MESA - Middle East Studies Association

2013 Presidential Address/Bio

Peter Sluglett

Peter Sluglett

2013 MESA President, Peter Sluglett, delivered his Presidential Address, "Of Springs and Revolutions, and Cabbages and Kings" on Friday, October 11, 2013. The address will appear in the summer 2014 issue of the Review of Middle East Studies.

I was born in December 1943 in windy, foggy North Cornwall, where my father was a country doctor. In 1947 we moved to the balmier climes of Bristol, where my parents lived for the rest of their lives. My father came from great poverty (‘e never forgot ‘e was workin’ class’, one of his elderly patients said to me at his funeral) and was a fervent advocate of socialised medicine He very much welcomed the day in May 1948 when the National Health Service arrived, and he ‘no longer had to charge the patients’. I had a secure and happy childhood; my parents had very different characters, my father mercurial and impulsive, my mother the calm hand on the tiller. She would carefully edit and retype his intemperate letters to the local and medical press; they were married nearly 60 years.

The funny family name is alas still a mystery to me, since I never persisted hard enough in trying to trace its origin. I know that my grandparents arrived in Glasgow from Zhitomir in 1904 or 1905, leaving the Ukraine after the Kishinev pogrom. Some of his siblings were born before the family arrived in Glasgow, but my father, perhaps the fifth of eight children, was born there in July 1910. Some time in his early teens, he lost his faith, and remained a robust 19th century anti-clerical (with a broad Scottish accent) for the rest of his life. Religion was simply not discussed at home; my mother was nominally Anglican, but I really don’t think she gave much thought to the faith of her fathers either.  My parents’ marriage was greatly disapproved of in Glasgow, and as far as I know my grandfather never saw or spoke to my father again. I am sure that what he regarded as my grandfather’s sheer unreasonableness hardened my father’s hostility to religion; he was absolutely devoted to my mother and could not understand his attitude.

So I grew up in Bristol, and eventually went to Clifton College, where my seniors included Michael Cook and Roger Allen – as well as John Cleese, who used to make powerful comic declamations on a number of topics from the top of the stairs leading down from the dining hall into the quadrangle below. With all the limitations one now takes for granted in the context of an all-boys’ school (and I boarded, or lived in, for my last four years), I think we had a good education, taught by real enthusiasts, particularly in History and English, who returned all our essays individually, spattered with comments in red ink – a tradition I continued with my own students in Durham and Salt Lake. The way the British ‘O’ and ‘A’ level system worked at the time was that at quite a young age – I think I was 15, or even 14 – one could drop all the subjects one didn’t like or was no good at. So I never did any Biology, and soon dropped Chemistry, Maths, and Physics: I continued with English, French, History and Latin, and made brief forays into Spanish and Russian, the latter two more or less for fun (Vot samolyot, vot tiperishnji russkiy istrabychil. Here is an aeroplane; it is a modern Russian fighter plane).

In December 1961, I went to Cambridge to take the College Entrance examination; my history teacher Michael Scott had been at King’s, and I was fortunate enough to be accepted at the college of my first choice. Before going ‘up’ to Cambridge in 1962, I took a train to Athens and spent most of the summer and fall in Greece; in the summer of 1963, I took a train to Istanbul, and reached northern Syria some time in early July: the graffiti on the walls read ‘Nasser is our chief’. Sitting in one of the open air cafés under the citadel of Aleppo a few days later – and with a few weeks in Turkey already behind me – I realised that I had found something I had not quite known that I was looking for: I had always wanted to be a historian, and I had toyed with working on Italy (which I had visited) and on Central America (which I had not). After Aleppo, I knew that I would work on the Middle East. Whether this decision was wise, or brave, or foolhardy is difficult to say: it is a choice that I have never regretted, and one that has brought extraordinary richness to my life. So I went back to Cambridge to learn Arabic, and took an extra year to do so.

After Cambridge I spent a rather miserable year teaching at the University of Riyadh; in the course of the year I made a quick trip to Oxford to meet Albert Hourani, who would become instrumental in establishing me firmly on the course that has dominated the rest of my life. I was always interested in imperialism and colonialism, and I chose to study the British mandate in Iraq. A large run of British archival documents was made available in the late 1960s, and I was also fortunate enough to discover a large and hitherto untapped source, the Baghdad High Commission Files, sent to Delhi for safe keeping in 1941. Hourani was the most wonderful mentor, but I also learned a great deal from Robert Mabro and Roger Owen, who were both teaching at Oxford.

Between 1974 and 1994 I taught Middle Eastern History at Durham University; it palled after a while, but I had a very fruitful writing partnership with my wife Marion, whom I met in what was then the Public Record Office off Chancery Lane in August 1970, until her early death in 1996. Another important influence was the meetings of the ‘Hull Group’, three times a year, a group of ‘Young Turks’ including Talal Asad, Ken Brown, Michael Gilsenan, Roger Owen and Sami Zubaida, to discuss ‘contemporary issues in the Middle East’. Sami’s parties in London were legendary. I always try to go to a meeting if there’s one on when I’m in the UK.

In 1992, Zach Lockman took a sabbatical from Harvard, and Hourani asked me if I would like to replace him. After that I didn’t want to go back to British academia. In 1996 I became Director of the Middle East Center at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, for some six years, ‘going back’, as it were, to the History Department afterwards. I remarried very happily in Salt Lake: I now have four stepchildren, (two German-Iraqi boys in England, and a Persian girl and a Persian boy in Salt Lake) and three step-grandsons. They are all very different, but, to our great delight, they all get on with each other when the grandchildren come to ski in Utah.   

All my life I have been sustained by, and been able to spend a lot of time with, my family, and I’ve never lived more than a couple of miles from my office.  I’ve written two books on Iraq, one by myself, another with Marion. Although I keep promising never to do it again, I have co-edited or edited four books: on the historiography of Iraq, on the Middle East mandates, on the urban social history of the Middle East, and a Festschrift for Abdul-Karim Rafeq on the history of Ottoman Bilad al-Sham, and a couple of others where my contribution has been more narrowly editorial. I very much enjoy going to small conferences, and I’ve been fortunate to have been asked to write for several younger people’s promotions, so I’ve able to see where the field has been going over the last few years. During this time, Shohreh has been more than generous in giving me the space to write and thrive, and she has also selflessly entertained a couple of generations of students and colleagues in Salt Lake and now in Singapore.

So here I am at what will almost certainly be the last stop in my academic career, at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore; much as I’ve enjoyed American academia, I do not want to return to it. As I’ve written elsewhere, Singapore is very far both from the Middle East and the United States, a fun place to live, with truly wonderful food and entertainment. Our bright and airy eighth floor apartment overlooks a major container port, with huge ships arriving and leaving at all hours (fortunately, they don’t hoot!). In general, I am eternally grateful to the three universities that I have employed me for never having obliged me to have to teach any particular topic, or supervise any graduate student that I had not chosen myself. I’ve had a rewarding and enriching career, and I hope it continues for a long time.

When I can get other things out of my mind, I suppose one of my happiest pursuits is the act of writing, usually in an ever-increasingly circular style, returning to the beginning of whatever it is I’m writing and make a little more progress with the whole every day. In the immediate future I have two main tasks, a short talk/article on Gertrude Bell’s views of the Ottomans, and my presidential address for New Orleans, on a topic that I will keep away from the long arm of the paparazzi for the time being …



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