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A&S Professor Studies Lands Linked By an Ocean

Published November 17, 2016 in News

By: Matt Kelly | University Communications

Descended from a long line of ship’s captains, Fahad Bishara has come to the piedmont of Virginia to write about the Indian Ocean.

“I am conscious of the degree of distance between me and the ocean and that helps me think about it as this big space,” he said. “It might give me some perspective because it helps me see how all these places fit together

“But I would still like to be near a body of water. That would still be nice.”

Bishara, an assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, specializes in the economic and legal history of the Indian Ocean and the Islamic world. His current book, “A Sea of Debt: Law and Economic Life in the Western Indian Ocean, 1780-1940” is a legal history of economic life in the western Indian Ocean during the 19th century.

In a relatively new field of study, Bishara teaches about the Indian Ocean and the connections between the Middle East, South Asia, East Africa and Southeast Asia.

“I look at groups of people who migrate to these different places, move around the ocean – some of them sailors, but mostly merchants who go to different places and set up shop,” he said. “At some point, these places are coming into contact with one another and these societies that live on the coasts of these regions are often very different from the people who live inland.”

Bishara was raised in Kuwait, in an Arabic-speaking home, though his formal education was in English and Arabic. Not a sailor himself, his forebears were and, until the 1950s, his grandfather sailed regularly from Kuwait to East Africa to India and back, spending nine months of the year at sea. His father was the first to step away from work onboard, becoming an engineering professor in Kuwait.

“When oil was discovered on the land, it wasn’t considered sensible to go out to sea anymore because you did not have to cross the sea to search for wealth,” he said. “The government took advantage of oil wealth and set up scholarships for engineers and professors, because they needed to set up a modern state.”

Raised on the edge of the Persian Gulf, Bishara’s fascination turned east.

“I mostly look from Arabia outward to the Indian Ocean,” Bishara said. “Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Yemen – they are considered peripheral to Middle Eastern history. People aren’t really interested in them because the Ottomans weren’t there. They are not the centers of Arab nationalism; they are not what people associate with the great cities of Arab civilization. And yet, for me, that is what makes them interesting. But they are incredibly dynamic, if we are to look at them from the perspective of the sea.”

This perspective from the sea gave Bishara his calling. He toyed with the idea of becoming a journalist, but eventually rejected it, getting a degree in international relations and politics from the University of Southern California. When he graduated, he took a job in a think tank in Dubai as a copy editor.

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