A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Ambassador Richard B. Parker, 1923-2011, Diplomat, Historian, MEJ Editor

Ambassador Richard B. Parker, 87, former United States Ambassador to Morocco, Algeria, and Lebanon, author of numerous books and a scholar of note, third Editor of The Middle East Journal (and Acting Editor a decade later), longtime Scholar in Residence at the Middle East Institute, bedrock of the Board of Advisory Editors of the Journal, role model, adviser, sometime critic, and friend, died January 7. This is going to be a lengthy post, and I plan to leave it as the main post all day Monday.

As fate would have it, when I returned to the office from the holidays I found a note from Dick, sent around Christmas, forwarding an old article of his on colloquial stereotypes in Lebanese Arabic for various villages, work he presumably did on the side while serving in Lebanon as a diplomat, but never published due to its sensitivity. He wanted MEI's library to have it. We may even publish it somewhere, since he indicated I could if I wished. His cover letter suggested I give him a call to catch up, and perhaps visit him for lunch sometime at his retirement home. I planned to do so soon, and put the letter (I get few snail mail letters in this e-mail age) on the to-do pile. Sadly, we won't be having that lunch now.

When The Middle East Journal celebrated its 60th Anniversary in early 2007, the Library of Congress joined with the Journal to hold a conference at the Library on the Journal's 60 years. The first panelist I invited was Dick Parker, whom I consider one of the greatest of the Journal's Editors. But before he came to The Middle East Journal or MEI, Dick had a 31-year career in the Foreign Service, including three Ambassadorships.

Dick was a member of the World War II generation, fighting in the European Theater, and was taken prisoner in the Battle of the Bulge. Liberated from the Germans by Russian troops, he was moved to Odessa and repatriated through the Black Sea. His sights of Istanbul and Port Said on his way home were his first exposures to the Middle East, and piqued his interest, as he always told the story. You can find a version of his story in this interview in the Foreign Service Journal for July-August 2004, which is titled "A Diplomatic Renaissance Man," an article which marked the American Foreign Service Association's awarding Dick its award for Lifetime Contributions to American Diplomacy.

The "Renaissance Man" title was no exaggeration. Dick had broad and varied interests, not just in the history but in the languages and cultures of the region. He wrote the first two or so of several editions of A Practical Guide to the Islamic Monuments of Cairo, a mainstay of the American University in Cairo Press (more recent editions have been done by Caroline Williams); in my days in Cairo (I was a medievalist then) I wore out at least two paperback copies, stuffed into available pockets while exploring the older quarters. climbing minarets and such. As a serving diplomat when he wrote it, he noted that some of the monuments weren't open to non-Muslims and others weren't open at all. I visited them all anyway, though I had to climb a fence or two, but Dick's guidebook didn't sanction that. He did a similar guide to Morocco's Islamic monuments, which I've also used, though never had enough time to use as extensively as the Cairo guide.

Dick was serving as a political officer in the US Embassy in Cairo when the 1967 War broke out. He always took an interest in the Liberty incident, but unlike many US diplomats, he believed that the attack by Israel on the US spy ship was a genuine mistake. He used to joke that he was "the only Gentile in the State Department who believed it was a mistake," but was always ready to engage in exchanges of letters over new books on the subject. After his retirement and while at MEI, he organized and presided over two major conferences on the anniversaries of the 1967 and 1973 war, and produced books from those conferences, while his book The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East remains a good guide to the blundering judgments that led the region into the 1967 war.

His tours in North Africa led to an enduring interest in the Maghreb, and in retirement, one of his books was Uncle Sam in Barbary, a history of US diplomacy connected with the Barbary Wars.

After his three decades of diplomatic service and three Ambassadorships, Dick started a new career in academia, as Editor of the Journal, teaching at the University of Virginia while Editor, and also taught at Johns Hopkins and Lawrence University. He also served as first President of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.

But I want to talk about his contributions to the Journal. He served as Editor for almost seven years, 1981-87, and returned as Acting Editor for one issue in 1995.

First a little background. (You can find a longer history of the Journal by me in the "Editor's Note: Sixty Years of The Middle East Journal" in the Winter 2007 MEJ , Volume 61, No. 1.) When the Journal began in January 1947, its Editor was Harvey P. Hall, a former professor at AUB. With the Spring 1956 issue, he was succeeded by William Sands. And William Sands remained the Editor for 25 years. Through the Suez War, the crises of 1958, the 1967 War, the 1973 War, the Lebanese Civil War. Bill Sands took over when I was in grade school and was still Editor when I was making my first contributions to the field. When Bill Sands finally stepped down, most people had never known any other Editor. How do you fill those shoes?

Dick Parker was the answer, and he began his tenure in the Winter 1981 issue with these words:
After 25 years as the guiding spirit of this publication, Bill Sands has retired from his position as Editor . . . Although there has been an explosion of publications on the Middle East in the past ten years, and Bill and a few other pioneers carried the torch through the wilderness with very little encouragement and support . . . (MEJ Winter 1981, Vol. 35, No. 1)
Although the prologue where those words appeared was at first called "Comment," it was the beginning of what became the "Editor's Note" at the front of the issue, and which has continued since. I don't know how many people bother to read it, but it does allow the Editor to introduce the issue, explain the rationale of the selections, and generally have a voice. Before Dick Parker's time, the Editor was silent and unheard from.

