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“If you want to understand the mess we’re in today, you need to know some history.”

Eugene Rogan on language, the role of the historian, and the legacy of history 

Eugene Rogan, a historian of the Middle East and fellow of St. Anthony’s College is a tutor I feel slightly in awe of: charismatic and cheerful, fluent in several languages, always on the move to his next appointment, and for one of our classes, 3500 miles away in Cairo on a research trip. I spoke to him to learn how he came to be one of the most prominent historians of the Middle East. 

Rogan’s childhood was by no means conventional: “I was born in California, and had I grown up there, I probably would’ve been a surfer. Instead my folks dragged us off to Europe and the Middle East. I was 10 when we got to Beirut – we lived for 5 years in Lebanon. It was the outbreak of the Civil War which forced us to move – we sat through about 8 months and realised it wasn’t ending.”

This was 1975: The Lebanese Civil War would last 15 years, claiming 150,000 lives and displacing hundreds of thousands of people before it ended. Rogan’s family left and they lived in Cairo for the next 3 years. 

“The politics of the 1970s were so intense. I lived through, not just the Lebanese Civil War, but the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. When we were in Cairo, Anwar El-Sadat got on the plane to Israel, starting the whole Egyptian-Israeli Camp David process, which was amazing. These were big events, and I just don’t think any part of the world has ever been as interesting to me ever since. I think I was scarred from childhood.”

Rogan had lived in the Middle East as an expatriate, maintaining the ambition of returning to America for university. After studying Economics at Columbia University, he found himself drawn back to the Middle East, through history. “With all due respect to our colleagues and PPE, I found economics a very dry subject… I did a master’s in Middle Eastern Studies. And that was when for the first time I actually took some history classes, and I just loved it.”

“I made the fateful – and some would argue a terrible – decision to abandon the wealth and the career opportunities of a graduate in economics, to become a historian which prepared me for either driving a taxi or for being a professor. It was to prove the latter. And no regrets, looking back, but that was just sort of an unlikely trajectory. My first degree in history was my doctorate, which is a really weird way to go about it.”

Even at this point in his early career, Rogan had the linguistic background to open up a whole new world of source material, having learned Arabic in high school. For Rogan, his linguistic abilities not only play a huge role in historical research, but also the way he thinks.

“Language is the essential key for opening our understanding of other cultures. I just don’t think you can get there in translation. Languages gave me access to archives and sources that allowed me to really add value to our understanding of the history of the Middle East.”

Rogan pauses for a moment, to reflect upon the role of AI. “It may be the case now that we’re going to have such powerful translation tools, that it really will make redundant the need to study a foreign language to access documents and published sources in other languages.” 

“But even then, though, you’ll be able to translate documents and sources, you won’t have the same feel for a society that comes with the mental transition you have to make. I think differently when I’m thinking in French, or when I’m speaking in Arabic. The shape of your mouth changes, the inflection of your voice, the way you interact. You adapt to the culture of the language you’re using. And I think, no matter what AI does for us, it won’t give us that.” 

In the UK, the historical field still remains Western-oriented: only 13% of historians study the non-western world, even with the turn to a ‘global’ history from the 1990s onwards. One reason for it may be the barriers of language. “I think we suffer from the privilege of speaking the dominant world language.” Rogan remarks. “English speakers find that they can get by just fine in most professions, without mastering another language.”

“A good translation is a great door opener. I’m not going to say that the translation of text is the barrier to entering into the mindset of another society. But there is a higher degree of engagement that comes when you approach a society through its own language.”

Back to life as an Oxford academic, I asked Eugene about the role travel plays as a historian of the non-Western world. “It’s so much the fun of the job. I pat myself on the back for having the cleverness to choose a region that involves so many amazing destinations, that turns every one of my research trips into an adventure. Each of the times I’ve gone out to do field work as a period of the deepest personal enrichment: of friendships made, and of life lessons learned. It goes well beyond what I brought out of the archives.”

