I was born in Croydon in 1951 and grew up in Coulsdon, at the southern tip of the Greater London conurbation. I was educated nearby at the John Fisher School, Purley. My father was a teacher and church organist. My mother gave up her job as a shorthand typist when she married my father, and devoted her life to looking after her family. I have one brother, two years older than me, who worked until retirement at the Association of British Insurers where he had responsibilities for taxation and regulation. It gave my parents immense pride when we both went to university – the first generation in our family in which this had been possible. They were equally proud of our subsequent careers.
In 1970 I went to Wadham College, Oxford, to read Arabic and graduated from Oxford University in 1973. I spent the next two academic years as a graduate fellow at the American University in Cairo (AUC) studying for an MA in Islamic History, and was in Cairo during the October 1973 war which Egypt and Syria fought against Israel. I visited Syria from Cairo in November 1974. That trip included a walk through the mountains from the famous Crusader castle at Krac des Chevaliers to the Assassin castle at Masyaf, during which I spent every night as the guest of local people. I often wonder what has happened to their families in these difficult times for their country.
While doing my BA, I had become interested in Medieval Islamic Philosophy, which I chose as my special subject. I also found myself drawn to early Sufi thought. For my MA thesis, I translated the Kitab al-tawhid w’al-tawakkul , The Book of the Divine Unity and Trust in God (Book XXXV of the Revival of the Religious Sciences) by the eleventh century Muslim thinker, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. I returned to Oxford determined to forge an academic career and believing that I was starting a lifetime’s study of Ghazali.
Yet it was not to be. After a little over a year, my interest in my subject faded like a mountain mist. I did not have financing for my research and was running out of money. I therefore wrapped up my work by submitting an M.Litt dissertation on the concepts of Poverty and Renunciation in the Sufism of the 10th – 12th centuries AD, and decided to gain a professional qualification as a solicitor.
The transition to law was not easy but I had my first big career break during the period 1981-6 which I spent largely in Oman, helping to set up a branch office for Trowers & Hamlins, the London law firm with which I qualified. My duties included translating Omani financial and commercial legislation into English and handling litigation before the local courts. I also explored the mountains of the Jebel Akhdar. By the time I finally returned to London, I had been made a partner in my firm.
The following period, 1986-1995, was my second big career break and gave me my introduction to international law. I worked from London as part of the Bahrain government’s legal team attempting to resolve disputes with Qatar over various territorial issues and maritime boundaries. I spent much time in Bahrain and got to know yet another, very different, Arab country. My duties included coordinating historical research and handling the interface between Arabic and English documentation. I was in Bahrain during the first weeks of Operation Desert Storm, the military campaign to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussein in early 1991. In 1994, I was listed as counsel for Bahrain at the International Court of Justice in the jurisdiction and admissibility hearings in the Case Concerning Maritime Delimitation and Territorial Questions between Qatar and Bahrain (Qatar v. Bahrain). Also in 1994, I collaborated with Dr Abdulla Maktari, a lawyer in Sana’a, to produce the only book of translations of Yemeni commercial laws into English ever made.
During the final period of my legal career, I found myself returning to Cairo where my firm had now established an office. Between 2001 and 2006 I visited Egypt frequently, often for months at a time. I was there at the time of 9/11 and 7/7. I also served on the board of the Arab British Chamber of Commerce and the Egyptian British Business Council, and followed up my interests in the law of sovereignty over territory at the Scottish Centre for International Law at Edinburgh University, which awarded me an honorary visiting fellowship. As a result of this work, I produced a legal analysis of UN Security Council Resolution 242 which was published in the International and Comparative Law Quarterly in 2002.
Those years also saw the invasion of Iraq by George Bush’s self-styled “Coalition of the Willing”. This shocked me profoundly, since I did not see how the political leaderships of the USA and Britain could possibly be so naive, myopic and ill-informed as not to see the probable consequences of their course of action, despite the expertise and advice that was supposedly at their disposal. It was during this period that the idea of writing the book that eventually became A Concise History of the Arabs came to me. I was now working on a part time basis and able to begin some preliminary reading.
I retired completely from the partnership of Trowers & Hamlins in 2006-7. Apart from working on my book I became the chairman of the Liberal Democrat Friends of Palestine (I had joined the Liberal Democrats because of their opposition to the Iraq invasion). I stood down from this post in October 2015 to become an adviser to Tim Farron, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, on Israel and Palestine. I am also a board member of the Council for Arab British Understanding (CAABU) and the supervisory board of the British Egyptian Society.
In June 2008 my life changed permanently and immensely for the better when I married Middle East travel writer Diana Darke. We had known each other slightly when I was a research student, but for both of us the world had revolved many times on its axis since the 1970s. When we met again in 2006, Diana had recently bought a courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus which she was painstakingly restoring. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, we were frequent visitors there, our last such visit being in April 2012. We returned briefly to Damascus in November-December 2014 to retake possession of the house.
A Concise History of the Arabs was published by Saqi Books in April 2013, as well as by The New Press in the USA. An updated paperback version came out in 2014, and a Spanish translation updated to early 2015 was published by Turner Libros in Madrid and Mexico City in September 2015.
In June 2014, my second book Syria: From the Great War to Civil War was also published by Saqi Books. A revised paperback entitled Syria: A Recent History came out in March 2015 at the same time as the US edition (also published by The New Press) with the title Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years. Also in 2014, I published an appreciation of the Jewish Egyptian nationalist James Sanua in Jewish Quarterly and gave a lecture at the inaugural Gingko Library conference on the links between today’s toxic sectarianism in the Middle East and the mandates over Syria, Palestine and Iraq.
In January 2015 I was honoured to be appointed a senior fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews. I was delighted to present a paper at a conference there in July 2015 on the original Arabic text of the fatwa by Shaykh Muhammad al-Yacoubi, the respected Syrian religious scholar, which explains why under the Islamic Shariah Sunni Muslims are under a collective obligation to fight against Daish, the self-styled but bogus “Islamic State”.
I am now working on a new book on the history of Sunnism and Shi’ism which should appear in the first half of 2017 and preparing a lecture to be given later this year on the creation of the State of Israel in international law.