Where I come from, and my academic background
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 a church organist. My mother gave up her job as a short-hand 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 responsibility 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. I was in Cairo during the 1973 war which Egypt and Syria fought against Israel, and 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 and down to the town of Sqalbiyya in the Ghab. I spent every night as the guest of local people. I talk about this experience in the preface to my book Syria: A Recent History. I often wonder what has happened during these difficult times for Syria to the families who entertained and befriended me so generously.
My post-graduate work was on early Sufi thought. For my MA thesis I produced the first English translation of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali’s The Book of Divine Unity and Trust in God (Book XXXV of his monumental The Revival of the Religious Sciences), written in the late twelfth century. In 1975 I returned to Oxford believing I was beginning a lifetime’s project unravelling the mental universe of the medieval Sufis. Yet it was not to be. After a little over a year, my interest in my subject faded like a mountain mist. I therefore wrapped up my research by producing an M. Litt thesis on the concepts of poverty and renunciation of the world in the Sufi manual literature of the 10th-12th centuries AD, and decided to gain a professional qualification as a solicitor.
My career as an international lawyer
My first big career break was in 1981-6, which I largely spent in Oman helping to set up an office of my London law firm. My duties included translating Omani legislation into English and handling litigation before the local commercial courts. I also explored the mountains of the Jabal Akhdar at weekends. This was followed by my second career break which lasted until 1995 and made me a full partner in my firm. I worked as part of the government of Bahrain’s legal team attempting to resolve disputes with Qatar over questions of territorial sovereignty and maritime boundaries. My duties included coordinating historical research aimed at uncovering evidence, and handling the interface between Arabic and English documentation especially with regard to treaties and diplomatic correspondence. In 1994, I was listed as one of the Counsel for Bahrain at the International Court of Justice in the Hague during the jurisdiction and admissibility phase of the case. Also that year, Dr Abdulla Maktari, a Yemeni lawyer friend, and I produced the first book of translations of Yemeni commercial laws into English.
During the final period of my legal career I returned to Cairo, where my firm had now established an office. Between 2001 and 2006 I visited Egypt regularly, often for months at a time. I was there at the time of both 9/11 and 7/7. During this period, I also followed up my interests in international law, particularly with regard to territorial sovereignty, by accepting an honorary visiting fellowship at the Scottish Centre for International Law at Edinburgh University. I produced a legal analysis of UN Security Council Resolution 242, which was published in the International and Comparative Quarterly in 2002 (unfortunately a fee may be payable to the publisher in order to read this). My article was cited before the International Court of Justice during the proceedings which led to its 2004 Advisory Opinion on the Legal Consequences of a Wall in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. It seems to have stood the test of time since, so far as I know, nobody has made a serious attempt to refute it. I also published on the interpretation of treaties.
I become a historian
Most of my career has been concerned with the Middle East, and I have always been perplexed by the lack of understanding of Islam and the Arab world that seems to be endemic to the West. In the first years after the millenium, matters seemed to be getting worse. First there was 9/11. Then, in 2003, came the US-led invasion of Iraq in which Britain also participated. 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 perceive the probable consequences of their course of action, despite the expertise and advice that was supposedly at their disposal. That was when I resolved to do what I could to make the Arab world and Islam more accessible for people in the West. When I left my law firm in 2006 at the age of fifty-five I therefore began a new career as a historian and started work on what would become my first book: A Concise History of the Arabs.
In June 2008, my life changed permanently and immensely for the better when I married Diana Darke. We had known each other slightly ever since 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 by accident 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 Syria’s descent into darkness over the course of 2011-2, we were frequent visitors there. We also returned to Damascus briefly in late 2014 for her to retake possession of the house, and once again in April 2018 when we also visited Aleppo and Homs as part of a group invited as guests by the Syrian Orthodox Church. We were shocked at many of the things we saw.
Although I had finished the draft of A Concise History of the Arabs in late 2010, I delayed submitting it to Saqi, my publishers, so that it could include an account of the Arab Spring. It finally came out in Britain in 2013 and in North America in 2014. A revised and fully updated English second edition appeared in late 2016, covering the disillusion that followed as Syria dissolved into a nightmarish conflict and Egypt’s experiment with democracy ended for at least the time being. My second book, Syria: A Recent History (originally published as Syria: From the Great War to Civil War in the UK and as Syria: A History of the Last Hundred Years by The New Press in North America) first appeared in 2014. An updated edition appeared in December 2017.
This was just three months after my most recent book: A Concise History of Sunnis and Shi’is first appeared in the UK in September 2017. It also appeared in North America in April 2018, published by Georgetown University Press. The launch events I gave included a presentation to US diplomats at the State Department. The book has been described by the Times Literary Supplement as “an important corrective” to the commonly held view that the Sunni-Shi’i split is the root cause of so many of the problems of today’s Middle East, and that Sunnis and Shi’is have engaged in an intractable sectarian conflict throughout Islamic history.
I have also published a number of articles. Those of which I am proudest are my piece on James Sanua, the early Egyptian nationalist who was a Jew but used rhetoric we would now describe as Islamist (published in Jewish Quarterly in 2014) and my 2015 Gingko Library article examining whether the mandate system in the Middle East was a slow burning fuse that led to the toxic sectarianism of today.
The reaction to my work has been generally positive. After the publication of Syria: A Recent History, I was invited to become a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St Andrews University. This is an honour that I greatly appreciate. A Concise History of the Arabs was published in Spanish as Una breve historia de los arabes by Turner Libros in 2015. I am currently working on a comparative study of Islamism and Zionism as reactions to the development of nationalism in Europe, but that will take me at least another two years.
My approach in my books is to try to give the reader an intellectually honest and historically accurate narrative that is consistent with the best academic work, but is still accessible by the general reader. The world faces a dark future if we do not try to understand each other more, and I hope that in my own, small way, I am contributing to mutual comprehension.
If you are interested in my work, please now go to the section of this website dealing with my published books.