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Michael Barry '70, lifetime humanitarian rehired as WWS research scholar

Michael Barry ’70, former lecturer in the Near Eastern Studies Department, has been rehired by the University as a research scholar in the Liechtenstein Institute for Self-Determination at the Wilson School.


In the May of 2016, after teaching at the University for 12 years, Barry’s contract as a lecturer was not renewed by the University. Undergraduate and Graduate students at the University wrote petitions and personal letters to the administration in protest. Barry was then rehired in the summer by Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, the director of LISD, as a research scholar, where he now studies events happening in the Middle East.

“Wolfgang Danspeckgruber has been extremely encouraging with his approach to geopolitics, whereby we’re all learning that fundamental, cultural ideas are asserting themselves more powerfully than ever,” Barry said. “If we fail to understand the richness and complexity, we risk being blindsided by events.”

Danspeckgruber did not respond to a request for comment.

Kelly Roache '12 GS '15, who studied under Barry during her undergraduate and graduate years, explained that Barry is able to meld history, politics, art, and religion to fully understand current events in the Middle East and South Asia. She added that Barry incorporates his past experiences in Afghanistan into his lectures to illustrate his points, and once was able to draw a map of the Mediterranean from memory, down to the last detail about the Italian coastline.

"Dr. Barry frequently draws on anecdotes from his time in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the region to illustrate broader lessons," Roache said. "[His] keen awareness of the echoes of imperialism also sets him apart from those who might rather downplay this phenomenon and American culpability in the current policy crises we face."

Barry was born in New York in 1948, but spent the majority of his childhood in Paris. He said that he had always been interested in the Middle East and Afghanistan, since many of his family friends were from that region. By the time Barry was 16, he was fluent in four languages, and had learned Persian.


“I developed an interest in Afghanistan at a very young age, decades before the invasion by the Soviet Union,” Barry said. “I was very fascinated by the culture and I wanted to learn more about it.”

He decided to apply to the University because of its beautiful campus, and majored in Near Eastern Studies. When he started to study the history and culture of the Middle East, he realized that he needed to learn Arabic in order to fully appreciate Persian and Middle Eastern literature.

Barry described his time at the University as tumultuous, mainly because of three major events that took place in the late 1960s

“It was the height of the Vietnam War and the height of demonstrations against the Vietnam War,” Barry noted. “There was also the coming of black students and women students for the first time.”

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He was a member of Students for a Democratic Society and participated in several anti-war demonstrations. During the summer, he would receive funding to go to Afghanistan and live among the nomadic people.

“I traveled to remote mountain areas, and used this opportunity as a pretext to look for 12th Century ruins,” he explained. “I was doing all that and I felt that I had to give myself some academic justification for my very involved interest in the culture.”

After graduating from the University in 1970, Barry obtained a postgraduate degree in anthropology from Cambridge University in the United Kingdom, and then returned to Afghanistan for a year and a half. There, he worked with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and became involved with humanitarian work.

“I realized there that the sight of human suffering is something that is physically unbearable to me,” Barry said. “The only way I can cope with it is if I try to help needy people.”

He noted that during a drought in 1970, he convinced USAID to hire nomads to use their camels to transport food to unreachable areas. This served a dual purpose, as the food was delivered to needy villagers and the nomads were able to use the money from renting out their camels to raise more camels and buy food.

Barry described his time with the nomads as similar to that of living among Native American, but he noted that since the 1970s, that way of life has started to disappear.

“I have memories of waking up at the bottom of a canyon at four in the morning and folding the tents and loading the horses,” he said. “But already what I was witnessing was a disintegration of that way of life.”

According to Barry, the Afghan government was becoming increasingly corrupt and fights would break out in Kabul between radical Marxists and other groups.

In order to further his interest in Near Eastern studies, Barry returned to academia, and acquired a master’s degree from McGill University and a Ph.D. from École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris.

In the August of 1979, Barry was contacted by Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights after the Afghan government started committing violent atrocities against its people. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, he advised these human rights groups on how to coordinate humanitarian assistance, and then traveled to Afghanistan himself in disguise to aid these efforts on the ground.

“I crossed the Pakistani border to enter Afghanistan, which was possible then for people like me,” Barry said. “It was very clandestine and extremely dangerous.”

He was able to document proof of various war crimes committed by the Soviet army, such as instances of people being burned alive, similar to what is happening in Syria today.

“This wasn’t archaeology, this wasn’t art, this wasn’t medieval literature,” he said. “This was raw 20th century warfare.”

Barry helped several witnesses to these war crimes escape, and testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on these various crimes. He even participated in a personal round of talks with President Ronald Reagan.

“One way of becoming an expert on a great power is to be under its foot,” Barry said. “I have seen what the Soviet army could do.”

