This is Civilization: The MEI Colbert Held Archive
In Memory of Dr. Colbert C. Held, September 3, 1917 - December 18, 2016
In 2014, a professor and former U.S. diplomat approached The Middle East Institute (MEI) with a remarkable offer: he would donate to MEI’s Oman Library nearly 20,000 meticulously annotated Kodachrome slides of photographs he had taken throughout the Middle East over half a century.
The professor’s name was Dr. Colbert Held. A geographer and photographer by training, Held joined the Foreign Service in 1957 and was subsequently stationed in Beirut, Lebanon; Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and Tehran, Iran. As one of only five U.S. Regional Geographic Attaches posted around the world, Held was responsible for documenting and reporting on topography, regional publications, cultures, languages, and political developments across the entire Middle East.
It is hard to overstate the significance of Held’s reports; they provided greater detail about the region’s geography and more nuanced insights into its cultures than U.S. policy-makers had ever had. Between 1957 and 1975, Held was dispatched on temporary assignments to nearly every country in the Middle East. He returned to the region another six times after his retirement from the Foreign Service, often capturing the immense changes in the same locations he had photographed many years prior.
The Middle East Institute gratefully accepted Dr. Held’s treasury of photographs, and with it the mission to make useful to scholars and the public this unique documentary record of modern Middle Eastern history.
Over the summer of 2016, in preparation for a digitization grant proposal, MEI staff and interns began to examine closely the contents of the Archive for the first time in order to identify images of particular cultural or historical significance. The deeper we went, the more fascinated we became—and the more we talked about it, the more people we drew into its orbit.
Midway through assembling the grant proposal, an intern unearthed a resource that would completely change our perspective on the project. In 2010, Baylor University’s Institute for Oral History conducted with Dr. Held. The transcript reads like a grand epic. In his memoirs, Dr. Held recounts a long, illustrious life: his childhood, World War II service in the U.S. Air Force, two decades abroad in the Middle East, and return to academia and years of personal travel.
Around the same time, one of the first MEI interns to take interest in the Archive, Yousif Kalian, worked with us to identify images of sites in Iraq that have since fallen victim to ongoing campaigns of heritage destruction. Yousif is a storyteller by nature and was always quick to entertain the team with personal and historical anecdotes as he explored the Archive. Still, when he pulled from a box a slide that rendered him momentarily speechless, we were unprepared for the gravity of the story he told.
His is the first narrative in the film.
Between Held’s memoirs and Yousif’s family history, we came to understand that the Archive was revealing a story even more compelling than the one depicted en masse by its thousands of images--that is, the one it continued to inspire each person who viewed it to tell.
It was at this point that “This is Civilization” grew from a side project intended to highlight the contents of the collection into an ambitious short film interweaving Dr. Held’s experiences with the musings and memories his photographs elicited from our staff and summer 2016 interns. We began to interview the many people who had contributed their time and expertise to the proposal.
From the beginning, the Archive captured the imagination of Jennifer Smart, who became the creative architect of the film. She is a Cinema & Media Studies undergraduate at the University of Southern California who interned over the summer at National Geographic’s D.C. headquarters.
Jennifer brought the preliminary idea for the video to National Geographic’s Short Film Showcase team. They informed her that the primary criterion for selection was how well the video answered the question, “Why is this relevant right now?” We set out to finish the film with this consideration at the core of our discussions, but as we interviewed more and more people, the question answered itself.
The Importance of Perspective
Oral history preserves the testimonies of individuals who helped shape the people, places, and events of their time and whose memories, in turn, reflect the formative forces of history. Dr. Held’s memoirs augment the visual information provided by his photographs within the context of his personal experiences as an American diplomat abroad. However, Dr. Held’s reflections provide only one thread in the larger tapestry. It is equally important to recognize and elevate the voices of those who can help to weave the rest of the narrative.
It is easy to forget that nearly 500 million people, each with their own stories, live in the region, and that millions more across the world, both recent migrants and descendants, call it home. It is easy to disregard its many vibrant cultures in favor of the construct of a monolithic Middle East. It is easy to hear only the voices that perpetuate this perception. When has celebrating the experiences of the people of the Middle East and reminding one another of our shared humanity ever been more critical? Ultimately, we hope that these stories will foster curiosity and generate hope for the future among those who are willing to challenge the prevailing narratives.
“This is Civilization” can be viewed on , where it is titled “See How Life Has Changed in the Middle East Over 58 Years.” To learn more about the MEI Colbert Held Archive, click here or contact us at [email protected].