The scholar whose career began in the books section of his local newsagent

Geoffrey Khan grew up with a sense of not belonging. His passion for languages led him to discover the forgotten pronunciation of ancient Hebrew and set him on a quest to record the world’s last surviving speakers of Aramaic. The arts and humanities, he argues, are an opportunity to build bridges and communities.

Geoffrey Khan (Nick Saffell)

When I look back on my career — I was 60 recently — I can see a pattern. Essentially I’ve followed my heart. At each point along the way, the next step has seemed out of reach. Cambridge University, and my position here as Regius Professor of Hebrew, a chair founded by Henry VIII, is a long way from the Northeast of England where I grew up.

Middlesbrough, when I lived there, didn’t have a bookshop. But in the newsagent shop of WH Smith, I came across a series of teach-yourself language books with blue and yellow covers. I was 12 and had just started learning French at school. I opened Teach Yourself Spanish and spotted similarities to French. From that day I was fascinated with languages.

I’m of mixed race heritage. My mother was English. She and her mother brought me up in Middlesbrough. My father was Indian. He went to a Jesuit school in Bombay and trained to be a doctor. He too was of mixed race. My paternal grandfather was an Ismaili Muslim who married a Catholic Christian. My paternal great-grandmother was the daughter of a Welsh Wesleyan missionary. I also have native American ancestry.

Race and religion should not create boundaries between human beings. When you come from such a diverse background as I do, such boundaries seem particularly artificial.

If you’re mixed race, the question of identity is complicated. As a child, I never felt part of a group of any kind and I was subjected to racial abuse. I remember violent fights in the playground of the comprehensive school I attended. Children shouted “Go back to Pakistan”. I became an introverted teenager.

What saved me was my love of languages. In my teens I thought hard about becoming a medical doctor and decided to do science A-levels. Two weeks into the course, I realised that my heart was in languages, so I swapped to French, Latin and Italian. At home I started to teach myself Hebrew and Arabic from grammar books.

Thanks to the student grants offered by local authorities in those days, I was able to go to university. I went to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London). Oxbridge seemed to me to be beyond my grasp. SOAS offered me the chance to study the Semitic languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and Ethiopic.

I was very inspired by my teachers. Especially by the Arabist Owen Wright and the Semitist Edward Ullendorff, who encouraged me to continue with my studies at graduate level.

My PhD thesis was on word order in Semitic languages. My thesis was published as a book by Oxford University Press (OUP) and I remember signing an agreement that if my book was to be made into a film, the proceeds would go to OUP. I’m still waiting.

When a Research Assistant post was advertised at Cambridge University Library, I applied for it. The role involved working on the Cairo Genizah, a major collection of Jewish medieval manuscripts. On the train to Cambridge, I was incredibly nervous. Waiting to be interviewed, I watched a carpenter at work on some shelving and thought how lucky he was to work there.

I was amazed to be offered the post. By an extraordinary coincidence I’d been in Tel Aviv a couple of months earlier and had seen a photo of Solomon Schechter, the scholar who brought the Cairo Genizah back to Cambridge. It shows him in Cambridge’s Old Schools, formerly the University Library, sitting at a table surrounded by crates of documents. I said to myself “I want to be a scholar like that working among manuscripts.”

Solomon Schechter at work in the Old Schools (Cambridge University Library)

My wish had come true. I owe a lot to Professor Stefan Reif. He was the founding director of the Genizah Project and gave me the opportunity to stay in the academic world and work on this unique manuscript collection. It’s been central to my research ever since.

Working with Genizah manuscripts was transformative. It taught me the importance of the careful study of primary manuscript sources. One of my main research interests in Biblical Hebrew arose from finding manuscripts in the Genizah that gave direct access to the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew in antiquity. This pronunciation had fallen into oblivion since the Middle Ages.

Scholars who study manuscripts are philologists. We don’t get much media attention. We’re hidden away in the engine room of scholarship, deciphering, editing and piecing together fragmentary manuscript sources. Our painstaking work on manuscripts is foundational to the true advancement of knowledge in the humanities.

During my ten years on the Genizah Project, I was invited to Jerusalem for a year. I’d planned to work on microfilms of manuscripts at the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem. But after a month in the dark I longed to do some work outside under the blue skies.

The opportunity came when I learnt that a handful of speakers of Aramaic were still alive in Israel. I decided to track them down and record them. One day I sat with an elderly man who was one of the final speakers of a dialect of Aramaic that had been spoken by the Jews in Mesopotamia for 2,500 years. It was a life-changing experience and prompted me to undertake a project to record and document the world’s surviving Aramaic speakers.

I travelled the world meeting and recording Aramaic speakers. My quest took me to France, Germany, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Iraq and the Caucasus. Aramaic has many dialects and it was a race against time to get them on record.

Each trip was fraught with problems. On a trip to Tbilisi in Georgia, I hoped to meet three Aramaic speakers — who were the last speakers of their dialect and all elderly. The first had had a stroke and was unable to communicate. The second was surrounded by growling Rottweilers and impossible to record. The third was a tiny frail lady who poured tea with a trembling hand.

I was terrified that I’d exhaust her. But when she understood I was there to hear her speak her ancestral language, she took hold of my wrist and said “Ask, ask.” She held my arm for about two hours and spoke continuously — she told me she was passing on to me the dying language of her forefathers for safekeeping.

The world will always need scholars. This is something my Latin teacher told me when I was a teenager and agonising about my future. I’ve come to realise that teaching the humanities can be a very caring profession. You’re changing lives in a profound sense. I feel privileged to have had so many brilliant graduate students who’ve gone on to advance the field in so many ways.

As I approached the age of 60, I was rather apprehensive. But a wonderful thing happened. My PhD students, current and former, many of whom are now distinguished scholars, organised a surprise party for me and presented me with a volume of articles. All of them were written by my students and post-docs.

Growing up, I never belonged. I was an outsider, often lacking in confidence. Now I realise that I’ve created a world-wide family of scholars.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.

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