Remembering Christopher Boucek

Remembering Christopher Boucek

Like many, we were shocked and saddened yesterday to learn of the untimely death of Mideast scholar and FP contributor Christopher Boucek. Karim Sadjadpour, Boucek’s longtime friend and colleague at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, sent in this eulogy: 

Noted Middle East specialist Chris Boucek, a dear friend and colleague, abruptly and tragically passed away Wednesday morning at the unripe age of 38. 

While scholars and analysts of the Middle East can sometimes be as capricious as the region itself, Chris was a notable exception.  He was remarkably mild-mannered and sweet-natured, and as hundreds of condolences on Twitter can attest to, an incredibly kind and decent human being. "Pure of heart and character", is how my colleague Tom Carothers put it.

Chris had done path-breaking research on disengagement and rehabilitation programs for Islamist militants and extremists. In foreign policy jargon this was the "soft power component of the war on terror".  In real life jargon what it revealed about him was that he had a unique sense of empathy, and in another life he would have made for a wonderful social worker or high school counselor.

Yemen — one of the most challenging work environments in the world — was another area of his expertise, and just a few days ago I had asked him about his recent research trip there.

"I thought I could avoid trouble this time by getting a hotel on the outskirts of Sana’a," he said with a smile. "But the hotel I picked was in the cross hairs of a huge gun fight. For hours on end I kept hearing explosions and my hotel room would shake."

Other analysts might have been tempted to turn this experience into a heroic op-ed piece. Chris wouldn’t have even mentioned it had I not asked him.

Indeed, most of my conversations with Chris — his office was adjacent to mine for three years and we would chat throughout the work day — had nothing to do about the Middle East. He was a devoted husband and father to two young girls, and he beamed talking about them. Last week he amusedly told me of the efforts that his wife had taken to dress their eight-month old daughter Mathilde in a Halloween costume.

Though he was a family man first and foremost, as events in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East began to erupt, Chris began to attract enormous media attention. In the mornings I would often hear him on NPR. In the evenings I would by happenstance catch him on the PBS Newshour. He didn’t think it was a big deal and never told us in advance to stay tuned.

While he never advertised his own exploits, he frequently took the time to highlight and praise the work of others. What’s more, he was self-confident enough about his own analysis that he never felt it necessary to attack the work of others.

Through it all he kept his warm combination of sensitivity and self-deprecation.

When earlier this year he was criticized by a frustrated older generation academic who had publicly bristled about his media recognition, he came to my office seeking guidance as to whether and how to respond.

I recounted for him a quote I had recently heard from former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who said that to survive in public life one had to "develop the hide of a rhinoceros."

Chris playfully caressed his protruding belly — a casualty of early fatherhood and too many economy-class meals flying to the Middle East — and exclaimed with a laugh, "I’m half-way there!"

When news of Chris’s passing became public, hundreds of condolences poured in from esteemed scholars and journalists. What caught my eye most, however, was a young reporter who had written the following on Twitter: "Sad to hear that @cboucek has died. He always generously took time to talk to me, a no-name writer, for #Yemen stories."

I didn’t know Chris during childhood, but based on what I knew of him as an adult, I will always picture him as the kid on the playground who would quietly come to defend, and cheer up, the other kids on the playground who were being bullied.

Those of us who knew him as a Middle East expert will miss his lucid insights. And those of us who knew him as a friend and colleague will forever remember his gentle nature and playful wit.

Rest in peace Chris.