Why did you choose history as your career?
When my mathematics career in college fizzled, I turned to history which offered, as I saw it, "the best way to understand the day's news." The Middle East drew me in because it was then, as now, the world's most lively and newsworthy region.
What was your favorite historic site trip? Why?
I lived for three years in the 1970s in Cairo. Like Rome, it boasts monuments dating from several millennia. Of them, I found Al-Qarafa (English: the City of the Dead), the most fascinating. It contains grand mausoleums of the Mamluk sultans, ordinary tombs, and a vast population of desperately poor. There's nothing quite like it anywhere in the world.
Cairo's City of the Dead (Al-Qarafa)
If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?
William H. McNeill, the world historian (born 1917): because he has the largest vision of the human condition. Bernard Lewis, the Middle East historian (born 1916): because he knows best the region I study. Richard Pipes, the Russian historian (born 1923): because I have known and learned from him all my life.
What books are you reading now?
Pierre van Paassen, Days of Our Years (1939) and Rodney Stark, How the West Won (2014).
What is your favorite history book?
McNeill's The Rise of the West (1963), the best account of the whole of the human experience.
What is your favorite library and bookstore when looking for history books?
Library: Widener at Harvard University, where I cut my academic teeth. Bookstore: Bookstores have fallen out of my life.
Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?
Not really. My most prized, until I gave it away, was a 5-language (including Arabic) Psalter from Genoa, 1516, which (oddly) happens to contain the first printed biography of Christopher Columbus.
Which history museums are your favorites? Why?
My most memorable visit was in 1972, to the National Museum in Ta'izz, Yemen. As the Lonely Planet Guide puts it: "Not really a museum at all, but more the petrified palace of Imam Ahmed, this museum preserves the life and times of its previous and slightly peculiar owner." It's no longer open to the public but one visitor noted that it contained Ahmed's "bizarre collection of hundreds of identical bottles of eau de cologne, Old Spice and Christian Dior, an electronic bed, a child's KLM handbag, projectors, films, guns, ammunition and swords ... passports, personalized Swiss watches and blood-stained clothes." Most memorably, it showed off the rubber ax he used to prove his immortality and the throne with a chamber pot secretly installed under the seat.
Which historical time period is your favorite?
The medieval: remote enough to provide perspective on our own times, close enough still to be connected to us.
What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?
Joseph F. Fletcher, Jr. in 1978.
Spend the time and make the effort to write prose that pleases readers.
Who was you favorite history teacher?
Joseph F. Fletcher, Jr., historian of China and Central Asia (1934-84): my dissertation advisor and closest friend until his untimely death of cancer.
Why is it essential to save history and libraries?
That's a very appropriate question for a Middle East specialist who is watching (and documenting) the wholesale destruction of monuments, museums, libraries, and other historical artifacts in the region. These are needed so we can better understand our past and therefore our present.
What is your favorite history-related saying?
"The past is a foreign country" by British novelist L.P. Hartley (1895-1972).