Wilkins defies traditional professor mold

Charles Wilkins, assistant professor of history, has established himself as a distinguished scholar and a gifted lecturer both at Wake Forest and at other prestigious institutions. Behind the assistant professor’s classroom leadership, however, is a background of intense experience of which many students aren’t aware.  From parachuting to acting to extensive travels in the Middle East,Wilkins has made the most of some remarkable opportunities. Wilkins has advanced from an undergraduate student considering a major in biomedical engineering to a distinguished expert in Ottoman History and Middle Eastern Studies, and has acquired some great stories and advice to tell along the way.

Huxley Rodriguez/Old Gold & Black

You entered Duke University as an undergraduate engineering major.  What led you to history?

We also had divisionals at Duke so I was required to take a range of classes, and I took separate history courses on Ancient Greece and the Islamic World. The professor of Islamic History there, who actually retired last year, was a phenomenal teacher and a gifted lecturer — his enthusiasm was infectious and I just went with it.  It also happened that I had been born in Turkey to American parents but had not lived there very long, and I was intrigued to know more about the region.

Did you study abroad?  If so, did it solidify your interest in Middle Eastern history?

As a sophomore I spent a semester abroad at the American University in Cairo.  Actually for the first two weeks I was without my luggage after the airline managed to misplace it.  For that time I had to live on the kindness of others, but overall it was a tremendously positive experience.  Studying in Cairo was a milestone for my developing interest in history.  I went on many walking tours of the old Islamic city of Cairo, which is full of historic monuments and out-of-the-way cafes.  At AUC I performed in the play Le Bourgeois Gentleman by Moliere.  Acting with Egyptians in a French play, I got a sense of how very diverse the Egyptian society is.

I understand you were in the Armed Services.  Did that lead you to any interesting opportunities?

I was in Army ROTC at Duke, and after graduation I really wanted to be on active duty.  After training as a tactical intelligence officer, I was assigned to the 18th Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg.  In joint training exercises there and elsewhere I got to know and work with soldiers from Jordan and Egypt. During the First Gulf War, I deployed with my unit to Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where I had the chance to use my Arabic skills.

The experience allowed me to get to know a very different part of the Arab world.  People tend to think of the Arab world as a very homogeneous place when in fact the Gulf is a vastly different society, a very different culture, from Eastern Mediterranean Arab countries such as Egypt and Syria.

As a member of an airborne unit I also parachuted regularly, which was something that I never thought about doing growing up.  It definitely expanded my horizons. It was an amazing experience, in part because of the teamwork and coordination involved. In general the Army taught me a lot about working with others.

Did the army provide you with any truly unique experiences?

I had a brief encounter with the Morality Police in Saudi Arabia. I was standing on a city sidewalk with two other members of my unit, when two veiled women approached us trying to speak to us in English.  No sooner had we begun to talk when a man in civilian clothes completely unbeknownst to any of us, a sort of ‘moral vigilante,’ broke us apart and ended the conversation.

Saudi Arabia does not issue visas to foreigners unless they have formal Saudi sponsors.  Of course, the presence of the U.S. Army in Saudi Arabia at that time was controversial enough.   Clearly, the Armed Services allowed me to go somewhere a tourist or student normally could not go, but there were well-defined limits in our interactions.

You spent last summer doing research in Syria.  What drew your focus to that particular area?

I should say that my research interests really began with my year of studying Arabic in Jordan in 1988 and 1989. After attending a history seminar with Jordanian students, I became interested in the Ottoman Empire and more generally Muslim societies in the Early Modern Period (1500-1800).  Westerners tend to view modernity as a gift of the West to the rest of the world beginning with industrialization around 1800, but in fact, beginning around 1500, we see transformative changes taking place not only in Europe but also in the Middle East, South Asia, China and elsewhere.

Early modernity is a dynamic period of change and competition in which the West is not a dominant force and the outcome is far from certain.

With that background, I entered graduate school at Harvard and wrote my dissertation on early modern Syria focusing on the city of Aleppo, which I saw as one of many cities in the Middle East and South Asia that was witnessing transformations in politics and social dynamics.

My 2010 book, a revision of my dissertation, focused on early modern warfare and the effects of war mobilization on ordinary people in Aleppo.

You’ve been interviewed by several local TV stations about the Middle East.  Where do you choose to get your news on the Middle East?

Facebook has been indispensable for keeping up with events as well as expert commentary.

Colleagues of mine with research interests in contemporary Arab politics regularly “share” articles from a wide array of sources.  And as part of the Arab Spring, the opposition movement in Syria and elsewhere maintain Facebook pages.

I also rely on several blogs by professional historians and social scientists, both North American and Middle Eastern.

I recommend JoshuaLandis.com for events in Syria and Jadaliyya.com for expert commentary on regional developments.

I also read Arabic-language news media, both state-sponsored and independent, the latter including al-Jazeera.net.

What are your feelings on the Arab Spring?  Are you optimistic about the region?

We are too close in time to really judge the full import of the Arab Spring, but living in the moment it is enormously exciting.

It is potentially a major watershed in modern Middle Eastern history, perhaps the most significant transformation since the 1967 War or even the 1952 Egyptian Revolution, which set off a region-wide movement to overturn the colonial order and challenge Cold War power structures.

The overthrow of the governments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is especially stirring, but the long-term prospects for a liberal political alternative remain unclear.

I am very mindful of the opposition movement in Syria, a country whose history I know best.  I am fearful that it might fall into the pattern of sectarian conflict similar to what we saw develop in Iraq after the 1990-91 Gulf War.

International sanctions against the Iraqi regime were well intended, but they led to a long-term confrontation in which a tragic humanitarian crisis developed. The United States-led invasion in 2003, entirely a war of choice, was enormously destructive of life and property.  I am nevertheless hopeful that the Arab Spring has set in motion a process of change that will result in democratic governments throughout the region.

What makes for an outstanding paper or essay in your eyes?

There are many things that go into making an outstanding essay.

Obviously, the essay should be clearly organized and factually correct, but beyond that, the analysis should be incisive and contain original ideas.

It makes my day to read exceptional papers, papers that offer penetrating insights, make wide ranging comparisons, or draw interesting connections, in lucid and forceful language. And these qualities can and do develop through regular practice.

I personally learn a great deal from these kinds of papers because they offer fresh, new ways of thinking.

What advice do you have for students that aren’t sure of their major area of study quite yet?

One should keep on open mind throughout the first two years.  Take full advantage of the divisional courses and use the first and second year for wide-ranging exploration in the liberal arts curriculum.

You may not discover yourself in a course until sophomore year. Be mindful of the road not taken.

  • Barbara A. Lane

    Excellent article. Wish I was at Wake to take one of his classes.