Olivier Roy Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Political Imagination of Islam: Conversation with Olivier Roy, Senior 
  Researcher, Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris: 4/16/02 by 
  Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 1 of 6

Background

Olivier, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in La Rochelle in France, on the Atlantic coast, in '49.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

Fortunately, my parents don't understand English, so they will not be able to listen to this. In fact, I was brought up in a Protestant family, which is a minority in France. So, there was the presence of my grandfather, who was a Protestant cleric at La Rochelle. I would say I was brought up in the traditional values of French Protestantism, which includes an interest in intellectual things and a certain moral rigor.

Do you remember any books that you read as a young person that stand out, that influenced you, even before you went to college?

We used to read the Bible, not at home, but in Sunday school. I used to read a lot of books, and some of these books were not intended for young children at that time. Many travel stories. A book by Joseph Cassell on Afghanistan, for example. I have been very influenced by travel stories.

So you had broad horizons, even when you were young.

Yes, yes.

The world was your perspective.

Yes. I was fascinated by the simple idea of traveling.

Where did you do your college education?

My college education was in La Rochelle. When I finished college, I went to Paris to enlist for preparatory school to enter the Ecole Normale Superieure, which is one of the highest high schools in France for the humanities.

What did you major in once you were at the university, and where did you do your graduate work?

My field was philosophy. My first book was my dissertation for MBA. It was on language and China. So even at the time I was dreaming of the horizons, both intellectual and geographic.

Were you a student in the sixties? How were you affected by the revolution in Paris then?

The high school where I enlisted in Paris was Lycée de Louis LeGrand, and it was just at the center of the core of the Quartier Latin. So, there was at that time a huge politicization. I was in a boarding school, living in a dormitory. The whole dormitory turned ultra-leftist. To be very precise, we all became Maoists for two years in Paris. For some months it was a story of demonstrations against the police. Demonstrations against the Americans, of course. We once broke the windows of the Hilton Hotel.

What led you to your focus on Islam and the countries of Islam?

During '69, when I was both preparing the entry to the Ecole Normale Supérieure and I was also a militant of this small ultra-leftist group, I planned to travel to Afghanistan, for different reasons. It was a dream, a dream of childhood. Every evening, I spent one hour learning Persian from an English book: Teach Yourself Persian. I was learning by myself, so I didn't have any idea about the pronunciation. I wasn't sure if what I was learning was the real Persian language. Suddenly, just like that, I decided to go to Afghanistan. I missed the exam to enter the high school. I went outside Paris, hitchhiking. It took me six weeks to get to Afghanistan. I spent three months in Afghanistan. This was my first encounter with Islam and the Middle East.

How old were you then and what year was this?

It was in '69 and I was nineteen years old.

At that point the country was more stable than it became.

Not only the country, but the whole area. In '69 you could travel from Paris to New Delhi with just two visas. No war, no civil war, no revolution, nothing. So it was the hippie trail. The first stop was Istanbul, the second Tehran, then Kabul and, for many people, then Kathmandu. I was totally immersed in this hippie culture of the sixties, which, for me, was a way to get rid of the hyper-politicization of the life in Paris at that time.

Having gone there, what led you to then want to study this place where you had been? Why that choice as opposed to others?

In Afghanistan I traveled on foot a lot, from village to village, and I was in close touch with the peasantry in Afghanistan. I was struck by two things. First, we were all human beings; we could chat, discuss our polymorph lives or things like that. Secondly, it was a totally different society. At the time, of course, I was young, it was a bit romantic, so I was thinking about life in the village. This contradiction of the closeness of the human contacts and the difference of culture pushed me to say, "Okay, I have to study Islam, I have to study Persian more. I have to go back not only to understand the society, but, in a sense, to live in it." I didn't do that at the time for academic studies. I had no ideas of writing books, of turning anthropologist, or anything like that. I just wanted to travel to Afghanistan every year. And then, usually in the fall, I would go back to my place and resume my job. At that time I was a school teacher. I was quite happy to be a school teacher.

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