Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast #9: Hussein Fancy
Interviewer: Elise Robbins (ER); Interviewee: Hussein Fancy (HF)
Time: September 9. 2022; Location: Hagerty Hall 142 (ASCTech Academic Technologies Studio)
ER: Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Ohio State University. I'm talking today with our guest, Dr. Hussein Fancy, the first speaker in our 2022–2023 lecture series, who will present a talk later this evening, entitled “The Impostor Sea: The Making of the Medieval Mediterranean.” Dr. Fancy is an Associate Professor of History at Yale University. He received his B.A. in English from Yale and a Ph.D. in History from Princeton University. Before coming to Yale, he taught at the University of Michigan for eleven years, and he has lived and worked extensively in Spain, Italy, France, and across North Africa. His award-winning first book, The Mercenary Mediterranean, explores the service of Muslim soldiers from North Africa to the Christian kings of the Crown of Aragon in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and asks us to rethink how confessional backgrounds shaped these complex inter-religious interactions in ways that often contradict the more secular framework of much current scholarship. He is currently working on two book-length projects: The Eastern Question, which looks at Western views of Islam from the seventh century to today, and The Impostor Sea: The Making of the Medieval Mediterranean, which I think we will learn more about in his talk later today. Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Fancy.
HF: Thanks, Elise, I’m so happy to be here.
ER. Awesome. Before we delve into more specific questions, can you tell our listeners a little more about yourself? When did you first become interested in medieval studies? What are some early experiences that shaped your research directions?
HF: Well, first, let me say that this whole visit so far has been so lovely. I’m so pleased to be here. There’s such a lively and rich community at The Ohio State University.
ER: You got the “the” in there.
HF: I was going to say, I was at the University of Michigan for many years. We know about The Ohio State University.
HF: We know to say the “the.”
HF: I backed into medieval studies. I don’t think I ever had an intention to be a professor. I don’t think I really had an intention to study medieval Spain even. I had been exposed to a wonderful scholar as an undergraduate. Her name was María Rosa Menocal, and she was a professor of Spanish literature at Yale when I was an undergraduate. And I had taken some classes with her, and I think that was the first time I had learned anything about medieval Spain. But my family background is South Asian. It didn’t mean anything particularly to me other than an interesting place where Jews, Christians, and Muslims “met,” as we were told many times. After college, I did like many people do. I tried on many hats; I tried on many careers. I wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a journalist. I did a Fulbright to Egypt. And over the course of that time, not knowing what to do next, I decided to apply to grad school because it seemed like a safe place to go. It seemed like, “If you don’t know what you’re doing, why not get a PhD?” It seemed like a really practical decision. I knew nothing about what I was getting myself into, is what I’m trying to say. When I arrived at Princeton—I was very fortunate to get in, I think people had taken a chance on me, which I appreciate—I fell entirely in love with historical practice. I fell in love with documents. I fell in love with research. I don’t think I realized or knew before that point what it is historians did. And every creative bone I have, every part of me that wants to write a novel, every part of me that wants to write poetry was satisfied by the intellectual challenges of making documents speak.
ER: That’s really beautiful. I love that, the “making documents speak.” So, you said that you had the question of “What do historians do?” Would you say that is what historians do? Or is there—how would you describe?
HF: You know—we had lunch together before this, our listeners won’t know this—but I’ll reference something I said there, which is, “I’m not sure what historians do.” I’m not sure what other historians do still. I often would love to opportunity to go sit in on somebody else’s class and see what they think they’re doing as teachers of history. I would say—and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d say the same thing—I would say that what I do is to teach students how to get documents to speak. I don’t think what I’m trying to do in class is to get at the truth of anything. I don’t think I’m trying to show them what lies behind documents or how to instrumentalize them. I’m actually trying to tell them that the truth lies in the problem of the document itself, that this is what we have, this is what we know. How can we possibly know more than this? And I think it’s in that tension that one builds up in the process of reading, the resolution, which often leads you to another problem, another question, another document. It becomes this infinite paper chase—I think I used that expression at lunch as well—but it becomes this infinite pursuit of questions and knowledge. Yeah, so I would define what I do as a historian as getting documents to speak, but also chasing them, following them around, seeing where they go, attending to the problems that arise.
