Juan Cole: Forced to Defend His Credentials





I just haven't had time to watch the Hitchens/ Galloway debate, and won't have time to do it until this weekend. Kind readers are messaging me to say that they thought they heard my name come up. In response to Galloway's citation of my article critiquing Hitchens's defense of the ongoing Iraq war, I am told that Hitchens said words to the effect that I "claimed" to know Arabic and Persian but that I had never been in the region to his knowledge, and that I changed my mind every two seconds. I haven't been able to find a transcript so I can't check if this is what he said or even if it is the purport of what he said. If he spoke as reported, or anything near, his argument was a mere ad hominem, having nothing to do with the issues, and it was moreover incorrect on the facts.

I have gotten a number of emails in recent weeks from readers who said they encountered people in cyberspace who alleged that I do not know Middle Eastern languages. So regardless of what Hitchens may or may not have said, it seems fairly obvious that there is some sort of Karl Rove-type campaign of disinformation out there in which I am being attacked on my strengths. You will remember that the Bushies arranged for doubt to be cast on John Kerry's distinguished war record, while conveniently papering over Bush's own dodging of the Vietnam war and his failure to continue to report for duty even on the homefront.

So next no doubt it will be bruited about that Bush is fluent in several dialects of Iraqi Arabic and can curse out Ahmadinejad in the patois used by Iranian sailors in Bushehr, whereas Cole bought his degree from from a notorious California diploma mill located near Hollywood (aha!) and still can't parse hollow verbs to save his soul.

It is sort of silly for me to have to do so, but I don't mind telling Mr. Hitchens about my experience in "the region." With regard to extended stays, here is the itinerary: in Eritrea (at that time part of Ethiopia) 1967-1968; Lebanon Sept. 1974- Mar. 1975, then Sept. 1975-November 1975, then summer 1977, then June 1978-April 1979; Jordan Dec. 1975-May 1976; Egypt in 1976-1978, 1985-1986, summer 1988; Pakistan Sept. 1981-Jan. 1982, March-April 1983, Jan. 1986, May, 1988; summer 1990; India (mainly hanging around with Muslims in Lucknow and Delhi) Jan. 1982-Mar. 1983. In addition, I have visited for periods between a few days and a month some of the same countries plus the following countries: Iran, Syria, Turkey, Yemen, Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal, Gambia, Bangladesh, Uzbekistan,and Israel. I have never attempted to hide my lack of experience in Iraq. But I've lived all around it and hung out with expatriates in Dearborn, and have done a lot of work on its history. It is sort of like an English-speaking German academic--who lived years in Kentucky, returned to Munich, and wrote a book about Tennessee--being criticized by a French journalist who knows no English and little American history but once spent two weeks in Memphis.

I studied Arabic at Northwestern University beginning in 1972, and went on to do a Master of Arts degree in Arabic Studies at the American University in Cairo; Arabic literature was a field for my interdisciplinary Ph.D. from UCLA. Most of my books have involved extensive reading in manuscripts, archival documents and printed works in Arabic. Perhaps Mr. Hitchens believes that Princeton University Press and its referees are in on the vast fraud that has been perpetrated to make a monolingual buffoon like me appear expert in Arab history. I have published translations and analyses of Persian texts. I speak Urdu at home every day, and use it for research, as well. I studied Turkish and Ottoman when I first came to Ann Arbor and can use some Ottoman texts for research.

Because of my interest in Shiite Islam from the 1970s, I have been reading and researching Iraqi Shiite history for 30 years. Two chapters of my dissertation were set in Iraq. If found primary documents for Iraq in South Asia. I was one of a handful of US historians publishing on Iraq before 2003. I was in Jordan not so long ago to meet with Iraqi intellectuals who came over for a conference. I spoke Arabic with them, and one was kind enough to listen to me for a while and to say of my Arabic, "it is not broken" (ma fi kasr). I gave a paper on Grand Ayatollah Sistani. One academic from that city came to me and congratulated me, saying "Ka'annak Najafi!" (it is as though you were from Najaf).

Of course my spoken Arabic isn't perfect (I lived in both the Levant and Egypt, so had to try to learn two colloquial dialects plus Modern Standard plus Classical). But for my enemies to suggest that I haven't had experience with "the region" or only "claim" to know Middle Eastern languages is kind of monstrous. But then you expect that sort of thing nowadays if you are involved in any sort of politics in the US. It is one of the reasons that we are stuck with the Bushes and the Hitchenses, because they are so nasty and dishonest that no competent person in his or her right mind would want to be in the same "room" with them.

Now my enemies will turn around and say that I am pompous and self-important for providing this information in the way of self-defense. Whatever.



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Steven R Alvarado - 11/8/2005

I think my question has been answered.


Steven R Alvarado - 9/22/2005

Professor Cole,

Since you brought up the issue about Senator Kerry and President Bush's Vietnam military service may I ask? Did you dodge service in the Vietnam War?

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