Nile Green publishes latest in a torrent of works on Central Asia and global Islam

Nile Green publishes latest in a torrent of works on Central Asia and global IslamUCLA historian Nile Green, director of the Program on Central Asia. (Photo: Peggy McInerny/ UCLA.)

The founding director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia reflects on his newest book and the strength of Central Asian and Afghan Studies at UCLA.

"My interests have grown out of traveling among ordinary people. I think it's entirely informed the way I write as an historian.”

By Peggy McInerny, Director of Communications

UCLA International Institute, May 5, 2016 — To call Nile Green a prolific historian would be an understatement. The UCLA professor and director of the UCLA Program on Central Asia has published eight books in the last six years, making his total for the past decade an even dozen. His latest publication, “Afghan History through Afghan Eyes” (Oxford 2016), is an edited volume of writings by Afghans about their own history.

With contributors ranging from literary scholars to historians to anthropologists, Green says, “the book looks at historical writings from the foundation of the state that we can actually call Afghanistan, circa 1750, through to the present.” Like all of his works, whether edited volumes or monographs, the volume is based on primary sources in multiple languages.

“Afghanistan is always seen within the Great Game paradigm — the external powers versus the poor Afghans fighting them,” comments Green. “But I wanted to show what the debates and discussions have been among Afghans themselves.” Released in January of this year, the book has already been reviewed by both The New York Review of Books and Abu Dhabi’s English-language Middle Eastern daily newspaper, The National.

Championing the study of Afghanistan

The product of a conference grant from the American Institute of Afghan Studies (AIAS), “Afghan History through Afghan Eyes” is one of several edited works on Afghanistan published by Green in recent years. Those works represent a conscious effort to deepen historical work on that polyglot, multiethnic nation, as well as to make a broader range of primary sources on Afghanistan available in the English language.

Afghanistan in Ink: Literature between Diaspora and Nation” (Oxford, 2012), edited by Green and Afghan journalist and UCLA lecturer Nushin Arbabzadah (to whom he is married), explores Pashto and Dari literature written by Afghans at home and abroad, as well as the complex relationship between these writers and the Afghan state.

Speaking of his newest publication, Green says, “What I'm trying to do with Afghan history in general is to create an Afghan intellectual history. That history is about the debates and fractures among intelligentsia and the conflicting ideologies that formed the background to the 1979 invasion [by the Soviet Union]. These were internal debates between Islamists, leftists, communists, liberals and nationalists (Pashtun nationalists, secular nationalists, etc.)

“So it's a way of seeing competing notions of the historic identity of the country,” he adds. “We're trying to ask: How did Afghans try to define their past in order to set agendas for their future? “ If ‘Afghanistan in Ink’ was literature served for social scientists,” says Green, “then ‘Afghan History through Afghan Eyes’ is historiography served for social scientists.”

A few years ago, the UCLA historian also edited a special roundtable — “the Future of Afghan History” — for the International Journal of Middle East Studies (Vol. 45, No. 1). And the upcoming book “Afghanistan's Islam,” an edited volume that resulted from another AIAS-supported conference, will examine the complex history of Islam in the country. (The book is expected to be published by the University of California Press later in 2016.)

Program on Central Asia attracting renowned experts

When he arrived at UCLA in 2007, the Program on Central Asia was established as a space where graduate students and faculty experts in different disciplines and world regions could share an interest in and research on Central Asia. The region has contributed many of the intertwined elements of the empires that took shape along its margins (e.g., the Qajar, Safavid, Mongol, Mughal, Ottoman, Russian and Qing).

Given the cultural synthesis of these empires and the Central Asian space in general, serious research on the region requires textual analysis in multiple languages – a methodology that is rapidly becoming a sine qua non of the “global” approach to history in Western universities.

Although Green does not consider himself a Central Asian specialist, he has stewarded the Program on Central Asia to becoming arguably the third most important in the country in only nine years. The two most established programs on the region — at the University of Washington and the University of Indiana, respectively — have already been going strong for some 50 years.

The UCLA program differs in from its peers in that it does not grant degrees, focusing instead on interdisciplinary research, a weekly graduate workshop and conferences that attract top Central Asia scholars from around the world. “In terms of the scale of its activity and its visibility,” comments Green, “there’s almost no one in Central Asian Studies who hasn't either been here or isn't aware of what we're doing.”

