What inspired you to pursue your studies and a career in the Middle East?
I started my undergraduate career in 2001, and vividly remember the shock of 9/11 and the sickening rush to war with Iraq from 2002-2003. Whereas many Americans responded with fear and a desire for retribution, I was appalled by the direction that the U.S. administration was taking and tried to find out as much as possible about the history and politics of the region, so I could mount a more effective critique of policies that I saw as potentially catastrophic for the people of Iraq.
In the spring of 2003, I took a course with Charles Smith, who inspired me to declare a major in history. I gravitated towards the Middle East because it was relevant to my interests at the time – and I was bored with American history. I followed my undergraduate career with a stint in factory work, which drove me almost immediately BACK into academia and the University of Arizona, where I got my master’s in Middle Eastern politics and history.
My decision to move to the Middle East was actually a matter of luck. I had applied to a number of programs and would have never imagined myself at the American University of Beirut (AUB) except that my fiancée, Tamara, discovered that the AUB had a history Ph.D. program, while she was applying to get a master’s in public health. She got in, then I got in, and the rest is history. Though I was initially worried about how the notoriously snooty world of academia would look at a degree from a non-traditional (read: American Ivy League) institution, the cultural and linguistic skills that I picked up in Beirut have been priceless, and I had the opportunity to work with some of the best scholars in my field using rare sources that I would have never been able to access in the States.
While at the AUB, I was able to benefit from the expertise and (sometimes gentle) guidance of Abdulrahim Abu Husayn and Samir Seikaly, who quickly eradicated any naivety that may have remained in my mindset about the region. In addition to the invaluable instruction and mentoring that they provided, the AUB also gave me the rare opportunity to get to know the iconic Lebanese historian, Kamal Salibi, who would visit the department for coffee on Fridays. Because we both shared a fascination for obscure, gross, or mundane history, and because he loved to tell stories and I loved to listen, we got along splendidly ( “Dr. Salibi, do you know when the potato came to the region?” “Ah. I remember reading a work produced in the 17th century that referred to batatat, which indicates that there were several varieties of potato in use at the time…”).
What experiences in Lebanon had the greatest impact on you?
My time in Lebanon has completely reshaped my life, so it is difficult to really focus on one thing. Lacking family nearby, we rapidly made friends that have become as close as family. The best part of this was the chance I had to raise my son in Lebanon and watching him grow up in Lebanese society. As a friendly little blonde boy who spoke with a Lispy Lebanese Arabic accent, he rapidly became one of the most famous people in our neighborhoods. I would sometimes walk down the street with him and more people would know him than me. Even after two years of living in Sharjah, he still tells people that he’s from Beirut and claims Lebanon as his country.
How did you choose your specific area of study?
The hands-on experience living and studying in the region dramatically transformed my understanding of Lebanon and its history. Life in Beirut as a student, a father, a teacher, and a member of the community provided me with the necessary perspective to explore Lebanese history from within, rather than above.
Over the five years I spent in the program, my interests shifted away from political history into the more esoteric history of disease, disaster and calamity. My decision to focus on the famine of WWI as my dissertation came in part due to Samir Seikaly’s intolerance for trite or meaningless dissertation topics and my growing appreciation of disaster. One day, after mentioning this interest to Kamal Salibi (who had also nursed a secret love of medical history since his father had been a physician), he suggested that I look into the famine, since at that point there had been only one monograph published on the topic. Dr. Seikaly acquiesced, and I launched myself into famine studies and have not looked back since.
You mentioned that your interests shifted into “the more esoteric history of disease,” but you are known for connecting the particular to the universal in ways that are both accessible and challenging. Within the realm of disease, what topics have you focused on in your research and teaching?
My dissertation, “Lives Darkened by Calamity: Enduring the Famine of World War I in Lebanon and Western Syria,” focused on what it was like to live through the terrible wartime years and how individuals and communities adapted to the changes brought by the famine atmosphere. This focus allows quite a bit of leeway, and since I encountered many things in my research that pertain to daily life, including trauma and coping, food and eating in famine and the influence of the environment on life in famine.
My research has been generally well received, and I have seeded publications in the collected volume Southern Horrors, the online encyclopedia of WWI, 1914-1918 Online, the AUB’s own 150th anniversary festschrift, as well as a forthcoming publication from Brill entitled Insatiable Appetite: Food as a Cultural Signifier.
As a social historian, I have frequently integrated these topics into my classes. To date, I have taught courses on the history of World War I, the history of disease and disaster, and world history. In all of these I have brought in a variety of topics related to disease and disaster to add depth to the students’ understanding of historical contexts and problematize traditional historical narratives.
What advice do you have for prospective students?
I would say that if you are entering into any study abroad program to do it with an open mind and a willingness to go with the flow. When you are abroad, you will have the opportunity to encounter new things, see new people, travel to places you never would have imagined, and eat things that would have made your skin crawl. Do, go, and eat everything. You have a real opportunity to reinvent yourself, or at least the chance to become the you that you've always wanted to be. Don't let it pass by.
Why do you think it is important to study in the Middle East?
It is important to study in the Middle East for a few reasons. Perhaps most importantly, studying and living in the region will dispel any naiveté that you may have had about the region before traveling. If you intend on making the Middle East part of your future career goals (even studying it), you need to be able to approach it with familiarity, honesty, and hopefully affection. America in particular has done a good deal of damage in the region in part due to misconceptions about the Middle East and the people who call it home. But you will also enjoy the hell out of yourself here.
Arab culture (and Lebanon's in particular) is welcoming, warm and open. You will make friends with people from all over the world and meet people you will be in contact with decades from now. You will have happy memories to call on all of your life and, apart from the odd case of food poisoning, you will not regret it.
Dr. Tylor Brand
Tylor began his career at the American University of Beirut (AUB) as a Ph.D. student in the fall of 2009, and in 2014 became the first person to graduate with a Ph.D. in history since 1995. After graduation, he was offered a visiting assistant professorship in his home department. One year later, he uprooted his family one last time and moved to Sharjah, UAE, where he currently serves as an assistant professor in the international studies department and as the resident expert on the modern Middle East.