Remembering Edward Allworth
It was with immense grief that I heard that my mentor and PhD advisor, Professor Edward Allworth, passed away last week in New York at the grand and befitting age of 95.
As one of his last Master’s and then PhD students at Columbia University in the mid-1990s, I benefitted from six years of his tutorship, wisdom, compassion, intellectual rigor, high aspirations and expectations. He groomed us as cultural historians of a region – Central Asia – which he had discovered and loved since his own youth.
Professor Allworth always defended cultural history during the Cold War when the tendency was to study strategy and weapons, as well as during the post-Soviet period, when the focus was on democracy building and economic transition models. When the Central Asian countries gained independence in the early 1990s, while some students dropped out of the PhD track to follow the appeal of rapid lucrative employment in oil companies, governments and radio stations beaming propaganda to the region, he kept a handful of us at bay and steeped us in the writings of the early 20th century reformist writer Abdalrauf Fitrat, and the study of Chagatay, the 15th century pre-Uzbek language.
He collected thousands of books in the languages of the region – a passion we all imitated to the degree we could - and presented them to the New York Public Library - something we are unsuccessfully trying to do two decades later when no one reads books anymore in this digital age. He diligently went through archives and sat in his study in Washington Heights in upper New York City writing dozens of meticulous books, while our attention span was diverted by CNN and social media. He was an old-style grand professor we feared and revered, and our parents were happy to see us disciplined for a change. With a crooked finger perpetually pointing, he would edge us on to complete our PhD, sometimes calling us at 9 am on Saturday mornings to ask if we were writing.
I owe so much to him as an intellectual father. When I got emotionally stuck during my field work in Tajikistan in 1992, following a civil war and some Che Guevara characters around instead of my dissertation on identity formation in the post-independence period, he gave me 10 months and then called me to threaten me with expulsion from the program if I did not return to write. When I would get frustrated with pedantic writing and threaten to write short stories instead, he would strictly scold me to first defend my academic standing with a serious book before spinning out into fantasy.
In 2009, fifteen years after I finished my PhD, when I had chosen a career not primarily as an academic but as a professional nomad who spent time living, travelling and working in the region with various organizations, Professor Allworth sent me a letter formally authorizing me to write my travelogue. He included in the envelope a few articles of 19th and early 20th century ‘orientialiststs’ whom he said advanced our knowledge of the region. Write your stories, he ordered/suggested.
By then I had already collaborated with him on a 10-year project (1993-2002) which revived the diary (Ruznama) of Muhammad Sharif Sadr-i Ziya (1867-1932) a patron of belles lettres, who, during his 27-year career as judge and then chiefjJustice in early 20th century Bukhara and its provinces, was a meticulous observer of poets and politicians of his time. During one of his history classes, Professor Allworth had astutely set me on the discovery path by hinting that Sadriddin Ayni, whose memoirs we were reading in English at that time, had spent his boyhood in the salon of another erudite intellectual whose own diary now laid unpublished in the Institute of Oriental Studies in Tashkent.
At a reception in 1993, Professor Allworth casually introduced me to Arthur Bonner, a former New York Times journalist who had a great love for the region due to his own Afghan adventure. Bonner just happened to have done well with stock market investments that week, and he wrote me a check for $5,000! I used to money to fly across the world, find the manuscript, get permission to film it, get it translated from Farsi by Moscow State University Professor Rustam Shukurov, Sadr-i Ziya’s grandson, and get it commented upon by the Bukharan intellectual’s own son, Tajik Academician Muhammadjon Shakuri, who passed away in 2014) Professor Allworth meticulously edited the work, which was published by Brill in 2004 as the Diary: Personal History of a Bukharan Intellectual. It marked the culmination of a deeply sentimental inter-generational project.
Professor Allworth had the privilege of angelic support in the form of his wife, Janet, who passed away two years ago. She was a kind and gentle woman who accompanied him everywhere, who knew the details of all the students, the state of advancement of their dissertations and their personal lives, and who helped her husband produce the indices for the many books he wrote.
The last time I talked to Professor Allworth was a year ago on the phone. He went on at length about how he and his beloved wife had fallen together, but that the doctors had unfortunately not been able to save her. He then said that he could not recognize my voice and could not place me, so would I be kind enough to write to him a letter instead.
I cry for the fact that I never sent him that letter to express my devotion to him, nor would he see my travelogues, if they are ever written before I pass away myself.
Editor's Note: Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh is an Iranian author known for her work on the concept of human security and for her contribution to conflict resolution and peace building on the republics of Central Asia and Afghanistan as a researcher, lecturer and United Nations consultant. This item is adapted from comments originally posted on Tadjbakksh’s Facebook page.