My main challenge on the Moving Stories project will be to establish the foundations for an Oxford Sourcebook in Belief and Belonging in the Global Middle East. This will include a forensic search for new archival material from public institutions and private collections. My previous historical research has focused on Ottoman-era Sudan, especially the rise of Muhammad Ahmad, the self-styled Mahdi, in the late 19th century. My published works on this period, known as the Mahdiyya, include a biography of the Mahdi, an analysis of evolving British policy on Sudan and an investigation into the responses of contemporary secular and religious authorities in Khartoum, Cairo and Constantinople to the challenge posed by the Mahdi. My academic work in North-East Africa, the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent was carried out in parallel with a 30-year broadcasting career with the BBC World Service, which ended in May 2022.
My primary research focus for the Moving Stories project centres on the lived experience of migration from the Levant to the New World, as expressed in the correspondence, diaries, memoirs and other archival material left to us. Many of these accounts have never seen the light of day but have been preserved as treasured artefacts in attics, garages and safe deposit boxes for generations. It has been immensely gratifying to work with families whose forebears made a sometimes traumatic journey so that they and their descendants could have a better life. These first-person narratives embrace an extraordinary range of experiences: of sectarian conflict and social ostracism; of illness and hardship in the tenements of Lower Manhattan; of the rigours of life on the road as a door-to-door salesman; and of success and reinvention as Americans, Brazilians and Australians. As these personal stories emerge, one key challenge is to seek out corroboration through a wide variety of contemporary sources, including newspaper reports, passenger manifests and naturalisation certificates. These artefacts combine to create a vivid picture of the mechanisms of migrations, among them documentation and long-distance transportation, as well as the extraordinary variety of individual experiences amid a generational movement of so many people.