In the mid-1980s, Barry returned to Paris and worked with Medecins du Monde, an organization similar to Doctors Without Borders. He was responsible for clandestinely taking teams of doctors, nurses, and humanitarian workers into Afghanistan via the Pakistani border, and then ferrying them to villages in the interior to provide medical care and food. He noted that this was extremely dangerous, due to the presence of hidden explosive mines laid by the Soviets.

“We traveled on horseback because, if there was a mine, the horse would blow up instead of you,” Barry said. “They have sensitive feet, so they can sense if there is something wrong with the soil.”

Not only did Barry transport people into Afghanistan, he helped villagers escape into Pakistan. He noted that they traveled at night and had to cross a mountain in order to get to the border, and the total travel time was around eight or ten hours. Barry emphasized that they traveled at night because Soviet helicopters would bomb the people on the ground during the day.

“What was striking was that the Soviet people were trying to break the Afghan people by killing their animals,” Barry said. “We were wading in carcasses of dead animals and people, and there were people screaming and mothers looking for their lost children.”

He noted that during this time, he was also becoming concerned about U.S. strategy in the war. He explained that the U.S. was funneling arms and weaponry across the border through Pakistani generals to fundamentalist, extremist Sunni groups that were killing off moderates and Shiites. He voiced his concerns to the American Embassy in Kabul that these groups would take over once the Soviets were expelled, but was ignored.

“The [American Embassy] laughed and said that the U.S. wasn’t in the business of ‘nation building,’ but in the business of Russia-beating,” Barry said.

In 1989, Barry joined the United Nations as a team leader on the ground. He explained that even before the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, he began to see modern terrorist groups like al Qaeda start to take shape.

“I got as close to bin Laden as you could get without actually seeing him,” Barry said. “I saw what was coming, and I was horrified.”

Most troubling to Barry was that many of these extremists were well-educated English-speakers and included many doctors and professionals from Saudi Arabia. Prior to the Soviet withdrawal, he witnessed various Taliban and al Qaeda atrocities.

In 1994, he was asked to lead a team into Kabul to deliver food and medicine, as the city had been taken over by the Pakistani army and was burning. One of the hospitals had run out of medical supplies, so the mission was extremely urgent. However, Barry’s father had become terminally ill with cancer and was in a hospital in Paris.

“The French humanitarian agency asked me to take a team in and guaranteed to me that if I got the job done in three months, I would see my father again alive,” Barry said.

Once he had crossed the border into Afghanistan, Barry received a message from his brother explaining that his father was not going to make it and Barry had to return immediately. Barry had to decide whether or not to abort the mission and return to Paris.

“We got the medical supplies into Kabul, and a messenger got to me and said ‘Your father has passed away,’” Barry said. “I returned in time for the funeral, but what to do?”

When 9/11 occurred, Barry decided that it was time to take a break from humanitarian work and pursue other interests, such as medieval Islamic art. He was invited by the University’s Near Eastern Studies department to give a course on Afghanistan, and in 2004, he began working with Danspeckgruber at LISD. From 2004 to 2016, Barry began introducing new courses on the Middle East and the Islamic world, such as NES 307: Afghanistan and the Islamic World, and NES 324: Introduction to Later Sufism.

“I was committed to teaching the beautiful aspects of Islamic culture, even though I have witnessed the horrors committed under Islam’s name,” Barry said.

John Nelson '10, who took Barry's South Asian Islam seminar, explained that Barry's experience in Afghanistan sets him apart from other faculty members. He added that Barry cares deeply about cultivating the curiosity and analytic capabilities of his students.

"Barry was always curious about the other academic interests of his students," Nelson said. "After class, he was always available for a more detailed discussion and was happy to proceed in any language appropriate to the subject, be it Russian, French, or Persian."

In today’s environment, Barry noted that he is concerned about how Islam and Muslims are being portrayed, and notes that there is a difference between extremist groups and Islam as a whole.

“More and more interest is being directed to extreme fundamentalist groups, at the risk of portraying the whole culture as inherently perverse,” Barry said.

Roache said that the most valuable part of Barry's experience is the deep empathy he has for the Afghan people.

"Through his stories and analytical approach, he imbues that empathy in his students," Roache said. "I can earnestly say I'm a better human being for having studied with Dr. Barry."

Barry is still involved in educational activities both here and in Afghanistan, and he plans to continue pursuing humanitarian causes whenever possible.

“Every Afghan life I helped save to me is just the way of saving a little bit of our own humanity, so I try to contribute where I can,” Barry said.

At the LISD, Barry said he has been tasked with coordinating and hosting three main public seminars on frontiers and empires. The first seminar, Frontiers and Empires on Land, will take place from Oct. 13-16, and the other seminars, Frontiers and Empires on Water and Frontiers and Empires in the Air will occur on Nov. 17-19 and Dec. 15-17 respectively.