Sunday, March 25, 2012

Remembering Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (November 3, 1929 – March 16, 2012)

The world of South Asian studies lost a valued member and veritable giant of a scholar on March 16, 2012 with the passing away of Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman (born Phillip) Barker, in Minneapolis. Better, more informed obituaries and memorials will be written for Prof. Barker no doubt, but I thought I would share a few words. My own knowledge of Prof. Barker was entirely second hand as I never met the scholar. A Maghribist friend of mine, who took Urdu at the Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, where Prof. Barker taught the language from 1958 to 1972, at which point he went to the University of Minnesota to chair the Department of South Asian Studies, told me that the instruction books Barker Sahib penned for Urdu were amongst the best language coursebooks she had ever used (this coming from someone who studied French, Spanish, Russian, German, Arabic, Persian and Turkish amongst others). These included A Course in Urdu (1967), An Urdu Newspaper Reader (1968), and A Reader in Modern Urdu Poetry (1968), all published under the auspicious of the Institute of Islamic Studies. Another scholar, who developed her own series of Urdu coursebooks, remarked that he was a pioneer and astute linguist. Being a student of the Institute, odd bits always pop up about its past luminaries in unexpected corners. When the Islamic Studies Library did an exhibition about the history of the department, I was surprised to learn that he also published A Course in Baluchi (1969). I was suddenly reminded of Annemarie Schimmel (April 7, 1922 – January 26, 2003) who even proficient in Sindhi.

What I never knew about Barker Sahib was that he was not initially trained in Urdu, but rather the Native American language Klamath, for which he published, through University of Berkley Press, Klamath Texts (1963), Klamath Dictionary (1963) and eventually Klamath Grammar (1964). But no doubt, outside Urdu classrooms, Barker Sahib was most known for being the Lost Tolkien, a prolific author of fantasy novels and a creator the fantasy role playing game based on the world of Tékumel. Those more familiar with the game, which appears to have a considerable cult following, know better than I on this. He is also reputed to have, on the authority of Barbara Metcalf, created a Mughal Monopoly (mentioned in the comments by reader in the previous post). What I wouldn't give to play that game once!

The thing about scholars is this; like showbiz celebrities, their lives enter some form of public domain, where those who never meet them develop opinions about them, be they laudatory or critical, and the passing away of one gives a moment of pause to even to those who never met them, but simply knew them first through shelving away coursebooks written by them in the library of the department they taught for over a decade. 

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