A.F.L. Beeston (1911-1995)

by Lawrence I. Conrad (from Al-`Usur a'-Wusta Vol. 8, No. 1 April, 1996)

Yemen Update 39 (1997):29-31

First encounters are sometimes memorable affairs, and mine with A.F.L. Beeston was certainly one of this kind. After delivering a lecture at the Oriental Institute in Oxford, I had just arrived at St. John's College for dinner with my host, who had already wondered at least twice why "Freddie" had not attended. Freddie?, I thought to myself. The mystery was soon cleared up in the most dramatic fashion. We made our way across the Senior Common Room to a large man with long flowing white hair falling over the back of his black academic gown. As he turned to face us, I suddenly found myself before A.F.L. Beeston, puffing contentedly on a cigarette with an ash almost an inch long trembling at its tip; his gown hung open to reveal blue jeans, T-shirt, and beach sandals of some sort. I winced as the subject of absence from my lecture again arose, this time with reference to my topic, "Abraha and Muhammad." "Abraha and Muhammad? (ash tumbles) Abraha and Muhammad!," came the booming response; "the seminar program said `Abraham and Muhammad,' so I thought he was one of those Massignon people! Good heavens! Oh well; welcome to St. John's."

"Freddie," as preferred to be called, was an only child born in London on the eve of the First World War, and from a young age he was attracted to the study of languages of the Middle East. At fourteen he was elected King's Scholar at Westminster School, and already as a schoolboy he was haunting the galleries of the British Museum, where he could be seen studying and copying ancient South Arabian inscriptions. His early ambition was to become a librarian in the BM's Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books, and to this end he set out for Oxford with a Westminster Scholarship. He read Classics moderations at Christ Church for five terms, and then took up the study of Arabic and Persian with D.S. Margoliouth, who had published some South Arabian inscriptions and had made South Arabian epigraphy one of the special subjects available in the Oxford Arabic course. He graduated with First Class honors in 1933, and began work toward his D. Phil. Opportunities at both the BM and the Bodleian Library in Oxford suddenly arose two years later, and in a move that was to be decisive to his later career, he took the Bodleian position; he had already become very attached to the academic scene in Oxford, and remaining there would in any case make it easier to finish his dissertation on Sabaic inscriptions.

Military service during the Second World War took him to the Near East, and -- first encouraged in this by Margoliouth -- he was a frequent traveller of Arab lands, especially the countries of the Arabian peninsula, at a time when such journeys were still difficult endeavors. Back in Oxford, he worked enthusiastically at the acquisition and cataloguing of non-Western books and manuscripts and on his South Arabian studies (which he always regarded as a kind of hobby). Typical of the demanding standards he set for himself was his eventual dissatisfaction with his unpublished dissertation. "It is absolutely unfair that I should still be held responsible for that thesis (a withering rebuke in Freddie's parlance) fifty years after I finished it," he once complained to me; " it's not my fault that I have lived so long."

The departure of H.A.R. Gibb for Harvard in 1955 vacated the Laudian chair in Arabic at Oxford, and doubts were raised at the appointment of Beeston, "a mere librarian" (as a complaining letter to the Times put it), as his successor. But reservations were soon laid to rest, for it quickly proved that the agenda and abilities of the Bodleian's man were very broad indeed. He immediately began to teach, beyond ESA, many of the usual texts and subjects: ancient Arabic poetry, prose literature, the classical historians and geographers, Ibn Khaldün, and so forth. But whereas Magoliouth and Gibb had taught Arabic through such traditional means as assigning Wright'sGrammar and Quatremere's edition of the Muquaddima, with instructions to "come back after Christmas so we can begin to read," Beeston made it a priority of his academic career to facilitate students' access to the language. His Written Arabic: an Approach to the Basic Structures (1968) and its supplement of exercises, Arabic Historical Phraseology (1969), were invaluable manuals for students, and his teaching of such texts as themu'allaqa of Labid, the verse of Bashshar ibn Burd, several essays by al-Jahiz, and al-Baydawi's commentary of Surat Yusuf led to publications that were models of erudition and, again, extremely useful for students.