He recounts a time in Amman, Jordan where he undertook the task of going through Ottoman era land registers. “They couldn’t for the life of them understand why an American from such a prestigious university – they’d all heard of Harvard – was sitting in their land registry office, reading these dusty old records”

“One guy came over and said: ‘So you’re reading the books?’ I said, ‘Yeah’. He said, ‘Okay, I’ve got lots of documents from this region, back home, why don’t you come to my house, and I’ll show them to you.’

“I go to his house, and he gives me tea, we have a nice chat. ‘How about those documents?’’ I ask. He says, ‘No, no, there’s no documents. But let’s be honest. You’re reading the books to find the gold, right? The books will tell you so much. I know the land. If you tell me what you know, I’ll tell you what I know. Now we can find the gold together.’

The misunderstanding tapped into a tradition of local legends, of lost gold from the Roman era, still believed to be buried in the land. “He was completely convinced that I was trying to read through the Ottoman sources to get to the mystery of where they hid the gold. We kind of disappointed each other because he had no documents for me, and I had no gold for him. He was so convinced that I just was like, holding out trying to keep the gold to myself, it was very funny… it’s those sorts of encounters of your fieldwork that you just feel like gives you something that goes well beyond what you find in the archives.”

These sorts of stories remind us of how history is, in many ways, still living. And for this reason, Rogan’s work is undoubtedly informed by contemporary events in the Middle East. “What makes history relevant is the understanding it sheds on how we got to where we are today.”

“In a lot of my writing, I’ll always start with something quite contemporary. And the underlying message is if you want to understand the mess we’re in today, you need to know some history.”

“When you work on the Middle East, there are so many tensions and conflicts. In geological terms, you’re dealing with a zone full of fault lines. And there are just these constant natural disasters – so you want to study the fault lines and the plate tectonics that lie beneath them.”

I asked Rogan about whether there existed a divide, separating academia from the general audience. “I  think there are two levels in which academic historians operate.” He said. “One level is very much for the Academy… read uniquely by fellow scholars. This is how we get our tenure, we get promoted, you get published journals that have peer review. We do it not just for our promotion, but we do it also to push forward the barriers of academic knowledge. And I think we all begin like that – we’re demonstrating that we are active contributors, as academic practitioners.”

This changed with the publication of his 2009 book, ‘The Arabs: A History’. “I had been in the profession for 18 years. And at that point, I wanted to try and reach general readers, to share the fruits of my research and studies in a way that was accessible for people who are interested in the region and interested in history.”

“That was a real change of voice. And to be honest, I haven’t gone back since. Everything I’ve written since I’ve written with my ‘public intellectual’ voice… It’s a different role. I think both are great. I think both have different rewards. I don’t think you have to go the route of becoming a popular historian and a public intellectual. But if one decides to do that, it’s totally legitimate, and it has its own pleasures associated with it. 

Rogan’s newest book, ‘The Damascus Events’, recounts an event from 1860, yet it resounds even today, in 2024. It focuses on a Christian massacre that took place in Damascus in 1860, an event which Rogan calls a ‘genocidal moment’. 

“The first half of the book traces mounting tensions, that took a fully integrated Christian community and transformed into a group of people who came to be perceived as an existential threat. Then, you have to address the issue of what happens to a deeply divided society after a traumatic and divisive event like a massacre.”

“The second half of the book traces — over about 25 years – the steps taken by the Ottomans, not just to rebuild the Christian quarters, but to restore the Christian community to their economic role. But to overcome the divisions to such an extent that by the 1880s, you could really say that the communities had buried the hatchet and turned the page.”

“I hope that this book says there’s no quick fix, but there is a pathway. In that sense, even here, a book that was written about 19th-century Damascus, has a moral that is relevant to our concerns today. Not just in the Middle East, but wherever you’ve seen ‘genocidal moments’ that led societies to that brink, of saying extermination is a reasonable solution. And then asking: ‘how do you come back from that brink?’”

‘So a hopeful conclusion?’, I ask.

“As I tell people, the book starts really badly, but it has a happy ending.”

With thanks to Eugene Rogan for this interview.

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