Congratulations to Professor Nabil Matar, who received the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences award in the category of Comparative Literature and Literary Translation for his decades of research on “cultural engagements and the meeting of civilizations.” He flew to Kuwait City in December to receive the award from the Emir of Kuwait. We are so excited for Professor Matar!
Since 2007, Matar has been Presidential Professor in the President’s Interdisciplinary Initiative on Arts and Humanities, housed in English. In his decade at the University, Matar has been named a CLA Scholar of the College and, as of July 2017, Samuel Russell Chair in the Humanities. He has been presented with the “Building Bridges Award” by the Association of Muslim Social Scientists and Alwalid bin Talal Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Cambridge. He was instrumental in obtaining a $170,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to plan and host the 2011 international conference “Shared Cultural Spaces: Islam and the West in the Arts and Sciences” here. In the same span, he published six books.
But if history can be a model,
if history can teach us something,
we can look back and say, ‘You
know, there’s a different way of
relating.’ – Nabil Matar
“Nabil Matar has reshaped the way we think about the geography, politics, and culture of the early modern period,” notes Professor Katherine Scheil. “His work on early modern travelers, traders, and captives has opened new avenues of study, not only because he has provided the first English translation of several 17th-century Arabic travel narratives, but also because of his astute and compelling analysis of the religious, political, and cultural importance of these texts. It is no accident that Nabil Matar is in high demand around the world as a scholar, and we are lucky to have him here in Minnesota.”
The story of how this Palestinian-born scholar arrived at the U is a circuitous one. Matar received his BA and MA in English Literature at the American University of Beirut, where he taught after completing his PhD at Cambridge University. In 1986, during Lebanon’s civil war, Matar was abducted by members of an armed militia and kept captive for six months. Numerous American University faculty were kidnapped and killed during the war; Matar was a lucky survivor.
Though he was back at work the day after his release, welcomed by the colleagues and students who had shut down the campus in protest after his kidnapping, he did not stay—his parents had earlier immigrated to Florida, and Matar followed. His primary research interest of 17th-century English religious poetry also changed. One day, on a trip to England, another scholar suggested he visit the National Archives. “So I went, and I had no idea what to do.” He laughed. “There are these catalogues, but there are no calendars. You just know that SP 71, Box 1, is about Algiers. And so I requested it. My God! There were these letters—I mean, just a rich, infinitely rich source. And that was just one box out of hundreds. These boxes had been sitting there for centuries. Nobody knew what was in there. It was great fun.”
It was also, Matar rapidly discovered, a mission. His experiences in Beirut and later in the United States had left him intensely interested in cross-cultural relations. He was fascinated by the spaces where the early modern Christian European and Muslim worlds came together: “good intersections, bad intersections, trying to interpret how they understood each other.”
The interactions (then as now) included trade, war, travel, piracy: “One mode of catharsis is to try to study captivity,” Matar has observed. “I discovered in England in the early modern period a vast amount of captivity literature of men . . . who were captured by North African corsairs, and after their release they wrote accounts. So. I turned to that with a vengeance. For me,” he stated, “reconstructing my own captivity narrative was not going to be literal.”
Beyond Orientalism: Through Arab Eyes
Eventually Matar found that many British pirates had also been operating in the Mediterranean, and that there were Arabic accounts of European captivity. Indeed, the deeper he went the more he discovered that his research was offering a wildly different perspective on the early modern world than what had been previously accepted. He published a book, Islam in Britain, 1558-1685(Cambridge University Press, 1998), examining how the British viewed the Islamic world of the Mediterranean, and he had so much material he ended up writing a trilogy. Because of his fluency in Arabic, he decided to start a second trilogy from the other direction, uncovering the Islamic view of Europe.
The second book in that series, Europe through Arab Eyes, 1578-1727 (Columbia University Press, 2009), received a rave review in The Times Higher Education Supplement, among others. “This book fills a huge gap in our understanding of the history of that period,” the reviewer wrote. “What is presently available in abundance in Western libraries, via literature on Islam, Muslims, and the Orient in general, is a resolutely Orientalist depiction of the East. . . . This is a study that breaks new ground in our understanding of the way Arabs were looking at Euro-Christians, and it is as ambitious and original as the title suggests.”
Beyond his trilogies, Matar has co-edited a collection of essays on travel to the Holy Land in the early modern period, published an edition of Henry Stubbe’s Original & Progress of Mahometanism, the first European text to acknowledge Muhammad as Islamic Prophet (rather than “imposter”), and completed British Captives in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, 1563-1760 (Brill, Leiden, 2014). The latter compiles, from 10 years of research, every English captive held in North Africa during that period, aiming to debunk scholarship claiming up to a million Christian captives, scholarship used to demonize Muslims and Arabs. “Obviously there will always be names that I don’t have,” Matar said. “But I have raised the issue of how do you evaluate numbers, what do you do with them—and provided the history of captivity from that perspective.”
His latest work collects the writings of early Arab travelers in the United States. Arab Impressions of America: Writings from Early Emigrants (1876-1914), An Anthology will be published in 2018 with the Edinburgh University Press.
“I grew up relating to two religions, Christianity and Islam, very intensely,” Matar observed. “I could speak the two religions, independently and together. And that’s what I still do: how can you bring them together?
“It’s an obsession. My sons always say, ‘Why do you keep working?’” He laughed delightedly. “I love the sense of discovery. Also, I’m a missionary, by my very nature. I have a mission for this work: I want to bring awarenesses together. I don’t think I’m going to bring people together. But if history can be a model, if history can teach us something, we can look back and say, ‘You know, there’s a different way of relating.’”