William Lowell

Dr. William Lowell
Expat Professor of Central Asian Antiquities

A Boston Brahmin with an elite education, impeccable publications, and a world-class mind — but no tenure. Why? Is it the Tibetan mafia, intimidating university administrators? The Red Chinese? Shadowy forces that want to silence a mind that dares ask the challenging questions about the cultural history of ancient and medieval Inner Asia? Or perhaps it's slightly unsettling enthusiasm for detecting traces of the ancient Indo-Aryans everywhere; his habit of quoting Persian and Sanskrit poetry at great length for little provocation; his taste for complicated multilingual puns; multiple barely-controlled neuroses; the way he physically blocks people from leaving the room when particularly interesting discussions of petroglyphs in Badakhshan are underway; the general aura of dusty, bookish mania teetering on the edge of a breakdown?

Secondary education at Phillips Exeter Academy; undergraduate at Brown (A.B. 1985, Classics and Linguistics), graduate work at University of Pennsylvania (A.M. 1987; Ph.D. 1999, Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations). (Hapless observer, Tajik Civil War, 1992-97.) Professional appointments: postdoctoral fellowship at U. Heidelberg (Indology) 1999-2002; Associate Professor of Near Eastern Languages, Brown University 2002-04; Visiting Lecturer of Iranian Studies, University of Southern California 2004-05; Senior Instructor, Aga Khan Lycee (Khorog, Tajikstan) 2006-08. Consultant to UNESCO, Aga Khan Development Network, Council on Foreign Relations, Open Society Institute, other private and government clients 2004-present. Most recently: Academic field liaison for the future Naryn (Kyrgyzstan) campus of the University of Central Asia. Currently: investigative consultant for Interpol on illicit antiquities trade in Central Asia (since January '09), based in Tashkent.

Field experience: linguistic surveys and documentation of Pamiri languages in Badakhshan (Tajikstan and Afghanistan), of Dardic languages in Chitral and Gilgit (Pakistan), and Tibetan languages in Baltistan and Ladakh (Pakistan and India); collection of oral poetry and folklore texts in same; archival research and manuscript preservation/cataloging in Tashkent, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Karachi, Urumchi, and Kathmandu; archeological surface survey of Wakhan Corridor (Afghanistan).

William is intellectually arrogant, socially pleasant (up to a point), personally ruthless, and entirely motivated by a desire for the academic recognition he deserves… starting with an endowed chair at a major research university in the West. His mental health is perfectly fine, he's just eccentric — his enemies spread vicious lies about him, that's all. Some of his students admire him; he's certainly charismatic and a great raconteur. Others — including the handful he's served as an advisor or mentor to — are less enthusiastic, to say the least. The mercurial temper, the insane demands to master yet more obscure languages and to eschew any theoretical apparatus smacking of the social sciences, the constellation of petty phobias and obsessions; the basic unreliability

Despite a bottomless appetite for food (the more gruesome the part of the goat, the better) and apparently bulletproof GI tract, he stays bony and gaunt. Perhaps it's the nervous tics and constant restless movement that keep him thin. Birdlike. For William, the tweed jackets with leather elbow patches may not be an affectation; he definitely does think it's the appropriate dress code for the Ivy League intellectual he still considers himself to be. In other respects, he's opinionated and snobbish; but also weirdly generous and kind-hearted.

He has family in New England — upper middle class; comfortable but not idle rich, his branch of the Lowell family — but is not particularly close to them at this point. His parents worry about him in an icy WASPish way, and keep their distance. He sleeps with an undergraduate at least once per semester; not very gentlemanly about it either, except as the most superficial of ways to entice them along. But no real relationships of any sort after his fiancee, who was murdered in '91 shortly before their wedding. They were grad students; she was having an affair with an archeology prof from Harvard. It was strange and gruesome and thinking about it can still make William distraught nearly twenty years later.

