Remembering Fredrik Barth (1928 – 2016)
Abdel Ghaffar M. Ahmed
Professor, Department of Social Anthropology
University of Khartoum
In his excellent Intellectual Biography of Fredrik Barth, Thomas Hylland Eriksen considers him “one of the towering figures of the twentieth-century social anthropology” (Eriksen, 2013: ix). Adam Kuper, in his comments on the back cover of the same book, calls Barth “an extraordinary ethnographer as well as an influential theorist working against the grain of disciplinary orthodoxies”. Barth’s ideas were always substantiated with material from the many fieldworks he did. Having had the chance, through UNESCO, to spend one year in the Department of Social Anthropology in the University of Khartoum, Barth was able to engage in teaching as well as research. He went to Darfur where he had a productive period, later publishing his widely read article “Economic Spheres in Darfur” (1967). Through his contact with FAO staff who were planning an intervention project in the area, he noticed that there was no anthropologist on the team and hence a lack of grasp of how local communities organize their daily lives. Realizing how important this can be, FAO invited him to become a consultant to the group. Barth engaged Gunnar Haaland, his student and colleague, to provide assistance from the field and eventually wrote his report for the FAO on “Human Resources in Darfur” (Barth, 1967).
As a student of anthropology in the late 1960s I was very much impressed by Barth’s earlier work on the nomads of South Persia (Barth, 1965). Together with his work on the Swat Pathans (1959) and his Models of Social Organization (1966) his analysis of this material was my guide for future involvement in anthropology. In early 1970 when starting on a higher degree, I was hoping to join one of the institutes in the UK. This would probably have happened had it not been for meeting Gunnar Haaland who was then on his way home after a period of fieldwork in Darfur. After some discussion, Haaland suggested that I should join Barth’s department in Bergen. I soon received a letter from Barth inviting me to join him and having NORAD financing my study. Just before I left for Norway, Barth sent one of his students, Gunnar Sørbø, to study Arabic at the University of Khartoum and later to do fieldwork among the Nubians in their new settlements in Khasm El Girba agricultural scheme.
I did not know at the time that Fredrik Barth was heading a committee at the University of Bergen which proposed changing the structure of the social science degree to be more like the American system rather than the continental European one where students are supposed to do their work with limited inputs from their supervisors. The report of this committee was rejected during the first months I was in Bergen and Barth was concerned about what might happen to his first doctoral student. His suggestion to me was, that if I thought I would not handle the traditional system, I could move to the University of Hull where an arrangement could be made with Professor Ian Cunnison so that I could be accepted in the Anthropology Department at Hull University where Cunnison was the department head. However, I chose to stay, which turned to be the right decision. My feeling was that Barth was happy that I did so and this was expressed by our friendly relation thereafter.
During March 1972, Barth was invited to take part in a conference to discuss the dynamic processes relating nomads and sedentaries in the Middle East, to be held in the American University in Cairo. The main purpose of the conference was to bring together anthropologists who had recently done fieldwork in the Middle East and North Africa in order to discuss the relationships between pastoralists and non-pastoralists, as opposed to the usual procedure of merely providing ethnographic descriptions of particular pastoral/nomadic groups. Barth gave me the chance to accompany him and present a paper that eventually appeared in a book edited by Cynthia Nelson: “The Desert and the Sown: Nomads in the wider society” (University of California, Berkeley in 1973). It was here also that I came see the kind of admiration that every anthropologist working on the Middle East and North Africa’s region had for Barth.
While I was in Bergen between the years 1970-73, Barth was a magnet attracting many senior and young, aspiring anthropologists from all over Europe and the United States. They came from all directions, which gave the opportunity to his young staff and students to meet and discuss with scholars such as Sidny Mintz, Gerald Berreman, Robert Paine and many others. This was part of a capacity and confidence building among the Bergen staff and graduate students and a testing board for the ideas that these visiting anthropologists brought along. In all this Barth was directing the debates and giving the necessary help from his extensive fieldwork experience.
In the passing away of Fredrik Barth, anthropology has lost one of its towering figures. For those of us in the University of Khartoum our loss is great having known a scholar who contributed so much to our understanding of what anthropology means to the development process. As a token of recognition of his efforts, the University of Khartoum, in 2004, celebrated this by awarding him an honorary doctoral degree in social anthropology. For me personally, his death is a greater loss. I lost a mentor, supervisor and above all a real friend.