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In Quest of Disappearing Cultures: The Arabian Bedouin and our Founding Fathers

Special Event with William R. Polk

In Quest of Disappearing Cultures: The Arabian Bedouin and our Founding Fathers

In 1971, Professor William R. Polk made a thousand-mile trip by camel across the Great Nafud desert of Arabia. Historically it had been crossed or skirted many times, but more-or-less let go wild for more than a century. Old trails had been forgotten, and wells had caved-in or been lost.

When Polk proposed the trip to King Faisal, he was told “you are mad.” Despite this he persevered, received permission to experience "anguish" from the Saudi Arabian government, and subsequently traveled by camel from Riyadh to Amman in Jordan.

While the crossing was daunting in its own right, his true goal was to faithfully translate a foundational pre-Islamic poem by the great Arabian poet Labīd. Though he knew the words already, Polk wanted to get as close as he could to the feelings of the poet, to feel what he felt. Other riders had ridden more severe desert landscapes―Thesiger, Thomas, Doughty, and others―but none of them really knew Arabic or truly cared about what meant most to the bedouin: their poetry.

Polk’s true exploration was a voyage into a culture―into the minds of a people―rather than just traversing a difficult piece of territory. This was the subject of his book Passing Brave (the title comes from Christopher Marlowe and does not mean “brave” but “wonderful”) and also his translation of the most powerful of these bedouin poems, the muallaqah of Labīd bin Rabiya, which Dr. Polk called The Golden Ode.

This will lead him into talking more broadly about the mindset, the reaction, and hurt of Africans and Asians by imperialism and colonialism. This larger focus is the subject of his new book Crusade and Jihad which the Yale University Press will publish on January 8.

William R. Polk was born in Fort Worth and grew up on a ranch in Texas. He studied at Harvard (BA & PhD) and at Oxford (BA & MA) and taught history and Arabic language and literature at Harvard. In 1961 he joined the Kennedy Administration as the Member of the Policy Planning Council responsible for North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia. During the Algerian war he headed the interdepartmental task force that helped to bring about a settlement between France and the FLN and during the Cuban Missile Crisis he was one of three members of the Crisis Management Committee. In 1965, he resigned to become Professor of History at the University of Chicago and in 1967 he founded and became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs.

Most of his writing has been on world affairs and history: Among his books are The United States and the Arab World; The Elusive Peace, the Middle East in the Twentieth Century; Understanding Iraq; Out of Iraq (with Senator George McGovern); Understanding Iran; Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency and Terrorism; Neighbors and Strangers: The Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs; Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change; and Distant Thunder: Reflections on the Dangers of Our Times. Forthcoming by the Yale University Press is Crusade and Jihad: The Thousand Year War Between The Muslim World and the Global North; and Back to the Future: Digging Beneath the Headlines.

In addition to many articles, he has lectured at many universities and at the Council on Foreign Relations, Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs), Sciences Po, the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of World Economy and International Affairs, and has appeared frequently on NPR, the BBC, CBS, France 24, and other networks.

Date: Tuesday, February 6

Time: 6:00 pm Reception, 7:00 pm Lecture

Location: Club Headquarters, 46 E 70th Street, New York, NY, 10021

Member Ticket Price: $10

Guest Ticket Price: $25

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