Middle East expert to lecture on region

Bert Englehardt, of Winchester, will present a series of lectures on contemporary Middle East issues and their direct effect on the average American beginning Sunday at Trinity Lutheran Church in Stephens City. Rich Cooley/Daily

The Middle East and the Arabic language weren’t in fashion when Bert Englehardt of Winchester entered Georgetown University in the early 1950s.

The United States was deep into the Cold War with the Soviet Union, and those aspiring to careers in foreign affairs were flocking to take classes in the Russian language.

“Back in those days, people couldn’t find the Near East on a map,” Englehardt said, using another term for the Middle East common in some government and academic circles.

Times change. Russia is still an antagonist of the United States, but media and government attention is riveted on the ghoulish mayhem rocking the Middle East. Before the rise of beheading videos, there were decades of wars, religious strife and Western worries over access to the region’s oil supply.

Englehardt calls his decision to learn Arabic instead of Russian at Georgetown “a lucky choice.”

Now, 82, Englehardt left the Middle East behind more than 10 years ago after decades compiling a resume that includes working as a CIA official, and shorter stints with the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute and the Arabian American Oil Company. In recent years, he has been a lecturer at FBI offices and worked as an editor reviewing translations of Middle Eastern languages into English.

Englehardt will be bringing his first-hand knowledge of the region to the first of a series of lectures that begin at 11 a.m. Sunday in the parish hall of Trinity Lutheran Church, 810 Fairfax St. in Stephens City.

Those looking for rhetorical fireworks and miracle cures for the region’s problems won’t find them in the presentations Englehardt is planning. Sunday’s topic is on how to better understand Middle Eastern cultures through interpretation of body motion communication.

The March 1 lecture will compare Western and Middle Eastern thinking patterns, followed by elements of Islam on March 8. The last lecture on March 15 will cover Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorism. All of the lectures are free and open to the public.

“We’re not going to be giving any hot topic solutions,” Englehardt said, adding, “This is more a talk on the general background of the Near East and perceptions of people.”

The headline grabbing violence and instability in the region aren’t especially surprising to Englehardt. The Middle East was organized into social and governmental structures different from those of Europe and the United States until Europeans redrew the map of the area in the early 20th century.

“The idea of the nation state in the Near East didn’t exist until after the first world war,” Englehardt said. “When Britain and France carved up the Arab and Persian Gulf territories and declared them to the people there, [the Arabs] didn’t have the background we have of 300 years as a nation state.”

Englehardt said extremism in the region did not hinder his personal interactions with Arabs. People were friendly and welcomed Americans into their homes — unless someone brought up the subject of the U.S. government.

“People tended to associate with us on a person to person basis, and there seemed to be very little hostility, but if you got into Near East policy or intergovernmental policies, it all changes, and there was an about face,” Englehardt said.

Englehardt said he never faced any imminent danger while he worked in American embassies in the region, but the violent upheavals of recent years have been sobering for him to watch.

“My wife and I have frequently discussed that, and I’m glad I’m out of the trade right now,” Englehardt said.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com