Few Americans know Iraq and its history as well as Phebe Marr, who became engrossed in studying the region as a Barnard student in the 1950s. She was particularly drawn to the years after World War I, when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after centuries of rule and the British moved in to occupy territory that would become Iraq, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. “It was fascinating,” she says. “For the first time I began to immerse myself in the Arab side of the story. That’s where my interest was really sparked.”
Her adviser at Barnard discouraged her from Middle Eastern studies. Arabic was difficult to learn, and the Middle East “is not a place for women,” he said. “So, I changed my adviser,” says Marr. “I’ve never regretted that decision, ever.”
Iraq—its history and its people—has captivated her ever since she first traveled there in 1957 from Lebanon. Baghdad was vibrant then, with crowded cafés full of intellectuals and artists, and at the time anti-Western sentiment wasn’t felt. She spent six months as the guest of a tribal family in a small village just so she could learn Arabic. Iraq descended into revolution the following year; army officers took control of the government. Anti-imperialism prevailed and anti-Western sentiment was strong, but Marr managed to extend her visa to finish the research that led to her obtaining her PhD at Harvard in 1967.
Marr went on to build a long career as an academic, writing an authoritative book, The Modern History of Iraq, and teaching at California State University, Stanislaus, and University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She’s also worked as a researcher for the Arabian American Oil Company helping management understand Middle Eastern culture. Her most interesting job, she says, was as a senior fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies, a defense department think tank focused on long-range analysis of U.S. security policy. She became a top adviser to military officials during the Gulf War, wrote op-ed articles for newspapers, national journals, and magazines, and was frequently interviewed on TV news. “It’s been a phenomenal career and a phenomenal life,” says Marr.
And she says there is still more work to do. She’s now working on the fourth edition of The Modern History of Iraq. “I presume it’s going to be my last,” she said. “But we’ll see…”