Though he is humble in his appearance and mannerisms, Middle Eastern history professor Michael Provence has lived a life full of interesting stories. Having visited the Middle East many times and becoming fluent in Arabic, he is now a renowned expert in his field and has appeared on TV programs such as KPBS’ Evening Edition to explain political issues in the region. Surprisingly, however, his career as a professor began relatively late in life.
Born in 1966 in Kensington in San Diego, Provence grew up in a working class household. As a young man, Provence did not have a straight path into academia. He started work at a machine shop after graduating high school instead of going to college. Coming from a working class background, this seemed the natural thing to do. Five years of working in the factory, however, gave the young man a yearning for adventure.
“I wanted to go to do something that I didn’t know anyone else had done,” Provence said.
Despite his humble background, Provence had inspiration close at hand. Among his parents’ friends was David Johns, a professor of political science at San Diego State University with whom he went to church. A frequent guest at the Provences’ house, he told stories of his travels to far-off reaches of the world: He was in Egypt during the 1973 war with Israel and took his entire family to China shortly after it opened to the West.
“I remember being really interested in what he had done, and he was a kind, encouraging person,” Provence recalled. “He really gave me the idea that doing these types of things was possible.”
In 1988 Provence finally gave in to his desire to travel and booked a one-way ticket to Amsterdam. From there he hitchhiked eastward through Europe, making his way to Berlin and the Czech Republic. In early 1989 he turned southward, traveling to Greece before crossing into Turkey, the first of many forays into the Middle East. Turkey turned out to be a paradise for the budding traveler: After living on a shoestring budget in Europe, he found himself eating like a king and being surrounded by very hospitable people.
“I was absolutely smitten with the place,” Provence said. “I said to myself, ‘Whatever I do, I want to study the history of this part of the world and come back as often as I can.’”
After Turkey, Provence traveled further afield to India, spending another half-year there before returning to America. By the end of his journey he found himself a changed man with a new perspective on the world.
“Probably the thing that surprised me most was not the differences, but the similarities,” said Provence. “I met people my own age in places like Czechoslovakia, when the Cold War was intense, and I thought, ‘Why would I want to be in a conflict with these people who are much closer to me than these old men who were running our respective countries and saying we were enemies?’ That was kind of a revelation.”
“I said to myself, ‘Whatever I do, I want to study the history of this part of the world and come back as often as I can.’”
From there on out, he took his life in an entirely new direction. In 1990 he finally went to college, beginning at Grossmont College in El Cajon before transferring to UC Berkeley two years later, working several “crappy jobs” to support himself. At Berkeley he majored in history while studying Arabic in preparation for his future travels in the Middle East. After returning to factory work for a year, he attended the University of Chicago for graduate school where he continued studying Arabic and Middle Eastern history.
Finally, in 1997, Provence managed to make it to the Arab world, travelling to Morocco for a few weeks. Later, in 1998, he received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Damascus University in Syria, attending as an auditor. There he studied Arabic intensively, gaining the ability to speak fluently with the locals. His time in Damascus was split between research for his dissertation and enjoying life among the common people of Syria.
“It was wonderful, it was absolutely fabulous in every way,” Provence reminisced. “It was an authoritarian country and there were things that were a little difficult, but as my German roommate [said], ‘We have more privileges as foreign passport holders than most Syrians.’ I could afford to eat in a fancy restaurant every day.”
With time he came to have many Syrian friends and learned how to live like a Damascene, playing board games and drinking tea in coffee shops.
“I would study, I would read, I would walk around the city, then in the evenings I would meet with friends in coffee shops and we would talk for hours,” Provence recalled. “We strolled the old lanes of the old city, thousands of years old, visited people at their houses, chatted and had tea. That was how we spent our time.”
Provence would spend two and a half years in the country, doing research on his dissertation, which he eventually finished at the University of Chicago in 2001.
After receiving his doctorate, he began his career in teaching at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. With a stable source of income, he had more money to spend on his Middle Eastern adventures. In 2002, Provence returned to the Arab world for the summer, this time visiting Lebanon and renting cars to visit other parts of the country. This would be the first of many summer trips to Lebanon, which he takes to this day with his wife and son.
Though Provence has a largely sympathetic view of the Middle East — one sorely lacking among many Americans — he does acknowledge that traveling in the region comes with its risks. In 2006, for instance, he found himself in Beirut in the middle of a war between Israel and Lebanon. He and his family were relatively secure in their housing at the American University of Beirut, but he vividly recalls the terror that overcame the city during the Israeli air force raids.
“We could see it and we could hear it, and we saw and heard a lot of things, especially when they bombarded things nearby like the port,” Provence remembered. “All these things make special sounds, and you don’t forget them — artillery, airstrikes, stuff like that.”
None of this has tempered Provence’s love of the Middle East and the people who inhabit it. Provence sees the people of the Arab world as largely blameless for the things that have happened to them, unfortunate victims of international politics. This is the perspective that he tries to show to his students here at UC San Diego, where he has taught classes on the modern Middle East since leaving Southern Methodist University in 2005.
“They are largely blameless for the terrible things that have happened to them, and sometimes we bear responsibility for their misery also,” Provence insisted,
Naturally, Provence is very concerned about the policies the Trump administration has enacted with respect to the Middle East, particularly its stance on taking in refugees.
“I think it’s immoral in every way,” Provence proclaimed. “Nobody voted for the Syrian government, and when you’re living with an authoritarian dictatorship the degree of consent is pretty limited and we can see what happens in the case of Syria when people try to withdraw their consent. The fact that hundreds of thousands of them have become refugees is a moral crisis of our time, and as a human being I think there is a moral imperative to help them.”