an almost daily journal recording his thoughts and feelings, and since 1986 wrote a regular op-ed column for the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat.

Roger Owen and William GrahamNow comes his memoir A Life in Middle East Studies (Tadween Publishing, 2016), an attempt to record and make sense of a life spent studying a culture very different from his own. "It's dedicated to my children,” says Owen. “I wanted to write it for them because I wanted them to know something about my professional life, and children don’t necessarily get told much when they’re young—you know, 'Dad has gone off to Kuwait' or something, but no reason why. Also, very often senior people in Middle East studies have written about the Middle East but never explained why they were interested in the Middle East, or how they came to hold the ideas that they held, and so I wanted to do that. Third, I was interested in what in England we would call a 'primer,' a kind of how-to-do-it about what it’s like to be someone from outside an area studying that area. I wanted to tell young people setting out in the field, this is what it was like to be studying the Middle East at this particular moment in time, this is how I did it, these are the questions I asked, these are the places I visited, and these are the advantages and disadvantages of being an outsider, an observer."

"In this personal memoir," writes Khaled Fahmy, Shawwaf Visiting Professor at Harvard and Owen’s former student at Oxford, "we are not only given a first-hand account of what it was like to live in the region through such tumultuous moments as the 1956 tripartite aggression on Egypt and the impact that the 1967 War had on Jordanian, Lebanese, and Palestinian lives. We are also offered a rare glimpse into how these moments, and many others, have shaped the political choices and the academic career of a leading scholar who has been at the center of the field of Middle East studies for over fifty years."

Listen to an interview with Owen about the memoir in a recent Fares Center podcast.