I took a B.A. in Oriental Studies and then a D. Phil. in Social Anthropology, both at Oxford University. A key personal influence was my tutor, Albert Hourani, who first encouraged me to become a social anthropologist (with a strong historical interest.) My doctoral research on Sufi Order in Cairo in 1964-66, focused on the nature of ‘miracles’, acts of grace, personal religious authority and group formation in a context of considerable state hostility and surveillance. I finished the D.Phil. in 1967 under the supervision of E. E. Evans-Pritchard.
The second project (1971-72) was more intensely ethnographically based. I did research in a large village in north Lebanon and working on different dimensions of violence, status and power. Returning to England and a post at University College London, where I taught from 1973-1984, I embarked on the writing of a book about what it might mean as an anthropologist to say that I studied forms of Islam in the world.
I moved to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1985 and stayed eleven years, teaching and finishing my book on religion while trying to find the best way to frame my work on the Lebanon, a country by then in the middle of vicious wars. The invitation to come to NYU in 1995 to found essentially a new department in Middle Eastern Studies was too challenging to refuse.
That move also made possible a major shift in research interests. I now focus on the Hadhrami Arab diaspora in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. My special concern is with the study of law, inheritance, property and family over four or five generations in colonial and post-colonial contexts. I am also exploring the politics of imperial translations in Britain and China around the period 1880-1914.