Profile of Simon Jackson
By Nicole D’Alessio, NYU ‘17
Simon Jackson is a historian of colonial empire, specializing in the study of French imperialism in the twentieth century Mediterranean. He has taught at the European University Institute and at the Institute of Political Studies of Paris (Sciences-Po) and NYU Paris and holds a Ph.D. in History from NYU and a B.A. in Modern History from the University of Oxford. Currently a Jean Monnet post-doctoral fellow at the European University Institute, he is completing a book on the political economy of French rule in Syria and Lebanon after World War One entitled Mandatory Development: the Global Politics of Economic Development in the Colonial Middle East 1915-1939. He is currently co-editing From the League of Nations to the United Nations: New Approaches to International Institutions. He has published numerous articles in peer-reviewed journals, such as “Diaspora Politics and Developmental Empire: The Syro-Lebanese at the League of Nations” in the Arab Studies Journal Vol. XXI No. 1 from Spring 2013. Forthcoming works include a number of chapters in edited volumes such as “Mr. Ford and ‘Mr. Ford’: Detroit, Beirut, and the Inter-War Nation Form” to be featured in The Mashriq and the Mahjar: Migration from the Levant, 1800-2000. He has given an impressive array presentations, most recently including ‘From Imperial Food Relief to Mandatory Development: the Politics of Emergency in French Syria-Lebanon,´ (Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva), and ‘Women’s Movements and Movements of Women: Syro-Lebanese Humanitarian Philanthropy in the Diaspora and at the League of Nations, 1915-1926,’ (Middle East Studies Association 2013 Annual Meeting, New Orleans, LA).
He enjoyed being a Max Weber Fellow (2012-13) and now a Jean Monnet Fellow (2013-14), which allows him to work on his book at the EUI, which, he feels, is an ideal place to do research, study, and utilize the history department and repository of brilliant people that he can receive comments and feedback from.
What did you think of the dialogue you conducted, “Humanitarian Politics in Syria: Past and Present”?
I think the dialogue was great, and I say that not because of my lecture, but more because of the very unique format that La Pietra Dialogues aims for. It’s pretty unusual, in my experience, to get to hang out with some of the students beforehand, or to talk to some of the audience. When you get up to the lectern at the beginning of the dialogue, you’re already rolling and you know what the students are interested in, you know where the audience is at on some level. Whereas usually, you come in and give a talk, look out at the, sort of, sea of faces, or, puddle of faces, depending on the size of the group and you think, ‘Well what do they think about this question?’ It was really helpful to be able to speak with the students a few days beforehand to figure out where their interests lay.
Why did you choose to write your thesis on the French League of Nations Mandate in Syria between the Two World Wars?
When I first started out in graduate school, it was around 2003 or 2004. It was the time when the Americans were getting into Iraq and Afghanistan, I was in New York, taking history classes as a part of my Ph.D., and I was really following closely the politics of the U.S. invasions and the UN politics—Colin Powell and other folks from the Bush administration would be coming up to the UN and making the case for a kind of international or multi-lateral intervention in Iraq. Also, I was reading the press, which was largely about the problems of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and what kind of Iraq could be constructed after an invasion, by the international community and by the U.S. What kind of society would that look like? What would the economy look like? What would women’s lives look like? What would education look like? It was really the mixture of my existing interest in the history of French colonialism and the urgency of what was going on at that time, and then also my interest in international institutions that got me interested in the overlap between imperial intervention, international institutions, internationalist intellectual frameworks, development and humanitarianism. That doesn’t mean that the French Mandate can be mapped onto what has happened in Iraq. There’s a huge difference, as I was trying to say during the dialogue, between past and present, and you can’t just make them equivalent. But the Mandate system seemed to me a great way to be able to think about and investigate issues around internationalism, development, empire, and that was how it happened.
Is there a specific person you take inspiration from?