ER: Absolutely. And we talked a little bit about this at lunch—since we’re letting our listeners in on our lunchtime conversations—
HF: Yes, this is a postprandial discussion.
ER: Right. Do you feel that your background in English, how has that kind of shaped your being a historian or your approach to history? Since I study English myself, that kind of chasing the documents where they go sounds similar to a lot of things that we do, so I guess, how would you say your background in English has shaped things?
HF: Yeah, you know I was a college student at the time that postcolonial theory was dominating the discussion, new historicism was dominating the discussion. I think that also attuned me to some degree to be thinking about history, to be thinking about power, asking certain kinds of questions about texts. I think some of the theoretical questions that still drive my work are informed by the kinds of questions that preoccupied scholars in the late nineties, which is to say questions of hybridity, questions of colonialism, questions of power, questions of historicism—or critiques of historicism, let’s say—still bounce around in the back of my mind when I do my work and inform the kinds of reading I’ll do. I’m a very capacious and wide reader. I don’t read just in my field; I read all over the place. And I think being an English student as an undergraduate primed me to want to read lots and lots of different things. But I do think the close reading skills I gained as an English student are what I try to teach every day in the classroom. And that defines me as a reader as well, that what I do in my books and my work is I try to push documents as far as I can get them to go. I think my fear is that we instrumentalize material that we find and we lose, in some sense, the joy in them being manifold, of their meaning being multiple, and that there can be something really lovely, redemptive, life-affirming about the complexity of documents without them needing to mean in any particular way or any kind of instrumentalizeable way something. I resist that very strongly in my writing and my teaching practices.
ER: Mm. I love that, I love that, and as I’ve thought about my own research in archives and documents, I think being with that material thing kind of helps to see it for its possibilities—
HF: I agree.
ER: —and the diversity of voices. So, I wanted to ask you a little bit about researching in the archives. What has that looked like for you? Where have been the joys? Where have been the challenges?
HF: Yes. I am by nature a very introverted person, and you would think the archive is the perfect place for the introverted person. I, in my third year of graduate school, had thought I was going to write about a Mamluk ambassador who had died in Venice and left a number of Arabic records in Venice—and this is a good dissertation project for anyone who wants one; I’m happy to share the details. But I ended up going to Barcelona. The Archives of the Royal Crown of Aragon are the second largest medieval archive in the world. They include the daily comings and goings of the kings, their behaviors, tax records, court cases, just an extraordinary cache of documents. So, I decided to go there because naïvely I thought, “There must be something in there because there’s so much.” I would say my first experience of going the archive was sheer terror. It took me maybe three days before I could even enter the building. The Archive of the Crown of Aragon is this very modern building. It has this patio in a triangular shape that leads to this glass set of doors behind which is a security guard.
