Touchdown in Cambridge! Opening Lines to an American Chapter

After way too many long trips – Tashkent to Istanbul, Istanbul to JFK on an old Delta clunker, and a 6:00 AM bus ride from Manhattan to Boston – I’ve finally arrived in Cambridge, my home for the next two years. After a summer spent between Arizona, a quickie trip to the United Kingdom to defend the D.Phil., and then another intense month in Samarkand dominated by four to five hours a day of instruction in Uzbek and Persian, it’s nice to begin to be settled in one place: I do miss, true, the 25 cent frozen yogurt stands along Tashkent Street in Samarqand, but the feeling of (semi-?) adulthood and maturity that comes with settling into a community is almost certainly worth the trade off.  And while I do miss the endless coffee carafes and plush leather couches of the Corpus Christi College Middle Common Room, having my own (shared) office is another nice upgrade. Throw in the endless bounties of the Harvard library system – aided by super-nice librarians yesterday! – and things get even better. After going out on the lifeboat of my Kindle in Uzbekistan – a time during which I digested both new treats (Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers)  and older inspirational books of historical scholarship on development and the environment (William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis) – it’s nice to know that one of the biggest libraries in the world is about a five minutes’ walk away from my desk. Throw in an unlimited lending limit and lending periods that extend well into February 2014 for books taken out this week, and my lips are almost frothing from bibliomania!

People often ask what I’ll be up to during my appointment here (gratis of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies), so it’s worth answering as much for my own clarity as for friends’ staying informed. During my time here, my main goal – or at least the one I should probably be devoting the most time to – is re-writing my dissertation into what I think will be a really good (and, more importantly, publishable) academic monograph. That means a lot of things. As it was submitted, the D.Phil. consisted of four chapters (Soviet intellectual history, development competition in Afghanistan in the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet advisers in occupied eastern Afghanistan, and Soviet women’s rights activists in Afghanistan in the early 1980s). That’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it’s natural that a more substantial book has to be even more thought out in terms of organization, and finding ways to relate what I think my story is to debates in the historiography on the USSR in the world, as well as the global history of development. More concretely, that means lots of re-writing. It means incorporating materials from Soviet archives I worked in this spring, like RGAE, back into the main text. It means combing over (again) some of the American and West German materials I’ve worked with to make the story of competition that those advisers felt actually feel that way in the text. Consider the material covering the post-1979 period, and there’s the need to incorporate the Soviet material from other parts of the country (Turkestan, Qandahar, and the Helmand Valley) to do compare-and-contrast intra-Afghanistan history. Throw in the need to add as much Persian (and, where possible with Harvard student help and translation) Pashto materials, and it’s easy to see why they make this a two-year gig. Still, my hope is to have what I think a final version should look like done in first draft form by this winter. After some meetings with Harvard University Press representatives in the fall, moreover,  I’ll have a better sense of what editors want to see in authors’ proposals, too. My dreams of writing an ultra self-indulgent 500,000 word book may be shattered, but such is life, if that’s the cost of actually producing the thing.

But re-writing the D.Phil. is just the main course in this setting. One of the things the Academy encourages in Scholars – like any good post-doc program – is to keep broadening their training, to speak with people outside of their discipline, and take advantage of Harvard’s (massive!) resources to become a better scholar by the time they leave than what they were when they arrived. That means jumping into the many seminars and courses around Cambridge this autumn and spring. And here a couple of directions suggest themselves – directions that should become more clear even to myself only with more time.  On the one hand, the more time I’ve thought about my dissertation and what I enjoyed about the project, the more I’ve grown attracted to seeing the broader Central Asian region in ways like that suggested by Christine Noelle-Karimi, an Austrian Iranologist, in a recent thought piece she wrote on the history of Afghanistan. Thanks to the Cold War, she notes, scholars (at least in the United States, and to a lesser extent in Europe) divided up Asia into different intellectual regions – East Asia, South Asia, etc. One could argue, however, that no area saw as much intellectual partition as Central Asia: the ‘Stans’ in Soviet Studies, Iran in Middle Eastern Studies, Pakistan in South Asian Studies, Xinjiang in East Asian Studies, and so on – even though these countries are arguably closer to one another than any pole of ‘the Middle East’ or ‘East Asia.’ While scholars of (for example) early modern prominents who re-settled from, say, Iran to the Zarafshan River Valley, or of South Asian traders who participated in markets in the Ferghana Valley, have encouraged seeing the region more holistically, I find it harder to find smart examples of people working on the 20th century doing the same. I hence ask myself sometimes: if the real thing I liked from the dissertation was precisely this regional focus, why not (for example) learn Turkish, or Urdu, and keep going in that direction for the 20th century? On the other hand, Harvard’s resources for training in a way that might allow me to eventually write really interesting, more ecumenical accounts of a more Soviet, more Eurasian history, are also great. My office is steps away from Harvard’s wonderful Ukrainian Research Institute, courses abound, and there are wonderful resources in Moscow, too. While very different from the Asia idea, learning Ukrainian and charting a course that focused more on post-war Soviet ethnography and ethnicity (Ukraine, Uzbekistan, the Caucasus …) could also be rich. Thirdly, however, the more I speak with my colleagues here – many of whom have PhDs in anthropology or perhaps also have some legal coursework or even a JD – there’s also an urge to engage with what seems sometimes like a less regionally grounded approach: getting into writing histories of ‘global health’, ‘human rights’, ‘women’s rights’, and so on. Here the work of historians like Nick Cullather, Matthew Connolley, and Samuel Moyn suggests itself as a model – global 20th century intellectual history that might be less regionally or linguistically driven than what I would prefer, but still super-smart and provocative. Only time will tell how (if?) I fuse these different impulses.

For now, however, it’s concerns much more banal that are the bread and butter of life. Finding out where the local supermarkets and the best purveyors of 15-lb blocks of paneer cheese are. Picking up my mother from the airport tonight to have her help as I move in. Enjoying a glass of white wine over the Charles with said mother before we watch The Big Lebowski and crash. Choosing a bed, and determining the best location for my Uzbekistani pomegranate-themed throw rugs. Diving into some free reading (Melville’s The Confidence Man and the recently-appeared George Packer The Unwinding). Feeling exhausted at the end of the day, and waking up at 3 o’clock … in the morning because my body still thinks it’s in Istanbul, or somewhere over the Mediterranean Ocean. Still, though, who could complain? While the nomad in me isn’t quite ready to hand up his walking sandals and sun hats for the Oxford shoes, collared shirts, and salmon-colored chinos of a balmy New England August, the other parts that the last two years of constant moving are eager to plant their buds in the Cambridge soil and see what fruits may come yet.

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