Michael Alexander Barry has lectured in Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department since 2004 on the medieval and modern Islamic cultures of Iran, India, Pakistan, and most especially Afghanistan—where his work over more than four decades has ranged from anthropological research to defense of human rights and coordinating humanitarian assistance for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, for Médecins du Monde, and for the United Nations. He has published extensively in both his writing languages, English and French; his academic works have been translated into Persian and a half-dozen European versions; and he holds seven literary prizes from France and Iran.
While fluent in the Persian language (including the Afghan or “Dari” variant thereof) and deeply committed to reviving the study of its literature in Princeton, he is also keenly interested in the civilization of Islamic or Arabized Spain, and lectures on “Spanish Islam” every other year in Princeton’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese, stressing the transmission of traditional Islamic cultural traits to the civilization of Western Europe through the medieval Iberian peninsula.
His ongoing courses in Princeton with the Department of Near Eastern Studies since 2004 have included “Afghanistan and the Great Powers, AD 1747–2001” (cross listed with the Program in South Asian Studies); “South Asian Islam, AD 998–1803” (also cross listed with the Program in South Asian Studies); “Spanish Islam, AD 711–1492” (sponsored by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese and cross listed with the Department of Comparative Literature); “Readings in Early Classical Persian Literature, AD 800–1200” and “Readings in Later Classical Persian Literature, AD 1200–1800” (two semester-course, cross listed with the Department of Comparative Literature); and “Introduction to Early Sufism, AD 700–1200” and “Introduction to Later Sufism, AD 1200–1800” (also a two-semester course, focusing on the teachings of Avicenna in the first portion and of Ibn ‘Arabî in the second). Other courses have included “The Thousand and One Nights” (cross listed with the Department of Comparative Literature) and “Symbols and Allegory in Medieval Islamic Art.”
A recognized expert on Islamic art, Barry further conceived the reorganization of the New York Metropolitan Museum’s galleries of Islamic art scheduled for reopening in autumn 2011 (as consultative chairman of the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Islamic Art in 2005–2008), and has served since 2009 as special consultant to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture on museum issues, in view of the forthcoming openings of the Aga Khan’s Museum of Islamic Art in Toronto, and the Aga Khan’s Museum of the Civilizations of the Indian Ocean in Zanzibar. He contributed major chapters to the catalogues of the international exhibitions held in Paris and Lisbon in 1992 and 1998 commemorating the great Iberian discoveries of 1492 and 1498, and also to the catalogues of the Aga Khan exhibitions of Islamic Art in Madrid, Barcelona, and Berlin in 2009–2010. He has lectured on Islamic art at the Accademia Museum in Venice, at the shrine of Rûmî in Konya, Turkey, and for the Aga Khan organizations in the United States, Spain, and Afghanistan; presided with Tunisian scholar Abdelwahhab Meddeb over the Round Table on Islamic Art held by the Fundación de las Tres Culturas in Seville, Spain, in 2008; and has lectured on Islamic art and participated every spring since 2007 in the cultural debates sponsored by the International Festival of Sacred Music in Fez, Morocco.
Born in New York City in 1948 but raised in France and also partly in Afghanistan (where he lived with an Afghan family in Kabul in 1963 and with nomads of the western highlands in 1970–1972), Barry graduated from Princeton University in 1970 as a major in Near Eastern Studies, and later took higher degrees in anthropology and Islamic studies from Cambridge University in England (post-graduate diploma in anthropology), McGill University in Montreal (MA), and finally the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (PhD).