HF: Yeah. And for me, just walking on the patio meant declaring in very clear terms that you were walking into the building. There was no hesitating or going back, so it took me a while to step onto the patio and commit to going in. Once I got over the fear—and it was really palpable—the next problem was making sense of the documents. On my first day at the “ACA”—as they call it—the Archivo de la Corona de Aragón, they handed me a microfilm because they didn’t trust me to look at the documents myself. I didn’t touch them myself. I wasn’t very adept at using microfilms, and I inserted it into the machine upside down and spent the rest of the day trying to decipher upside down Latin, thinking maybe I had found a Hebrew text that no one had ever known about. My point here is that I was a bit of a bumbling fool. I was terrified. I made lots of mistakes. But by the time I had been there for a few weeks and they’d let me touch documents myself, that frisson, that shudder down your spine, this sense that you may be among a handful of people ever to have touched this document, that you are looking at something that somebody inscribed 800 years ago on a piece of parchment—or paper, in this case. I felt a really visceral connection to these documents themselves. And again, I think because they became almost alive for me, I felt this duty to be faithful to them in a way that I don’t think I would have had if I’d been reading these things from a distance. If I’d been looking at them digitized, I think that would have cut me off from them. If I had been reading them edited, I don’t think I would have understood that I had a connection to a person who lived 800 years ago and a duty to empathize with them directly. I think I’ve told you this already, but, in my naïveté, I decided that my best method for dealing with this very large archive was to read the whole thing. Of course, I didn’t read the whole thing. But I started from the beginning, and I read straight through. This is not a practice that I would recommend to every graduate student, but it is a practice I would recommend if it is possible to you. You cannot understand archives by diving in and out of them. I think we are too quick to photograph. We are too quick to make copies. It is often the things around the documents that you’re reading that are going to be the most interesting. It is often learning the hand of the scribe that is most valuable. It is also the archivists and the other people working in the archive who will come to your aid and rescue and make things legible for you that you wouldn’t have known otherwise. So, I read. I read every document. I read about, I think in the end it was roughly 200,000 documents. It’s an extraordinary amount for a medievalist to look at, and that has become the basis of my whole career. The time I spent with those documents now informs every argument I make, and all my projects start and end with this database I built while a graduate student.
ER: Wonderful, I love the intimacy it sounds like you have cultivated with these artifacts, these connections to people in the past. I feel like that comes through—I haven’t heard about your most recent project—but in looking at your first book, I feel like that comes through. Can you talk a little bit about how your duty to be faithful to these texts shaped where your first book went?
HF: I wrote a dissertation. I wrote it in a rush. You know, I wrote it quickly in some sense. I think it was a good dissertation. I think people who are really interested in where I’ve been and how I’ve come might want to look at that dissertation and look at my book as well just as a good example of where one goes and how wrong you can be in the first and how different you can be in the second, how much you can change in the course of a few years. I think what I wanted to do in this first book—again, since there isn’t a right and a true [way]—what I wanted to do was play. What I really wanted to do was ask questions that weren’t being asked and test theories that weren’t being tested. So, the first question I asked—and you said this very eloquently in the introduction—the first assumption I wanted to challenge—and I didn’t know I would be right—is that when Jews, Christians, and Muslims interact with each other in medieval Iberia, they set aside their beliefs. Or, I said it very pointedly earlier, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims meet in Iberia, there is a meeting happening. It is though they emerge, they’ve sort of pawed themselves like those lions in Milton’s Paradise Lost out of the ground fully formed. And this didn’t intuitively seem right to me. It didn’t theoretically seem right to me, it didn’t intuitively seem right to me, and it also didn’t reflect what I was seeing in the documents. So, I wanted to say the exact opposite. I wanted to say when they met—when these Muslim soldiers met these Christian kings—they also met on the terrain of something we would call “religion.” And I wanted to probe what we meant by those terms. I wanted to ask first questions. And I think this is something I say to my students often, that if you’re not asking first questions, you’re probably not pushing yourself as far as you need to go. There should be something vertiginous about really great thinking. It should make you feel dizzy; it should make you feel like you’ve lost the ground beneath you. So, my book was play. In some sense, it started off as a joke: what if I could write this story very differently than everybody? Could I prove this? Could I show this? Despite lots of people waving red flags and telling me to go back and go the other way, I wanted to keep going. And I really wrote it in a spirit of conversation with my colleagues. I didn’t mean for it to be polemical. I didn’t mean for it to say, “I’m right, and you’re wrong.” I meant it to say, “I wonder how many other ways we could assemble the material, and what could we gain by thinking otherwise?” And I think the real charm of it for me was starting off on that. The other thing I did is I—again, something that I also tell students to do—I started from documents, and I wrote up. Every chapter, every part of the book is about me and my relationship to reading a certain set of documents, how I got them to make sense, where I had to go to fill in the gaps. Sometimes I went through Arabic, sometimes I went through other countries, sometimes I went through secondary sources. There was a long digression into the work of Ernst Kantorowicz in the middle of the book. It’s a strange book, but it is meant to foreground my thought process and my interpretive process and the kind of tactile, as you said, the visceral feeling of being with the documents. I wanted to impress that on the page too, that I wasn’t working with something inert. I’m not naïve enough to think I was invisible in this process. I wanted to make myself visible as an interpreter who is flawed and making decisions.
