Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Roger Owen, a former contributing editor of Middle East Report who taught at Oxford University and Harvard University for over half a century, died on December 22, 2018 at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was 83.

A specialist in the economic, political and social history of the modern Middle East, Owen authored or edited 16 books, many of them standard features of undergraduate and graduate reading lists, including State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East (1992) and The Middle East in the World Economy, 1800–1914 (1981). His first book, Cotton and the Egyptian Economy, 1820–1914 (1969), examined the turn toward cotton monoculture in nineteenth-century Egypt as a political-economic phenomenon. His last, The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life (2012), analyzed the authoritarian systems that were then being challenged by region-wide protests and uprisings. His articles and reports covered an even wider range of topics, among them British and French military intelligence, comparisons between regimes of imperial control, and the histories of commodities such as silk, sugar and oil. Owen also wrote regular columns for the newspapers Al-Hayat and Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the field of Middle East studies witnessed mounting critiques of traditional scholarship on the region that culminated in Edward Said’s publication of Orientalism in 1978. As a junior scholar, Owen was among a number of historians, social scientists and literary critics influenced by Marxist and postcolonial theory, including Said, Anouar Abdel-Malek and Talal Asad, who questioned the prevailing assumption that the society, culture and politics of the Middle East should be understood mainly through the prism of Islam. Owen and Asad were members of the Hull Group, named for the British university where it first met. The group produced several landmark publications, including the Review of Middle East Studies and the Gazelle Review of Literature on the Middle East that, along with MERIP in the United States, served as sites for new writing on the region. In Orientalism, Said reserved rare words of praise for Owen. Scholars like him, Said wrote, “are aware too that the study of man and society—whether Oriental or not—is best conducted in the broad field of all the human sciences.”

Owen’s introduction to the Middle East was accidental. He served in the British military, where he was stationed in Cyprus from 1955 to 1956. He spent his leaves visiting Tel Aviv, Beirut and Cairo, witnessing firsthand the excitement and turmoil of a region grappling with imperialism and decolonization after the establishment of Israel and Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rise to power in Egypt.

Owen subsequently enrolled at the University of Oxford. He earned a BA from Magdalen College in 1959 and completed a doctoral program in social sciences, specializing in economic history, at St. Antony’s College in 1965. Owen then taught Middle Eastern history at Oxford until 1993.

At the time that Owen completed his doctoral degree, it was conventional at Oxford to study the Middle East as a sui generis field—that is, Oriental Studies—and uncommon to study it in a disciplinary program like modern history that would normally focus on Europe. He was deeply skeptical of the notion that the history of Islam was the best way to conceptualize the history of people in the predominantly Muslim regions of Asia and Africa. In a searing 12-page review of the 1970 Cambridge History of Islam, Owen concluded that this framing was “acting to encourage the writing of bad history and to prevent the emergence of something more worthwhile.”

Owen developed his own research methods. He was influenced by his Oxford mentor Albert Hourani’s observation that economic histories of the Middle East sounded like they had been written by scholars who had never “seen a turnip.” “Determined to avoid the same accusation,” Owen later wrote, “I made sure that I got into the countryside.”[1] Owen’s work was distinct in its time for its careful attention to ethnographic detail, physical geography and materiality: the infrastructure of roads and vehicles that made the trade of certain commodities possible, the exact design of water distribution systems, the division of labor in agriculture across ages and genders.

Owen’s work took him all over Southwest Asia and North Africa during his career. In Egypt, he visited Mohamed Hassanein Heikal’s melon farm and took the opportunity to ask the journalist questions about Nasser’s habit of receiving foreign guests at the Nile Hilton. Alongside a coalition of international leftist activists, he attended a Palestine solidarity conference in Amman in September 1970, where he witnessed the tense weeks leading up to Black September. “As I was later to conclude,” he wrote while reflecting on those bloody events, “we would actually have been much more useful if we were a delegation of doctors.”

In 1993, Owen took up the A. J. Meyer Professorship in Middle East History at Harvard University, which brought him into the orbit of debates about American foreign policy in the Middle East. He did not relish political sparring but did recognize the need to engage in these conversations as a professional obligation. In 2002 and 2003, for example, Owen used his regular column in Al-Ahram Weekly to critically examine the George W. Bush administration’s case for war in Iraq. He described the war as having an “exemplary quality”—that is, fought with the intention of demonstrating American military might as part of a doctrine of fighting an ever-expanding War on Terror. “The Bush administration has to prove the rightness of its case to the world….it needs not only to be seen defeating old enemies,” he wrote, but “it will also need to keep finding new ones to make the same point.” His concern with the Iraq War led him to invite scholars of Iraq to Harvard and to design a graduate seminar on Iraqi history that he taught regularly in the last years of his career.

Owen’s capacious approach to knowledge production on the modern Middle East is reflected in the range of the work that he fostered, promoted and critiqued. He trained dozens of graduate students who wrote on nearly every region in Southwest Asia and North Africa. He sought to nurture the work of junior scholars on diverse topics including the history of gender, Indian Ocean trade and disease in the early modern world.

Owen’s instinct was to view his experiences through a historian’s lens. In his memoir, he recalled an occasion in the 1970s when he visited Jerusalem to testify on behalf of a British-Arab friendship organization that Israeli authorities had accused of anti-Semitism. As he dined with the organization’s Israeli defense lawyer, “a very nice man,” in a Jaffa restaurant housed in the former home of a displaced Palestinian family, he was shocked by the lawyer’s insouciance to where they were spending their evening. “For me, the place was clearly full of ghosts from the past,” Owen wrote. “Some might only see the present; others like me saw a place of absences and abandonment and the often difficult-to-discern traces of plowed-over villages.”


Endnote

[1] Roger Owen, A Life in Middle East Studies (Tadween, 2016).

How to cite this article:

Arbella Bet-Shlimon "Roger Owen," Middle East Report 289 (Winter 2018).
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