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January 25, 2013

Hugh Pope Interview

Hugh Pope SIS interviewIt was a privilege to talk with author and adventurer Hugh Pope [website, International Crisis Group, Twitter] recently regarding education. Pope has lived and worked in the "Middle East" for three decades. His books (all highly recommended) include: Dining with al-Qaeda: Three Decades Exploring the Many Worlds of the Middle East, Sons of the Conquerors: the Rise of the Turkic World and Turkey Unveiled: a History of Modern Turkey.

Here's an excerpt:

In your education as you think about growing up, when did your light go off about critical thinking and observation as opposed to just accepting? Was it your education, was it your experience? Was it your parents? What was decisive?

Hugh: Well, I think that I never felt that I had a particular base group to relate and I was born South Africa and lived the first nine years of my life there and saw things from a, I suppose, a English speaking South African perspective. Then I, because of political reasons we had to move out of South Africa...and the apartheid regime had made things difficult for my father, so we moved to England and I was put in a completely different area and they took, it was very puzzling because I spoke English, I thought it was English but it turned out that actually there's more to English that's being English than just language. I don't think that I ever completely fit in, and so I always saw things as a bit of an outsider there. I think that when you are an outside you take a much more careful view of everything that's going on. You see things rather more distinctly than someone who's always been inside it, so perhaps that was the critical thing for me, moving at the age of nine. Not that I would particularly recommend it as a course of action, I don't think it's a very...It's quite traumatic. I think that's where it comes from if anything.

Jim: If we could turn on the time machine and take you back to 18 or 16, would you study the same thing? Would you pursue the same career? What would you do, Hugh?

Hugh: Well, I always remember at the Oriental institute, in my University, that we used to really pity the people that were studying Chinese and Turkish, because when we were 18 those two countries really seemed to be completely pointless. What were they ever going to contribute? Everyone clamored to learn Arabic and Persian because those were oil-rich countries that were clearly going to be much better for peoples' careers, and of course it turned out to be exactly the other way around. [laughs] I suppose it's a bit like those advertisements about investments, don't judge past performance as an indication of future profits. It's very difficult to choose what to do. I think I was very lucky in that I was one of the last generation of people educated for free in Britain.

It actually didn't matter what one chose, because there was no debt associated with it. Nowadays if you go into University I think you've got to be much more aware of, "Whether this is going to be a possible investment of time and money?" because that debt is going to hang over people, isn't it? If I was going today I think I would be a bit more commercially minded, in a sense that I would choose something that was not just of intellectual interest.

Still, I did love learning Persian, and I think that was a benefit in itself, I still think that the Persian poetry we were taught about made a deep impact on me. I wouldn't change that. There are many things about the Middle East that make one really frustrated but at the same time there is a liveliness and an instantaneous about the Middle East which you don't find in Europe.

The way that countries like Turkey and elsewhere change rapidly is much more exciting than a country in Europe where everything is planned many, many years ahead. People start thinking about their pensions in their 20's.

I found Pope's comments on languages interesting as well. I hope you enjoy the conversation and appreciate Hugh's time.

Read the transcript or listen to the mp3 audio file.

Posted by Jim Zellmer at January 25, 2013 10:34 AM
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