Campus community remembers Prof. Antoun
By Katie Ellis
Kind and gentle, generous with his time — these are the words most frequently used by friends and colleagues to describe Richard Antoun, 77, professor emeritus of anthropology, who was stabbed to death on campus Dec. 4.
A sociocultural anthropologist, Antoun earned his bachelor’s degree in history from Williams College, his master’s in international relations from Johns Hopkins University and his PhD in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard. A Fulbright Scholar in Eqypt early in his career, he conducted field work in Jordan, Lebanon and Iran among other locations.
Antoun taught at Indiana University prior to joining the faculty at Binghamton in 1970 and was also a visiting scholar/professor at the University of Manchester in England, American University of Beirut, the University of Chicago and Cairo University. He authored six books, including the popular Understanding Fundamentalism: Christian, Islamic, and Jewish Movements, retiring from Binghamton in 1999 and serving as a Bartle Professor until December 2002.
Antoun’s scholarly interests centered on comparative religion and symbolic systems, as well as the social organization of tradition in Islamic law and ethics. Colleague Michael Little, distinguished professor of anthropology, said Antoun was “very sensitive to Islamic culture.”
Donald Quataert, distinguished professor of history, knew Antoun for more than 20 years.
“My wife and I had lovely dinners with him and his wife, Roz, and saw them frequently when Dick was walking with Roz,” Quataert said.
Professionally, their research interests were quite different, but there was a great deal of overlap. “We were both involved in the Middle East and North Africa Program and had overlap with graduate students. I would often serve on comprehensive exams for his students and he very often for me for comprehensive exams and dissertation committees, most recently last spring.”
Antoun played these roles with gentleness, Quataert said. “He was very kind to the students. Often he would ask penetrating questions, but not threatening or undermining ones. He always asked questions in a constructive way. The students who knew him have all written about how kind he was, what a gentle man he was.”
For H. Stephen Straight, professor of linguistics and of anthropology, Antoun was the peacemaker. Straight joined the University at the same time as Antoun, and noted that
“in a department that over the last 39 years could be fractious, he was always the peacemaker, never taking sides and always ready to lend a hand to make for a happy outcome, or at least a peaceful one. He was able to seek an amicable way out of any dispute and make it come out the best for everyone.”
As a scholar, Straight said what stands out most for him was Antoun’s “ability to get beneath the surface to understand the deeper reality of people’s daily lives … their values and the strategies people employ to make their way in life.
“A major focus of interest for him was local village politics,” Straight added, “yet he was in some ways the least political person I’ve ever known, and perhaps that’s the mark of a higher level of politics.”
Little noted that Antoun was a Boston Red Sox and Binghamton Bearcats fan, as well as a good storyteller. He recalled one story Antoun related to him about when he was a student.
“His grandmother was a native Arabic speaker,” Little explained. “He had studied formally and he came home one holiday to visit and decided to speak Arabic to her and she thought it was the funniest thing she had ever heard. His language was very formal and the classical equivalent to speaking to his grandparents in Elizabethan English,” said Little, adding that Antoun did, of course, become fluent in Arabic as he worked in his field.
Little also reiterated that Antoun was a gentle person, but not in a weak way, noting he showed his strength often in department meetings and as a non-violent participant with groups such as the Peace Action group.
“He was active in peace movements and as close to a pacifist as anyone I know, but he would stand up for principles,” Little said, adding that Antoun was also able to work under physically tough conditions in the field, including when he suffered a collapsed lung in a remote area years ago.
Antoun is survived by his wife, Roz, his son and daughter-in-law, one grandchild, two sisters and his wife’s children and grandchildren.