In addition to sustained programming on Afghanistan, the Program on Central Asia has considered a wide variety of topics, among them, the interaction of Eurasian Empires and Central Asian peoples and the frontiers of Persian learning. As the 2015–16 Clark Professor at the UCLA Center for 17th- and 18th-Century Studies, Green led a series of three conferences over the past academic year on the latter topic.

Describing those conferences, he says, “Rather than being about Iranian Persian or about Indo-Persian — two things that are known about — we’ve been trying to critique the fashionable model of the Persianate world by testing its geographical, social and epistemological frontiers.” True to his commitment to multilingual research, the scholars who participated in all three meetings conduct research in Persian and another language — Persian and Chinese, Persian and Malay, Persian and various Turkic languages, Persian and Punjabi, Persian and Bengali. “We’ve been trying to see how these languages really interacted,” he adds.

Another contribution of the Program on Central Asia has been the popular, student-run “Central Asia Workshop.” Offered for credit as a graduate course, the interdisciplinary discussion group enables students and interested faculty to meet and discuss research, theory and ideas about the region.

History from the ground up

“I see myself as an heir to two British traditions: empiricism and skepticism,” says Green. Yet a third British tradition might best describe him: that of the scholar-traveler. Green is a passionate traveler, having started at age 17 and never stopped. He learned Persian and Urdu (and a number of European languages) along the way and has spent significant time in around 20 Muslim-majority countries. Today, he notes, “I might be hanging up my shoes now because I've got nowhere else safe left to go.” Perhaps not so likely, given this historian’s past. He is due to travel to Bosnia this summer.

Not only did Green’s travel experiences lead him to study the Islamic world, it continues to inform the kind of history that he writes. Known variously as social history, microhistory or subaltern history, his monographs depict life from the ground up. “My interests have grown out of traveling among ordinary people,” he says. “I think it’s entirely informed the way I write as an historian.” Green has used that bottom-up perspective to focus on the intersections of the Muslim world with the other worlds it has encountered over time, including Hindu India, colonial England, Shinto Japan, Buddhist Burma and (more or less Protestant) America.

Those interests are reflected in his most recent monographs, which include “Bombay Islam: The Religious Economy of the West Indian Ocean, 1840–1915” (Cambridge, 2011) — winner of the 2013 Ananda K. Coomaraswamy Book Prize of the Association for Asian Studies and the 2011 Albert Hourani Book Award of the Middle East Studies Association; “Sufism: A Global History”(Wiley-Blackwell, 2012; reprinted 2013); “Terrains of Exchange: Religious Economies of Global Islam” (Oxford, 2015); and “The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London” (Princeton, 2016) — based on a rare diary that Green discovered in Oxford's Bodleian library (see review in The New York Times).

In the same period, he also published two edited volumes: “Writing Travel in Central Asian History” (Indiana, 2014) and, with UCLA colleague James Gelvin, “Global Muslims in the Age of Steam and Print, 1850–1930” (University of California, 2014).

“Recently,” he recounts, “I’ve been working on the Muslim-Buddhist interface.” In addition to looking at attempts by 19th-century Muslims to convert Buddhists in Burma, he has been investigating what he calls “the backstory to the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas,” in which “the Afghans adapted French ideas of archaeological history and applied them to build their own national history.”

The resulting state historical narrative in Afghanistan, he explains, held that these gigantic stone monuments were part of the nation’s historical heritage, not simply idolatrous statues. “This was what people read at school, what was on the radio, and so it was what the Taliban were reacting to. They were trying to say instead, ‘No, we're an Islamic nation.’"

Describing his approach to the history of global Islam, Green says, “Rather than being top down and model based, I've tried to say, what's the unknown textual evidence?” He particularly enjoys exploring accounts of events in the various languages of the actors of a given era. In the Bamiyan Buddha case, that means working with materials in Dari and French. His research has explored materials in German and Urdu (“Terrains of Exchange”), as well as Persian, Arabic, Catalan and Spanish accounts of Bombay and Barcelona (“Bombay Islam”). “It was a way of comparing two globalizing port cities, but through their own languages and literatures of the period,” he explains.

At present, Green is the midst of making his first foray into contemporary (read, post-1945) history with an upcoming monograph on how the British and Muslim liberal intelligentsia failed to notice the rise of Islamism in their midst. Don’t expect him to take a rest anytime soon.


Published: Thursday, May 05, 2016