Obituary: Professor Robert Serjeant

G. Rex Smith
Wednesday 12 May 1993 00:02

Robert Bertram Serjeant, Arabist: born Edinburgh 23 March 1915; Lecturer in Arabic, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1945-47, Colonial Research Fellow 1947, Reader 1948-55, Professor of Modern Arabic 1955-64; Lecturer in Islamic History, Cambridge University 1964-66, Reader 1966-70, Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic 1970-82; FBA 1986; books include Prose and Poetry from Hadramawt 1950, The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast 1963, South Arabian Hunt 1976, San'a', an Arabian City 1983; married 1941 Marion K. Robertson (one son, one daughter); died Denhead, Fife 29 April 1993.

ROBERT SERJEANT was an Arabist and a prolific author who specialised in aspects of the culture, society and history of Yemen.

Bob Serjeant was born in Edinburgh, and apart from a short period in Masham, Yorkshire, spent his childhood and university days there. After his MA in 1935 he went to Trinity College, Cambridge, to work on his Ph D research under Professor C. A. Storey, successfully completing the degree in 1939.

The same year saw him for the first time in the Arabian Peninsula working on Arabic dialects in the Aden area. In 1940 he was commissioned into the Aden Government Guards where he tasted life in the remoter regions of the Aden Protectorate, often with tribal guards as his sole companions. In 1942 he began work with the BBC Arabic Service as editor of the Arabic Listener.

After the war he took up a lectureship in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and in 1947 he went back to South Arabia with a Colonial Research Fellowship to work in Hadramawt. The following year he returned to the School to a readership and was appointed to a new chair of Modern Arabic in 1955.

In 1964 he resigned and returned to Cambridge as lecturer, then reader. He also took on the task of Director of the Middle East Centre, then in Pembroke College. Professor Arberry died in late 1969, leaving Serjeant as the obvious choice as the Sir Thomas Adams's Professor. He retired in 1981 to his native Scotland.

Serjeant spent a great deal of his time and effort teaching undergraduates and supervising postgraduates. The former, not knowing the real Serjeant, could at times find him intimidating and certainly a hard taskmaster. The latter, the majority from the Arab world, quickly discovered his warmth, his kindness and generosity, his high academic standards, his sharp intellect and above all his vast knowledge of his subject.

He abhorred university committees and their meetings, regarding them as a distraction from the real purpose of life, and thus he never assumed high administrative office. Similarly, he had no time for academic politics.

Serjeant was above all a great traveller and productive scholar of meticulous care (instilled in him by Professor Storey at Trinity) and of the highest intellectual standards. The hallmark of his scholarship was his unique ability to marry the vast array of Arabic literary sources with work in the field. It was a two-way process: discoveries made in the library would be carefully checked with his informants; information gleaned in the field would be tirelessly tracked down in the library.

A constant flow of scholarly articles, filled two volumes in the Variorum series and more besides. His most important books are The Portuguese off the South Arabian Coast (1961), mainly a collection of 15th- and 16th- century Hadrami texts on Portuguese activities off South Arabia, with notes by Charles Beckingham collating the Portuguese sources; his Hunt (1976), a study of the ritual ibex hunt which is still practised today in South Arabia and dates back to pre-Islamic times; and his San'a' (1983), an enormous tome edited with Ronald Lewcock and in large part written by Serjeant, which is a comprehensive social, economic, historical, architectural and cultural study of the chief city of the Yemen. With Arberry in the Sixties he conceived the idea of a Cambridge History of Arabic Literature. Despite Arberry's death, Serjeant soldiered on with the project. Four volumes are now published, three edited by


With Robin Bidwell he created Arabian Studies, a highly successful journal of Arabian Peninsula studies. Volume I of New Arabian Studies, co-edited by Serjeant, is shortly to be published. His publications are universally accepted and respected in the Arab world and his loss will be felt by his many friends and admirers there.

Serjeant was at his best either in the field in South Arabia, where, if scholarly aims demanded, his huge frame could scale inaccessible heights with the agility of a mountain goat; or in the milieu of the annual international Seminar for Arabian Studies, of which he was co-founder in 1969. There he constantly dispensed wisdom to all-comers with the same unfailing courtesy. Although his approval of his fellow scholars could be slow in coming, once bestowed it was solid and permanent.

His happy marriage to Marion was to last for over 50 years. Her vivacity and love of fun prevented his ever becoming a dry scholar. She encouraged his own enormous sense of humour, often manifested in his well-loved chuckle and his propensity for composing extempore mischievous and amusing doggerel. They entertained with hospitality, of which Hatim alTa'i himself would have been proud. In their years of retirement, still attended by their cats, the Serjeants created a tranquil garden overlooking the gentle hills of Fife and the Bay of St Andrews.

(Photograph omitted)

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