Barry however interrupted his academic career to serve as an international humanitarian worker in war-torn Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001. Travelling in dangerous conditions on foot or horseback and often even in disguise across the Pakistani border at the head of international relief teams to deliver urgent supplies of food and medicine to deprived populations deep in the Afghan interior, he successively served as Afghan Affairs observer for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (1979–1985), testifying on Soviet war crimes before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December 1982, discussing the same with President Reagan in private audience at the White House in January 1983, and then helping to organize the International Hearings on Afghanistan held by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry in Oslo in March 1983; as coordinating officer for Médecins du Monde’s clandestine field hospitals in the country under Soviet occupation (1985–1989); as consultant and humanitarian team leader in the field (in Paktîkâ, Paktyâ, and Ghaznî provinces) for the United Nations (1989–1991); as special envoy to Kabul of Dr. Bernard Kouchner (founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and Médecins du Monde and current French Foreign Minister) to deliver food and medicine to refugees from Tajikistan’s post-Soviet civil war stranded on remote northeastern Afghan soil and then in the starving Afghan capital itself during the post-Soviet Afghan civil war and under Tâlibân siege (1992–1995); and finally, after the change in Afghan régime in 2001, as adviser for education programs in Kabul to the French Government.
Since joining Princeton’s Department of Near Eastern Studies in 2004, Barry has concentrated on imparting Afghan history and culture to American and international students and has also lectured in Kabul to Afghan audiences (in their own language) on the medieval art and archaeology of their country under the auspices of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. His French-language book on Afghanistan, Le royaume de l’insolence (Paris 1984, 1989, 2002, fourth edition scheduled for 2010), is regarded as the standard Francophone textbook on the country; his French-language biography of Commander Massoud (Paris 2002) was awarded one of France’s most distinguished literary prizes for non-fiction, the Prix Fémina catégorie essai, in 2002.
But Barry has at the same time been concerned to pursue his studies of earlier Islamic culture (history, literature, mysticism, art), in light of his profound conviction—which he wishes to share with his Princeton students—that too exclusive a focus on contemporary events can cause one to lose sight of the civilization’s much deeper spiritual roots. He further likes to compare—or to contrast—various aspects of medieval Islamic culture with parallel developments in medieval European Christian civilization, reflecting his persuasion that both closely related cultures, even in their differences, throw considerable light upon each other.
His medievalist writings mostly dwell on the symbolism underlying much traditional Islamic art and poetry, although he further addresses attention to medieval and 16th-century French, Italian, Castilian and Portuguese art and literatures. The original French version, Faïences d’azur, of his Design and Color in Islamic Architecture, a study of the symbolism and recurring patterns in medieval Islamic architectural decoration from Morocco to India, with pictures by renowned French photographers Roland and Sabrina Michaud and also partly based on the author’s own many years of friendship with the traditional master craftsmen and tile-makers of Herât’s Friday Mosque in Afghanistan, won the Académie Française’s Art History Medal in 1997. His French-language verse translation and extensive study of the symbolism of the 12th-century Persian poet Nizâmî’s Haft Paykar or “Seven Icons”, Le Pavillon des sept princesses, was in turn awarded the Iranian Government’s Prize for Book of the Year on Persian Civilization in 2002, and the study portion thereof was translated and published in Persian as Tafsîr-i Michael Barry ba-Haft Paykar-i Nizâmî in Tehran in 2006; in the same year 2006, the collective volume on ‘Attâr and the Persian Sufi Tradition, to which he contributed the chapter on traditional manuscript illuminations to the poet, was also awarded the Iranian Government’s Prize for Book of the Year on Persian Civilization.
His latest book, Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzâd of Herât (1465-1535), is a lavishly illustrated volume that addresses the allegorical code of 15th- and 16th-century “Persian miniatures,” notably in the light of medieval mystical Persian poetry. In 2006, he contributed to the Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition on Venice and the Islamic World (directed by Stefano Carboni) with the catalogue chapter on Giorgione’s “Three Philosophers” and the representation of “Averroës” and “Arab philosophy” in late medieval and early Renaissance Italian art. Forthcoming publications in late 2010 return to further studies of medieval Eastern Islamic manuscript illuminations to the great Persian poets, notably `Attâr (with Leili Anvar, Le Cantique des oiseaux), and Hâfiz (collective volume edited by Leonard Lewisohn).
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