I would think, first of all, of some of the historians who advised me in graduate school. I worked a lot with a man named Tony Judt, who was a French intellectual historian. He wrote for the New York Review of Books a good deal, he was a public intellectual and he was at NYU from the mid-nineties to the end of the 2000’s. He very sadly died of ALS in 2010. He was definitely somebody that got me to think about the process of doing history as something that wasn’t just about academic publishing and academic journals, but also speaking to audiences that are a little bit wider, speaking to undergraduates as much as possible, speaking to a general public where you can. He’s been an inspiration in terms of the way I’ve tried to be a historian. And then, I can list a bunch of others—historians that work on the Middle East including Elizabeth F. Thompson and Zach Lockman.
Historically, the role of a professor has been to write and to teach. To write for a specialist audience and people doing the same kind of research, to do research to support that writing, but also to teach. To play a part in a teaching institution, and by teaching not just to pass on the latest information, but to contribute to the progress of the humanities and humanities teaching, and to what humanities can offer to students, people who are 18, 19, 20 years old, in terms of shaping them as citizens, intellects, and contributing to their trajectories. For me that balance between really specialized writing and the service and engagement that teaching brings with it, the commitment to the students, to wider society, is a really significant thing. Second point is that if you have a really complicated idea or an opaque book introduction, there’s no better way to really work out what you think about something than go out in front of a class of students and really try to explain it. Students, bless them for it, will ask those questions, and ask you to define things, and force you to be clear and to be rigorous and not hide behind jargon or specialist terms. That’s the second good thing about teaching. The third thing is that it’s just a wonderful job; it’s a wonderful thing to do. It’s one of the greatest things I can think of doing: to work with people who are really curious about a topic, explain and workshop things, see students making progress from week to week, until a few weeks down the line they’re building confidence, and getting an independent sense of the topic.
Have you ever been to Syria and would you be willing to share a story about it?
Most of the work for this piece was done in Beirut, which is the capital of Lebanon, and in particular I was able to do some work in a family archive as well as in university archives. Right now traveling and doing work in Syria is very difficult, unfortunately, at this point, due to the conflict. It’s a sad thing not just for that reason, but also because a lot of the historical monuments and archives are at risk or threatened by the conflict. We’re seeing a lot of looting, archives could be destroyed, and for historians, that’s a real tragedy because it could really limit our ability to be able to understand the past as we do future projects. It’s one of the very minor tragedies compared to the much bigger ones, but historical research in Syria has really been blocked for the past couple of years. I was doing research in Beirut in this family archive called the Corm family archive. They were very hospitable and they let me into this building where they, sort of had all these documents, and I was doing research originally on the role of Charles Corm as an automobile salesman and importer. Usually when you’re doing research on the 1920’s most of the protagonists of that time are now dead, but I got to sit down on that occasion and chat to one of the sons of Charles Corm, he’s an older gentleman, his name is Rami Corm. We were chatting and it was a really extraordinary and wonderful occasion because it was a moment of, sort of, oral history. He was recounting these stories and anecdotes about his father, and his father’s early days as a Ford importer and salesman. He told me, for example, that his dad, Charles Corm, had a great sense of advertising and publicity, and he would advertise these Ford cars, which really weren’t very popular or common in the region, by having panels hung around the neck of camels who would be going off on these trips across the desert taking merchandise down to Saudi with signs around their necks saying ‘Buy Ford Motor Cars—Charles Corm.’ I thought it was very interesting how one beast of burden was advertising the advent of a new one.
What aspects of your work are you most proud of?
I don’t think I would point to one article or book project in particular, I’m proud of all of them. I would say that being a historian is a long haul process. A Ph.D. takes many years to earn, and when you finish with the Ph.D., you’re on your first job, writing articles, teaching, you feel like you’ve got everything to learn. I would say what I’m most proud of is sticking with the process, and learning how to do it better. Improving my teaching; I’ve been pretty proud of some of the classes I’ve taught; I’ve been pretty proud of some of the students I taught. It’s about the process of learning.