Juan Cole Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with Juan Cole, Professor of History, University of Michigan; October 20, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Background

Professor Cole, welcome to Berkeley.

Thank you very much.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, but it was really as someone who was passing through. My father was in the military and was stationed there at the time, and when I was age two we left for France.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

My family was a military family. My father was in the signal corps in the army and then ultimately in the satellite corps. My mother was from a small town in northern Virginia. My father was from near Winchester, in northern Virginia. They were from a generation that came to consciousness during World War II, and then they went out into the world. They lived seven years in France; they lived in Africa.

My father was from the generation of U.S. military servicemen who, I think, were very much influenced by Truman's reorganization of the military, and especially his emphasis on ending any kind of discrimination. So my father was strong on civil rights, and that may have come out of the Truman military of the fifties and sixties. It has other sources as well, of course.

My mother was from a small farming background, and her father at some point worked for a magnesium mine, not as a miner but on the compound. She has always stood up for the little people, and her background is that she knows them and knows their problems in life. The thing that most outrages her is when she reads a newspaper article about fat cats taking advantage of people. So, she was very influential on my thinking in that regard.

Where were you educated?

Well, initially on a series of military bases at dependent schools, in part. Sometimes we were living off the base, what the military calls "on the economy." So, sometimes I would be in civilian schools, but at other times I would be on the base, and here and there. I went to twelve different schools in twelve years, although in some instances I was there for a couple years but then we would move on. We had two long tours in France. The second time I was on a base school.

I went to high school partially at Kagnew Station in Eritrea, in Asmara. But then in between, first grade in Fuquay Springs, North Carolina, and I did some sixth grade in Bakersfield, California, and we were at Fort Dix for a while, and so forth. So, all over.

Very cosmopolitan in a unique way. Where did you do your undergraduate work?

My undergraduate work I did at Northwestern. I went to Northwestern because I had a dear friend when we were stationed in Asmara, in Eritrea, who was a couple years older than I, and he had gone to Northwestern, and we had kept in touch. We corresponded and we had many of the same interests. He encouraged me to apply there; otherwise, I might not [have]. My family settled ultimately in northern Virginia, so I might not have known much about the Chicago area. But I applied there on his recommendation, as well as a number of other places, and Northwestern was very generous to me, and so I felt I should go there.

And then on to Columbia for graduate work?

No, that was UCLA. Well, actually in between. I finished at Northwestern in 1975. I had an opportunity in my senior year to spend two quarters abroad on a scholarship, and I was able to design a project that would take me wherever I liked. We had stopped off in Beirut in 1968 on the way back from Eritrea and I had fallen in love with the place. So I spent two quarters of my senior year doing a research project in Beirut while at Northwestern. I graduated and I came back to Beirut in the fall of '75 in hopes of doing an MA at the American University in Beirut on Shi'ite Islam. That was my plan, and the civil war interposed itself and I was displaced from there and went to Jordan, and ultimately did the degree instead at the American University in Cairo.

I came back to Beirut for a year, and then it became clear to me that Lebanon was just not going to be a hospitable place to foreigners. I was working in Beirut in '78-'79 for a newspaper, doing more translation than journalism proper, but it got some of the printers ink in my blood and taught me how to read quickly and to distill information, to put things in an inverted pyramid form and to work under pressure. My editor would give me a story to translate and research and I'd have to have it back to him in two hours, and so forth, and I would do that from six in the evening 'til twelve midnight or one o'clock in the morning, there in Beirut. Sometimes the Syrians and the Maronites would fight, and the electricity would be knocked out, and we wouldn't know whether we'd be able to get the paper out the next morning or not, so we were finishing it up by hand in candlelight in case the electricity would come back on.

That experience in Beirut, where I [lived] off and on between '75 and spring of '79, was very formative for me. I lived through the beginnings of that civil war. I had been there also in the summer of '77.

I went on to UCLA in '79, and by that time the Iranian revolution had happened. I wanted to do my dissertation on Shi'ite Islam in Iran, if I could, on the roots of the power of the clergy. Nowadays, perhaps, it's no longer shocking to people that the Shi'ite clergy rules Iran; however, in 1978 no one was expecting that to happen. The Shah seemed perhaps a little shaky on his throne, and the country could've gone in a number of directions, book coverbut clerical rule was something that was not in any observer's mind, I think. However, because of the hostage crisis, I was unable to go to Iran.

I wanted to work on Shi'ism, and I wanted to do field work because the subject was under-researched. I don't think it was a good subject for a "library dissertation" at that time. I wanted to go out into the field. Lebanon was in flames, Iraq was under the Baath government, and anyway was fighting a war with Iran and wasn't a particularly appealing or safe place. I probably couldn't have gotten a research visa for the subject there. All the Shi'ite countries were closed to me. But I discovered from doing some manuscript research that there were lots of Arabic and Persian manuscripts in India and Pakistan from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that would help to explore the development of Shi'ite thought and institutions in that age. There was, in fact, a Shi'ite-ruled kingdom in northern India between the fall of the Mughal empire and the rise of the British. So, that's what led me to South Asia.

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