Bravery, compassion, and generosity of spirit. It is rare to hear such virtues extolled in academia, but these are some of the characteristics that have made Nazif so greatly respected by his colleagues and students. A leading anthropologist of Afghanistan, Nazif has led the way in understanding political culture, the cultural ecology of nomadic pastoralism, and state-society relations, especially regarding the political status of ethnic minorities who are often overlooked. His breadth of field research across Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Turkey, and Uzbekistan has made him a valuable colleague, mentor, and public scholar on Central Asia. He is known to give generously of his time and energy, and to make an outstanding plov.
M. Nazif Mohib Shahrani retires
Nazif’s life trajectory has been a source of inspiration to many. He was born in a village in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan. After starting college in Kabul and developing a passion for sociocultural anthropology in the 1960s, he came to the United States on an East-West Center scholarship and completed degrees at the University of Hawai’i and the University of Washington. His early publications were based on field research in the 1970s in the Wakhan region of northeastern Afghanistan, among pastoral nomadic Kyrgyz communities in the Pamirs and neighboring Wakhi agro-pastoralists. His first book, The Kirghiz and Wakhi of Afghanistan: Adaptation to Closed Frontiers, first published in 1979 and re-released with updates in 2002, became a key text for understanding how pastoral nomadic societies adapt to high-altitude environments and how they are adversely affected by externally imposed changes. After Soviet incursions into Afghanistan (1978), this research became even more valuable, covering as it did an area that became practically inaccessible to scholars.
Nazif subsequently shifted his research to conflict, studying war, factionalism, and identity politics in fragile multiethnic states. He spent the early part of his career at UCLA, and briefly at Harvard, University of Nevada–Reno, Stanford, and Pitzer College, before Indiana University lured him eastward in 1990. At IU, his interests in political and cultural ecology fed directly into the Ostrom Workshop, and he taught students in Central Eurasian and Middle Eastern studies not only about nomadic pastoralism, but also about Islamic movements, Muslim family and gender dynamics, post-Taliban Afghanistan, and social change. He became an active campus leader, directing the Middle Eastern Studies Program and the Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies Program and chairing the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures for many years. In addition to numerous articles, book chapters, op/eds, and policy papers, while at IU Nazif published two landmark edited volumes, Modern Afghanistan: The Impact of 40 Years of War and Revolutions and Rebellions in Afghanistan: Anthropological Perspectives.
Across Nazif’s life and career, his home countries have been embroiled in war, and he has played a key role in advising policymakers, filmmakers, members of the military, and the public. A tireless voice on Afghanistan, he has insisted on integrity, humanity, and the positive role that anthropology might play in the face of shifting U.S. politics in the region. Among anthropologists, he became well known in the 2000s for taking the position that anthropologists should work with—not against—the U.S. military, on the principle that doing so might reduce human suffering. This was not a popular position at the time, but as one colleague put it, Nazif was clearly doing “what he believed […] was the right thing, though I know it was a very hard thing.” Nazif is widely respected for this, and for how he has maintained a critical stance, becoming an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy and war profiteering and studying how “low-intensity” wars and violence negatively impact social institutions.
Nazif’s former doctoral student Piper O’Sullivan beautifully expresses the impact of Nazif’s commitment, recalling a “transformative” moment in a doctoral seminar when
“he spoke about the importance of being a compassionate scholar […]. I had never heard a professor use the word ‘compassion’ in a classroom, never mind in the context of how to approach academic inquiry. His advice came as a relief to me—I no longer had to maintain an emotionless façade, producing papers with such strict objectivity. […] With compassion at the forefront, I connected to Afghanistan with a level of openness that is essential where both tensions and hopes run high in the thickness of collective trauma.”
Nazif’s emphasis on compassion is not only scholarly. When one of our colleagues was injured in an accident a few years ago, Nazif rushed to the hospital, unbidden, to see how he could help. He had just returned from Afghanistan, and as we sat in the hallway awaiting our friend’s discharge, we chatted about his trip and the impressions of one of his three sons, who had accompanied him there for the first time. I was struck in that moment by how very kind and empathic Nazif is—for in every description, he voiced the perspective of someone else—his son, a relative, a student, a person they had met, our colleague, a doctor passing us in the hospital. None of it was about him. This is the mark of a good ethnographer, of course, but it is also the mark of a good human.
On his retirement, Nazif is Professor of Anthropology, Central Asian, and Middle Eastern Studies, with affiliations all over campus; a great friend and mentor; and an extraordinary colleague. We wish him joy and peace in his retirement.