Nor was this all. Though Gibb had played a pioneering role in the study of modern Arabic literature, "Arabic" at Oxford in 1955 still meant, for the most part, the classical language and literature of the medieval period. Beeston soon changed this, not only through his own studies and formidable command of modern Arabic, but by teaching modern authors with unfailing enthusiasm and actively campaigning for a regular modern position at the University. His The Arabic Language Today (1970) was a work that gave him as much satisfaction as the pursuits of his "hobby": Descriptive Grammar of Epigraphic South Arabian (1982), the collaborative Sabaic Dictionary (1982), and his Sabaic Grammar (1984). Indeed, it is difficult to imagine who else could have brought such formidable learning to both ends of this vast range, not to mention everything else in between.

Beeston's character could perhaps best be understood in terms of a boundless fascination with and delight in how language works, and the ways in which this translates into the aesthetic and cultural power of ideas, as expressed in literature. While he was best known for his teaching and publications in Arabic language and literature and South and North Arabian epigraphy, his research, learning, and curiosity ranged over a far broader territory. He also wrote on history, culture, and religion, and near the end of his life even on Welsh literature. Classicists and specialists in Middle English knew him and exchanged insights with him, and Oxford students in Sinology discovered that he know more than a little Chinese (an area he had once considered a career option in his youth); a student working on a D. Phil. in Sanskrit grammar soon found himself invited to St. John's when word reached Freddie that Indian philologists had proposed some original and unique ideas in linguistics. Most European languages and literatures were thoroughly familiar to him, and he seemed as much at ease with Italian in Venice as he was with English at home. He was proud of the title of "Orientalist," and often spoke of how useful it was for specialists on the non-Western world to have ready access to each other's expertise and research; he played a key role in ensuring that these various fields were all housed together when Oxford's Oriental Institute opened in 1961.

All of Beeston's work was characterized by a meticulous concern for accuracy that manifested itself, on the one hand, in an enormous respect for sources, and on the other, in a rigorous philology sustained by formidable learning in modern linguistics. Though an astute textual critic keenly aware of the problems that could arise in a manuscript tradition, especially those relating to oral transmission, he at the same time esteemed the abilities and accuracy of the medieval scribes, and thus sought first to understand a manuscript as it stood, rather than resolve difficulties by over-hasty conclusion that the text must be wrong. While sympathetic to students' difficulties in learning Arabic, he insisted that the root of these problems was pedagogical, and did not lie in the intrinsic difficulty of the language or literature itself. "Arabic poetry is not hard," he once commented during one of our strolls around St. John's; "it just requires a little knowledge of the context." In discussions with him it was never enough to come up with a plausible solution for a problem or a likely translation for a difficult line of verse or passage in prose--why one's answer was correct was the key to confirming that it was correct. He was also a stickler for correct and elegant English expression, and was fond of citing a piece of advice from A. S. Tritton; "A translation that reads well in English may still be wrong; one that reads badly in English is always wrong."

His academic demeanor perhaps accounts for his apparent disengagement from some of the controversies of the times. He had little patience with demagoguery, or work based on what he regarded as ideology or an idée fixée; he addressed such controversial topics when he felt he could contribute light as opposed to heat, but otherwise passed over them in silence. He appreciated revisionist scholarship for its fresh insights and ideas, but held a distinctly positivist approach to the past, and so found certain other perspectives faddish, unnecessarily contentious, and ultimately, not very engaging. Shortly before his death we discussed a new book that concluded with the claim that Arab historians had learned nothing new from the West. Freddie shrugged his shoulders and commented, Muhammad Kurd `Ali once told me that the Arabs have learned everything about history from the West; but either way, what's the point?"

