Ira Lapidus Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Islamic Societies and Change: Conversation with Ira Lapidus, Professor Emeritus of History, University of California, Berkeley: 1/14/03 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Ira, welcome back to Berkeley.

Thank you, Harry.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised there. I went to high school there, and then I went to college and graduate school at Harvard.

Looking back, how did your parents shape your thinking about the world?

My parents were immigrants, and I guess the principal lesson in our family was that you had to get an education. They worked hard for a living, and they wanted my brother and me to be professionals. So they raised us with the expectation that we'd go to college and that we'd make our contribution to the world in some profession.

As you were growing up, did you have any teachers that shaped the course of your life?

Oh, yes, very much.

Any in particular you'd like to mention?

I had a high school teacher. His name was Morris Cohen, and he tutored me and prepared me for college. My high school was a big, urban high school.

What was its name?

Thomas Jefferson. It sent one student every year or two to Harvard. Mr. Cohen prepared me for admissions tests, and he said to me once (I didn't realize at the time how important this was going to be) that Asian studies was a really interesting field -- this was in the early 1950s -- and that it was interesting, it was a burgeoning field, a growing field. And that it was a field in which you could work on a broad canvas, you didn't have to do micro research. I guess I must have had this in mind when I was a junior. I was taking a class on Asian history.

This was now a junior in ... ?

This was now a junior at Harvard.


And there were two principal choices -- East Asia at 9:00 in the morning and Middle East at 11:00. So that settled my career.

I see!

In Middle Eastern and Islamic [studies].

So those important moments in time when there's a certain hour when a course is being offered and you take it, and there you are.

There I am.

Was it a natural fit between you and the study of the Islamic world?

I didn't think about it at the time. I liked the course. I liked the teacher. It was Sir Hamilton Gibb, who had just come from Oxford to teach at Harvard. He had just what I liked -- the broad overview, a vision of what history was like, and how it had unfolded in the Middle East. I grew into the subject, taking one class after another. I didn't have much of a question as to whether it had a fit. I had the kind of imagination that would work in a field like this. Gibb encouraged me very much to study sociology, in particular; also, anthropology, political science, so that I would have a social science background to bring into my history.

What does it take to be a historian, in addition to being grounded in many disciplines, as you just suggested?

I suppose it takes a desire to get away from everyday life.

I see.

And to live in the past. But it also ... I think it also takes a desire to make sense of one's own historical situation, and to find a way to order, to organize, to make a pattern and understanding of what the world has been like, how it works, and how we got to be here today, where we are.

Does that tell us what the historical imagination is? There is an imagination involved in all of this, right?

It's a kind of imagination to make a new, verbal universe that has explanatory power in your own world. How do societies come to be? Why do political situations work through the way they are? I can't define that imagination any more precisely for you.

I know that you're also a photographer, and I'm curious, what is it about photography that attracted you? Does it have any relation? What are the differences between doing work in photography and doing work in history?

The big difference, and the important difference to me, is that photography is not verbal. At least, when I do photographs, I don't work out an intellectual puzzle as much as I respond to something I see, and I try to get it in a mood and in a light and in a composition that I like. I like music for the same reason, that it's not verbal. So that's the contrast.

In photography, I guess the similarity is that I like to make slightly surreal images, images that you don't ordinarily see, but you can find. I take pictures of reflections on store windows. So maybe there's an analogy. You make up a universe that exists in your mind, and then you translate it into an image or into words that you can convey to other people.

Now before we talk about Islam and Islamic societies, I know you're also a world traveler. When did that start? Was it after you were in graduate school or once you became a historian?

I got a prize when I graduated from college. Harvard College gave a fellowship for a year of travel anywhere. The only stipulation of the fellowship was that you not spend more than two months in one place. That was a life-saving revelation. I thought the whole world was college and study, and then I discovered this great world of interests. I went to Europe, and I went to Morocco and to Turkey in that year of travels. That opened my life up. It gave me a lifelong love of travel and of new places and new experiences.

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