Office Hours with… Hussein Fancy

As he teaches and conducts research on medieval Iberia, Fancy thinks of himself as a “writer of history” rather than as a historian.
Hussein Fancy

Hussein Fancy

As a Yale undergraduate, Hussein Fancy ’97 majored in English, with aspirations to be a writer. Today, as he teaches and conducts research on medieval Iberia, Fancy thinks of himself as a “writer of history” rather than as a historian. This month he returned to New Haven, with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, as a ladder faculty member. We caught up with him for the latest edition of Office Hours, a Q&A series that introduces newcomers to the Yale faculty to the broader university community.

Title Associate professor of history, Faculty of Arts and Sciences
Research interest Social and intellectual history of religious interaction in the medieval Mediterranean
Prior institution University of Michigan
Started at Yale Jan. 2022

How would you describe your scholarly research interests?

My scholarly research interests reflect two ambitions, one failed. First, when I left college, I wanted to write novels, and I harbored that desire right through graduate school. For lack of something integral, I never did. Nevertheless, the love of narrative continues to drive my scholarly interests. Second, I have a passion for any research project that combines Latin and Arabic, two languages that modern disciplines have held apart but that together illuminate so much of the past and overturn so much of what we think we know of the present. This love of narrative and of languages combine to define my research.

Were you inspired to become a historian of the Middle Ages while you were a Yale undergraduate?

In my first year of college, I attended a Directed Studies lecture by Jaroslav Pelikan about Dante and Islam that threw open windows of a suffocating room in Connecticut Hall. I had no idea that the western canon could be examined in such a way. From there, I took classes with another Sterling Professor, María Rosa Menocal, who inspired a whole generation of scholars to work on medieval Iberia. She was effortlessly cool and brilliant. I wandered away from the path before wandering back happily.

Why does studying the history of the Middle Ages matter?

It depends on what we mean by matter. The Middle Ages have always mattered. In troubling ways, they have given respectability and seeming solidity to nationalism, ethnic chauvinism, racism, and imperialism. In seemingly benign but not mutually exclusive ways, they have promoted progressivism, constitutionalism, secularism, and humanism. Precisely because the Middle Ages have stood at the center of so much religious, political, and philosophical thought, they have mattered and continue to matter. But they also matter and should matter — like all objects of humanistic inquiry — in less purposeful ways. Just as the Middle Ages have held a power to make worlds, the study of the Middle Ages holds a potential to unmake them. A world so familiar and strange unsettles. That matters enough.

And now, a question too tempting to not ask — what’s the story behind the name “Fancy,” and is it fitting for you?

As with all family history, there are as many versions of this story as members of my family. I believe my father’s ancestors emigrated from India to Tanganyika, a colonial territory in East Africa, in the 1920s, where they established sundry shops along the railway lines built by the British. As they grew wealthier, the family ambitions and tastes expanded. My great-great-uncle wore silk suits in the dusty heat, and with a mixture of admiration and derision, I imagine, people started to call him “Mr. Fancy.” Soon, he renamed his stores, Fancy Sundries or something like it. Some say the stores preceded the moniker, but that version lacks poetry. Nevertheless, with every generation, the Fancys got a little fancier. The name best suits my imagination, but I lack the silk suits.

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