His meticulous scholarly side found a dramatic counterpoint in his thoroughly unconventional personality and vivacious sociability. His habits of attire were--what can one say? -- unpredictable, and the ample repertoire of Oxford anecdotes concerning him includes many remarkable episodes; unanticipated swims, for example, and students boosted over the college wall in the wee hours of the night. He was an especially jolly dinner host, and thrived in the company of small groups of colleagues, students, and friends. One invariably exulted in his company, but this was perilous in view of his keen eye for an empty glass. Fearful for the consequences of one especially ruinous episode, I rang him up at home the next day only to find that he had been up for hours, was preparing for a day's work at the Bodleian, and could I clarify my comments on epistemological metaphors. His long white hair (fostered since 1963), greatcoat, hacking smoker's cough, and ever-lengthening ash were personal trademarks instantly recognizable in Oxford, and everywhere they evoked affection and esteem. "Freddie stories" had already been appropriated as part of Oxford tradition during his lifetime, and his passing immediately inspired a concerted effort to collect and preserve them.

His eccentric ways were expressive of honest individuality, and were never pretentious. He bore his immense learning lightly, and seldom had a word to say about the honors and recognition that streamed in his direction. A scholar who owed much to the renowned Oxford Semiticist G. R. Driver, who had been a decisive influence in his appointment to both his Bodleian position and the Laudian chair, he in turn devoted himself with selfless enthusiasm to his students. His remarks in conversation were often punctuated with references to promising acolytes. Though one of the world's premier authorities on Arabic poetry, for example, he would easily suggest that "on this poem we had better consult so-and-so," naming a student with whom he was particularly pleased. He tirelessly encouraged younger colleagues with his advice and friendship, and though he never had children of his own, he was capable of great kindness and understanding where those of others were concerned. My own convulsed him one day by asking if he did "professor rubbish like Daddy;" he rewarded them with sweets for this "profound insight," and chuckled over the episode for months.

Beeston was a man of intense loyalty, particularly when it came to St. John's, to which the Laudian chairs attached and which elected him as an emeritus fellow after his retirement in 1978. He was Dean of Degrees there for twenty-six years. Anytime I came to see him he preferred to meet at St. John's, and upon my arrival he would want to show me yet another part of the college. Had I seen the Laudian Library yet? Had he shown me the new residential wing in the Garden Quad? Was I familiar with the paintings in this or that room? On one such tour I saw a string of portraits of the Laudian professors which Gibb was conspicuously absent. "Well," he commented dryly in response to my query, "he blotted his copybook and went to America." On another occasion, anxious not to impose predictability on his hospitality, I suggested that we proceed to a nearby pub rather than stay for tea at St. John's. His crestfallen expression confirmed that this had been an awkward mistake, and I was careful not to repeat it.

Freddie was a raconteur's raconteur, and I think that he would have approved of my reminiscences of him should both begin and end with an anecdote. My last meeting with him was on 27 September 1995; I had rung up to see if he would be free after I finished some other business in Oxford, and he responded with his usual jovial hospitality. I knew he had been ill, and when we met at the Lodge he seemed frail and weary. But the wit and enthusiasm still burned bright, and within seconds he was asking if I had ever seen the gardens of St. John's. What? I hadn't? Good heavens! Outrageous. Come along, then. It was a glorious autumn day, and we spent the next hour strolling along the college paths and chatting, as usual, about many subjects; poetry, Margoliouth, doublets in the works of the early udaba', historians, St. John's great willow tree (viewed at length from every angle), the organization of proverb collections, merits of conscientious gardeners, a new David Lodge-style novel on campus life that I had just received from Germany. It was much the same over tea, and we parted in high spirits, with plans to proceed with a long-envisaged collaboration on al-Jahiz and mutual promises on visits to London and Oxford. Hardly thirty-six hours later, he collapsed at the gates of his beloved St. John's and was gone. On hearing the news my first thought was not of loss, however, but of our garden stroll, of a friend who had lived such a full and vivacious life, and brought so much to so many. I think he would appreciate the proposition that his field, colleagues, students, and community are not so much the poorer for his death, as the richer for his long, learned, and colorful life.

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