No more. In his third issue, Summer 1981, a statement of "Editorial Policy" appeared, announcing an intention to regularly include articles on policy issues alongside scholarly research, and noting articles by William Zartman and David Newsom as the forerunners. The very next issue (Autumn 1981) was a double issue containing three articles on journalism in the Middle East, and — this may have caused apoplexy among the Old Guard — a Doonesbury panel on the cover.

Ever the historian, Dick marked the 40th anniversary of the Journal in 1987 with a special issue, though earlier anniversaries had not been noted. Mary-Jane Deeb marked the 50th and I marked the 60th, taking our cues from Dick. (His only complaint, at least to me, about the 60th was that I said too many nice things about him. But they were all earned.)

After close to seven years (early 1981 to late 1987) Dick took his leave in the last issue of 1987, remarking that it had "been an interesting and rewarding job, and it had provided a wonderful platform for pontificating." (MEJ, Autumn 1987, Vol. 41, No. 4.) And that was before the Editor had a blog! I think Dick would have taken to blogging quickly if he'd been a bit younger. He was never reticent about expressing an opinion.

Dick remained a Scholar in Residence at MEI, and wrote his books and taught courses at various schools and kept on going. In 1995, after a period of three relatively short-term editors, the editorial chair was vacant and Dick was called back to serve as Acting Editor. That was the Winter 1995 issue, and typically for Dick Parker, it's one some people still remember, since it contained a controversial article, "The Impending Crisis in Egypt," by a then-serving government official published under a pseudonym (one of only a few times the Journal has done so), "Cassandra."

I remarked in the 60th Anniversary issue that Dick had remained a part of MEI and the Journal "so he has provided a source of institutional memory and advice (and of lectures about typos) for subsequent editors." He also was always forthcoming when asked for advice. He could be a bit curmudgeonly (some of it, I think, feigned) and did not suffer fools gladly, but also complimented jobs well done.

He will be missed. Certainly I will miss him.

But the best way to remember a scholar, and I think that's how Dick would want to be remembered, is by reading him:

Dick's books at Amazon:

The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East

The Six-Day-War: A Retrospective

The October War

Uncle Sam in Barbary: A Diplomatic History

North Africa: Regional Tensions and Strategic Concerns

And if my remarks on using his Practical Guide to the Islamic Monuments in Cairo in the 1970s inspired anyone, you can find Caroline Williams' current version Islamic Monuments in Cairo: The Practical Guide here. A couple of used copies of his Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Morocco can be found here.

And, I hope, The Middle East Journal continues to reflect his legacy.


David Mack said...

Thanks for this, Mike. Parker was an inspiration to many US foreign service officers. He was committed to his government career and fascinated by the culture of the Arab world, but he never became a "careerist" or a knee jerk apologist for the Arabs whom he knew so well.

James Kennedy said...

It is extremely sad to hear this news. As a former intern at MEI, I only had one opportunity to meet Ambassador Parker, but his dedication to the region and connection to our diplomatic history there was as clear as could be.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Former Editor Mary-Jane Deeb forwarded this comment by E-mail:

Mary-Jane Deeb said: When I became editor of the Middle East Journal in 1995, it was to Dick Parker I turned for advice and guidance. And he gave me both generously, kindly, and humorously. As Mike Dunn wrote so eloquently, Dick Parker was a remarkable man. He had the humility of all great scholars, always seeking to learn something new, however trivial, from each person he met. His natural warmth and ability to relate to others drew people to him like a magnet. His humor amused, his knowledge dazzled, his life inspired. All of us who knew, admired and loved him will miss him terribly.

Caroline said...

Thank you for a fine tribute to a real gentleman-scholar.
After graduate work at AUC on Cairo's architecture and urban development, I presumed to expand his "A Practical Guide to Islamic Monuments in Cairo" which first appeared in 1974 and is now in its 6th edition. Monuments have been added, new information has been included, changes noted, but at core some of Dick Parker's evocative style still remains. For example, about the Qa'a of Muhibb al-Din al-Muwaqqi` near the Bayn al Qasrayn: "There is about this place a feeling of lonely anachronism. It is as though one has stumbled suddenly through a bricked-up doorway and found oneself in a room that has been hidden for centuries." And wherever possible I invite the reader, as did Dick Parker, "to rest awhile and look at the surroundings." Caroline Williams

Edmund said...

I first encountered Dick Parker through his acerbic cables from Beirut which he wrote as Ambassador. In an age before Wikileaks, we were a privileged audience who were instructed in Ibn Khaldoun's "coefficient of mendacity" -- 10 as I remember -- by which all claims should be divided. Later I met him in the flesh in Beirut on a visit from my post Jerusalem. No less erudite in person, he was pleased to receive a monograph on ancient coins which, at his request, I had searched out in a Jerusalem bookstore. Later during my two tours in Cairo, his book was a constant companion. We last met at Princeton where we discussed the U.S. Navy and the Barbary states, and he reminded an audience of the 200th anniversary of the storming of Derna -- "the shores of Tripoli." As scholar/diplomat he was a role model for my generation.

Anonymous said...

I interview Dick in I guess 1996 or 7 about his ww2 adventure. I wish I had taken the time to tell him again how much it meant to me and my radio audience. he was a special man of a generation we owe big thanks too. I miss him

Dennis Price