William is particularly fascinated by the Sogdians and the Manichean scriptures and iconography they left behind… however, he's been developing a theory that they were a secret occult conspiracy, warping civilizations all along the Silk Road to their sinister purposes. He remembers to laugh when he presents hints about this theory, so that the uninitiated aren't spooked. Usually. Likewise, he's become convinced that the Zhang-Zhung culture of Western Tibet was actually an unrecognized Indo-Aryan civilization, which was the actual source of all later Tibetan civilization (it's obvious when you're not blinkered by political correctness). Source of Buddhism too, probably, but don't tell the dharma groupies. They're everywhere, and try to silence scholars who simply state the simple, objective truth. (Same with the Chinese government trying to suppress the facts about Indo-Europeans being the original inhabitants of China.) As for those philistines who've threatened to kill him if he tries to return to Kyrgyzstan — it may be painful, but while admittedly Chaghatai was a beautiful, culture-bearing language, the fact remains that modern Kyrgyz is a degenerate patois suitable only for the simple-minded.

He certainly believes in ghosts — his own house is haunted by a 1920s-era homosexual named Andrew (or possibly Arthur? Allan? Unclear, though he's very grabby) — and possibly in UFOs. (If he ever mentioned that his landlady's cat was sending him coded messages by blinking at him, he was only joking, you understand?) His intense interest in ritual magic, mysticism, and esoteric philosophy is purely textual, however. If these subjects have mysteries worth deciphering, they're about the secret course of human (and literary) history — not the workings of the cosmos.

Dark secret? Worst thing he ever did? Perhaps this isn't the place to say.

Local contact William most trusts: "Hamid" of the Uzbek National Security Service, a valuable colleague and quite a sharp fellow despite his limited higher education. Secret police? Certainly! But a man of the world understands the need for hard men like Hamid. And one that really appreciates that unique manuscripts and epigraphical artifacts belong in museums and not in collectors' hands, well, so much the better! His enthusiasm for tracking down these traffickers is heartening. Knows how important it is to take the gloves off when dealing with those people.

Local contact William least trusts: the attache in charge of cultural affairs at the American embassy in Tashkent, who's supposedly liaising with Interpol. (I.e., William.) For one thing, she went to Barnard. (All right, "Columbia", if you insist.) Two, she's not very cooperative. Obstructionist, really. One has to assume, at this point, that she's taking orders from someone not to assist this vital work. Surely no one in her position could really not recognize the absolute necessity of preserving the literary relics of the Pamir region? No. She's up to something.

Non-local contact William relies on: the Aga Khan Development Network. He's been sucking up to the family for years now… maybe someday (soon) His Highness will set up an endowed chair at, say, Yale? SOAS? dedicated to the study of Sogdiana — and then who better to fill it than his devoted friend, Dr. Lowell? The relationship started when William was conducting fieldwork for his dissertation, where the locals are mostly Nizari Shi'as. Since then the Imamate has been quite helpful and generous. (The original Assassins always got a bad "rap", you know.)

I was the type who looked at discussions of What Is Truth only with a view toward correcting the manuscript. If you were to quote, "I am that I am," for example, I thought that the fundamental problem was where to put the comma, inside the quotation marks or outside.
— Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

William's Prelude


William's fiancee, who was cheating on him with an archeologist and was brutally murdered? Yeah, that was William. And yes, he did use a stone handaxe he got out of the museum stacks, and yes, he did sprinkle the body with ochre, and yes took other steps to present it as a Late Paleolithic mortuary site. But did he do so trying to pin it on his rival~usurper? Very hard to say. Does he even consciously remember doing it? Probably not, most of the time. Certainly a point of instability in his psyche, in any event.

(And yes, this bit is based on an actual Ivy League professor I knew, whose fiancee died under questionable and bizarre (but pretty damning) circumstances, but friendly campus police so badly mishandled the chain of evidence that no one was ever arraigned. Having a gay ghostly hookup on the down-low, that's from a different professor (same institution, same department) I also knew. Damn, I kinda miss academe. All the best, James!!!)

Was his cat back home trying to send him messages by blinking, like a POW in the Hanoi Hilton? I honestly don't know. The army of fascist WASP kitties trying to recruit him? Lovecraft could tell us what was going on with that.

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