ER: I really appreciate that kind of visibility because I think a lot of times, we can see history as something that’s handed to us when really it’s not. It’s gone through an interpretive and subjective process, so I appreciate you foregrounding that in your book. I’m interested in one of the projects I saw that you’re working on: The Eastern Question. In the description, it ranges from, what, the seventh century to modernity? It’s pretty wide-ranging. Can you tell us a little bit about your goal with that work and the audience and who you’re hoping to reach?
HF: Yeah, I’m very excited about this project. It is something I’ve been writing and teaching on for many years now. This is meant to be a book for a trade press. This is meant to be a book for my mother, frankly. I think one of the things that—I don’t want to say “hurt,” although that was the first word that came to mind—one of the things that troubled me about writing The Mercenary Mediterranean is that it was a very successful book, but its readership was actually quite small. It was a book for specialists. It was not a book—and I don’t come from a family of academics—it was not a book that anyone in my family really understood. I don’t mean to belittle them; I only mean to say it doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t provide them with a roadmap that I think I needed to provide them with. It just assumed so much about the reader. It assumed an academic reader, somebody who already knew a lot about medieval Spain, somebody who knew a lot about—as my wife often jokes, “You talk about Frederick II as though everybody knows who he is, but who in the world is Frederick II?” and I’ll say, “Who in the world is Frederick II?! The most important person!” So, the impetus was to write a book for my mother. And really in a voice that—if I didn’t mention earlier, I wanted to be a writer before I became an academic—it’s to return to that initial mission now that I have tenure. I’m a writer first, and a historian second, I think. So, the premise of the book is as follows: it is, as you say, a history of everything. It is the history of Western views of Islam from before Islam up until “the end,” as I say, the present. And it is written in reverse. It starts with the present moment, with people holding signs that say, “Islam is an ideology, not a religion.” And it ends with St. John of Damascus, the sort of first polemic against Islam. I do something very unlike what a historian should do. I say that there is an intellectual coherence—this is an intellectual history, this book—and transcendence to certain ideas about Islam that have shaped not only Christianity but also the possibilities of encounters between Muslims and Christians. One of the arguments I make is that positive views of Islam, of which there are many that I stop at in the book, are freighted with, filled with polemical notions about Islam. There’s something very bleak and dark about this book. I’m still struggling to not make it be a sad book. It is, to some degree, an extension or discussion with Edward Said’s Orientalism, though far more grounded I think, obviously, in premodernity but also in a different set of documents and texts. I don’t think I quite have the same humanist strain that defines Said’s work, or the safety that he finds in humanism, I think I don’t have. The book is character-driven. It is about people we know. It is about Voltaire; it is about Thomas Jefferson; it is about Petrus Alphonsi, a character I think we should all know but maybe we don’t all know. It is about people that I think are part of the Western tradition, the Western canon (again, Goethe is another one), but telling their story in a way that is surprising, about their interaction and relationship with Islam or their views of Islam. It is about the centrality of thinking with Islam to the Western Christian imagination. And ultimately the argument of the book is that the polemic, to some degree, overwhelms the encounter with actual Muslims. The Eastern Question really isn’t about Muslims, it is about Islam without Muslims, to some degree. I’m very excited about the book. It takes me very far away from the kind of archival work I’m doing. I mentioned his to you earlier, but I have a little kid, and I was thinking, “What is a book that I could write from the library? What is a book I could write without going away for years at a time to sit in a dusty archive somewhere in Rome, or in a library in North Africa? What could I do and still be present in my daughter’s life?” And this book really excited me. I think the pandemic also accelerated the notion that I would write a project that could be done from my office. What we do as medievalists is very hard fought. You know, we must spend a long time gathering our materials, translating them—it’s a difficult task. So, I wanted to throw myself a softball.
