The appointment of Dr. Rashid I. Khalidi as the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia University last fall brought to the campus not only a noted Middle Eastern scholar, but also a man who, like Dr. Said, has been assailed by conservatives and many supporters of Israel for being critical of United States policy on the Middle East.
He is a scathing critic of Israel's treatment of Palestinians, although he says he supports Israel's right to exist. He also says he feels that the perceptions of the conflict in the West are heavily skewed in Israel's favor. He calls suicide bombings war crimes.
Yet the troubles in the Middle East - from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the conflict between the Palestinians and Israelis to the calcification of a host of despotic Arab regimes - have made his field one of the hottest in academia. The numbers of students flocking to Arabic and Middle Eastern studies programs, especially after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have shot through the roof. But his field also brings with it a Middle Eastern version of the culture wars that rend America. The anger and the accusations are as heated, as deep and as polarizing.
The battle has spread to the United States Congress, where conservatives are pushing for a bill, already passed unanimously in the House of Representatives, that would create a seven-member advisory board to oversee distribution of the $95 million in government subsidies for not only programs that focus on the Middle East but also those that focus on other areas. Dr. Khalidi expects that the board's composition will not be favorable to dissidents. He says he fears that it will attempt to impose a world view of the Middle East that bolsters hard-line supporters of Israel and those who back the war in Iraq.
"I suspect many schools will refuse to accept partisan oversight," he said, "and the consequence may be the elimination of valuable programs."
Controversy is not new to his life. He grew up in New York, the son of a Palestinian official who worked at the United Nations, and a Lebanese mother. The apartment where they lived in Morningside Heights in Manhattan was one that retained much of the old world, spoken Arabic and dinners with stuffed grape leaves and baked kibbe. "My father worked in the political and security council affairs division of the Secretariat," he said. "We would often begin by talking about what happened in the Security Council that day. I learned to see the difference between what we knew to be true and what was reported to be true."
Dr. Khalidi, 55, lived for a few years with his family in Libya, returned to graduate from the United Nations School and went to Yale University.
He went to Oxford to get his doctorate in history, writing on British policy in Syria before World War I. After his father died in 1988, his mother moved back to Beirut. He spent his summers in Lebanon, did much of his doctoral research there and finally ended up teaching in Beirut until the civil war drove him out.
Before coming to Columbia, he spent 16 years at the University of Chicago, where he was professor of Middle Eastern history and director of international studies.
WHILE his critics call him an apologist for the enemies of America - The New York Sun called him "the professor of hate" - he doggedly insists that he is merely carrying out his role as a historian, working to show how historical forces, largely ignored in the United States, have shaped the modern Middle East. He takes particular delight in demolishing the various clichés used to describe the Middle East, bred out of what he terms "America's historical amnesia." "Resurrecting Empire," his most recent book, came out in bookstores this week and was written with the aim of shattering these myths.
"There are all sorts of accepted wisdoms about the Middle East that are not true," he said, "as I try to show in my book. There is little awareness of the long liberal and democratic movements, especially in the 20's and 30's, the way the Western powers sabotaged these movements in places like Egypt and Iran. We assume Iraqis do not have a national identity or that they are uncivilized, forgetting that they established a legal code 3,800 years ago, when most Europeans were illiterate. We need to learn a little humility and a little history."
He stands in the shadow of Dr. Said, who died last year and had an array of expertise that included literary criticism, historical research, political activism and his gifts as a classical pianist.
"He provided the role model for us," he said. "He showed us that we could be respected and exacting scholars and not ashamed of our origins, that we could also stand up for what was right. We are here because of his example."
He has three grown children, two of whom work in the Middle East. When they were younger he coached their baseball teams and he has pictures of himself in a baseball uniform in team photos in his office. His wife, Mona, is an assistant dean at Columbia. He lives happily, he said, in Morningside Heights once more.
"I grew up in this neighborhood," he said. "I spent my weekends in the Natural History Museum, at Grant's Tomb or on the lawn in front of Columbia's library while my father worked inside on his doctorate."