Robert Bertram Serjeant (1915-1993)
It is particularly sad that the first issue of this new British-Yemeni periodical should carry notice of the death of an outstanding Arabist and traveller, an intellectual giant who did more than any other to bring together the two countries, Britain and the Yemen.
Bob Serjeant was born in Edinburgh on 23 March 1915 and apart from a short period in Masham, Yorkshire, spent his childhood and his university days in the city. At the University he came under the early influence of Professor Richard Bell, the well known Quranic scholar, under whose guidance he began to acquire some of the scholarly care which is the hallmark of all his published work. He received his Edinburgh MA in 1935 and, armed with a scholarship, went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where, under the supervision of Professor CAStorey. he successfully undertook research for a PhD degree, approved in 1939, on the history of Islamic textiles. He always said that it was Storey who finally instilled into him the need for absolute academic rigour and meticulousness and who completed his scholarly education which Bell had begun.
Serjeant almost immediately won a scholarship at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, where Professor AS Tritton suggested work in Arabic dialects, and in 1940 he found himself working in the field in the Aden area of South Arabia. As war raged in Europe, however, and the Italian threat was perceived in the Middle East, he was commisioned into the Aden Government Guards. The relatively short period spent in the GGs was to shape further his scholarly career. Mainly in Subayhi country, Bob Serjeant spent long periods with only his tribal guards as companions. The period affected his future in two ways: he learnt to speak Arabic like none of his contemporary academic arabists had ever done; he also learnt to appreciate the culture of the tribal society of South Arabia. Both these talents he used to the full to his dying day.
Back in the UK in 1941, he was given an appointment at SOAS, but was scarcely able to take it up before he was seconded to the BBC and he spent the rest of the war editing the ‘Arabic Listener’. After the war he resumed his academic career at SOAS and in 1947 returned to South Arabia with a Colonial Research Fellowship which enabled him to carry out research mainly on the language and society of Hadhramawt. One of the results of this fieldwork was the publication in 1951 of his ‘Prose and Poetry from Hadhramawt.’ He was appointed Reader in 1948 and in 1955 he rose to the new chair of Modern Arabic at SOAS.
Far from happy at SOAS, Serjeant was persuaded to return to Cambridge in 1964 by his friend Professor AJArberry. He resigned his chair and accepted the post of Lecturer in Islamic History. A readership followed and he also took on the task of directing the Middle East Centre at Cambridge, then housed in Pembroke College. This latter post he was to hold until his retirement in 1981. When Arberry died late in 1969, Serjeant’s name was the only one to go forward and he was appointed Sir Thomas Adams’s Professor of Arabic in Cambridge early in 1970. He retired slightly early in 1981 and returned immediately to his native Scotland to live and continue his academic research.
The present writer can claim to have been subjected to the influences of Bob Serjeant at every stage of his own career. As professor at SOAS, Serjeant appeared to undergraduates as rather remote and a somewhat demanding teacher. They did not of course know the real Serjeant and were somewhat intimidated by him. As a doctoral supervisor, he was at his best. He never pushed or hurried, but he expected results and his eagle eye never missed a point when written work was presented. He criticised, encouraged (though never praised), suggested, recommended. He drew selflessly on his own wealth of knowledge and resources to steer the postgraduate student along the right path. Similarly as senior academic, he carefully, though almost imperceptibly, guided the young, newly appointed charge under him, advising on academic and other matters with particular warmth and generosity. He shunned as far as he could university committees and regarded their meetings and intrigues with complete abhorrence.
Perhaps mainly because of his early training in spoken Arabic and rapport with the tribes of South Arabia, Serjeant’s research was unique. He himself had little time for the armchair orientalist and all his own work was based on the basic principle that, although the frontiers of knowledge had to be pushed back by reference to the limitless corpus of Arabic literary works, what one read in the library could and should be checked as far as possible in the field. Similarly, the information acquired from the informant in the field could and should be checked as far as possible in the library. It was a two way process. His written output was prolific and impossible to quantify. His articles fill more than two volumes of the Variorum series his contributions and his reviews are also numerous; his books shine like beacons in South Arabian and Yemenite studies. All these publications are object lessons in careful and meticulous scholarship. Of his books, perhaps two stand out above the rest. In 1963, the Clarendon Press in Oxford published ‘The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast’ which for the most part comprises of translations from 15th and 16th century Hadrami chronicles concerning Portuguese activities in the area. Apart from the translations, however, with scholarly notes from both his pen and that of his old friend Professor Charles Beckingham, who commented so expertly on the corresponding Portuguese sources, there are comprehensive introductions to the whole area of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean and the historical and economic background of South Arabia.
The second is the book, which he edited along with Professor Ronald Lewcock and in a large part wrote, ‘Sana’: an Arabian Islamic city’ published in 1983. A weighty tome of over 600 pages, this is the definitive work on the city, covering studies on the history and society of pre-Islamic, early and mediaeval, modern and contemporary Sana’ which scholars, businessmen, journalists and all those with an interest in the Yemen will be reading and digesting for years to come. It is a superb memorial to the life of a great scholar of the Yemen. His publications have a vast audience in the Arab world also and it is no exaggeration to say that he is one of the most popular scholars writing in English among the Arabs. Consequently, many Mabs of all nationalities came to know him and his works. It was in particular Yemenis who became his friends from his numerous visits to the country. He dealt with all, from ministers of state to humble informants, with the greatest courtesy and charm. They all now share their grief with his friends in this country.
All, perhaps with the exception of his undergraduates, knew Bob Serjeant as an immensely kind and warm man. He was generous too and would part with his ideas and theories, as well as prized possessions on loan to anyone he thought would use them to good effect. He totally lacked the bluster and pomposity of some academics; if he did not know something, he would say so. His humour was subtle, but very present. Along with his humour went his extraordinary ability to produce extempore English doggerel to fit all occasions. Some merely embellished conversations over a drink with his friends (who can forget "The bustard when flustered in flight"?) and were accompanied by his wicked chuckle; others, totally pertinent and indeed sometimes translations of the Arabic, found their way into his publications.
Bob Serjeant married Marion Robertson in 1941 and their happy marriage thus lasted for over 50 years. Marion, an Edinburgh-trained doctor, worked selflessly in South Arabia in the 1940s when little medical expertise was available. This was for long periods when Bob himself was present and at times when he was not. It was perhaps her own vivacity and zest for life which ensured he was never in danger of becoming a dry pedantic academic, for she encouraged and complemented his own humour.
She was his constant companion on most of his travels and always a welcome face at the annual Seminar for Arabian Studies. Marion and Bob showed over the years a hospitality of Arab dimensions to friends and acquaintances. They made their home once again in Scotland in 1981 and turned the garden of their cottage overlooking the hills of Fife and St. Andrews Bay into a peaceful haven where visitors were still welcomed. Bob Serjeant worked on to the end and on April 29, taking a break from his researches, pottered in the garden. It was there he died in the warm spring sunshine. In the field of Yemeni studies there is no one to take his place.