ER: It sounds like it’s going to be a very important softball, though. I look forward to putting this on reading lists, you know hopefully, if I get to be teaching in the future. It sounds like what we need, so I’m very excited to read that. We’re almost out of time. I would like for anyone who is unable to come to the talk this afternoon to get just a little taste of what you’re working on with The Imposter Sea. So, I know I’ve just asked you to describe several projects already, but if you could give just maybe a little preview, especially for anyone who can’t be there this afternoon so that we can know what to expect with that as well.
HF: This book, I’m so excited about. It has been so much fun to write. I think writing after tenure is a whole new game. You write without the same kind of anxiety and pressure. The theme “imposters” is so capacious. This really allows me to draw on all my reading interests and my background in literature. But what the book is about is, over the many years of doing research in North Africa, Italy, and Spain, I kept coming across cases of fraud, of impostacy—of people pretending to be things they were not—of people and things that are not what they seem. These “tricksters,” let’s say, fascinated me. I was also fascinated by the obsession, let’s say, with “tricksterdom” in cultural theory: the idea that these people who are betwixt and between are somehow modern characters or people yearning to be modern in the midst of oppressive societies. So, I wanted to write a story about impostacy—that’s the word I’m using, I’m fairly certain it’s a real word. I wanted to write a book about impostacy that overturned some of the ways we write about fraud and impostacy. So, the book is written in this way, all grounded in archival material: it is an effort write a history of the Mediterranean in which there are no Jews, Christians, and Muslims, but only people pretending to be Jews, Christians, and Muslims. And my argument here is—it’s a little tongue and cheek—that what we’re really looking at when we’re looking at these records is a change in both Christian and Islamic law… (and now I’m stumbling, and you can see the book is still in process). What we are seeing in the medieval Mediterranean in legal cases that deal with fraud and imposters is, in fact, a jurisdictional turn. It’s not a change in the people of the Mediterranean; it is a change in which the law is coming to define what it means to be Christian, Jewish, and Muslim. And what I’m arguing here is that it comes to define them by understanding that they are all imposters first, that it actually holds within its core an understanding that the law cannot define what a Jew, Christian, and a Muslim is, that that is a necessarily slippery category and that the law remains slippery but people cannot remain slippery. It’s an upside-down telling. This is now becoming old hat for me, but I’m telling a story that’s different than the story that’s been told and trying to make it work, trying to have some fun along the way. But yeah, I’m telling a story about Jews, Christians, and Muslims in which they don’t meet, in which they are made in the course of interacting with one another in the Mediterranean.
ER: It’s so interesting! And why do this work if it’s not a little bit playful and rewriting stories in very fascinating [ways]. I mean, it gives us a whole new perspective and challenges these, like, received ideas that we have, and I think that that is really exciting work to be doing.
HF: I appreciate that. I mean, I think part of why we are humanists, part of why we are readers and writers is to cultivate this joy and to question how things come to mean.
HF: And if we assume that meaning is stable, then we participate in a form of reduction, a form of limiting the meaning and possibilities of the world. I don’t want to participate in a world like that, where things are becoming narrower. I want to participate in one where things are becoming more capacious.
ER: Absolutely, and I agree. It has been such a pleasure to talk with you today. Thank you for being with us.
HF: Thanks, Elise.
ER: You need a little bit of a break before your lecture, so we’ll sign on here, and we look forward to hearing your lecture in just about an hour now. So, thank you!
HF: Thank you.