Michael Barry, who is also Consultative Chairman of the Department of Islamic Art at the New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, lectures in Princeton’s Near Eastern Studies Department since 2004 on the medieval and modern Islamic cultures of Iran, India, Pakistan and most especially Afghanistan - where his work over more than three decades has ranged from anthropological research to defence of human rights and coordinating humanitarian assistance for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, for Médecins du Monde, and for the United Nations. He has published extensively in both English and French, and holds six literary prizes from France and Iran.
Born in New York City in 1948 but raised in France and also partly in Afghanistan, Barry graduated from Princeton University in 1970 as a major in Near Eastern Studies, and later took higher degrees in anthropology and Islamic studies from Cambridge University in England (post-graduate diploma in anthropology), McGill University in Montreal (MA), and finally the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris (PhD).
Barry however interrupted his academic career to serve as an international humanitarian worker in war-torn Afghanistan between 1979 and 2001. Travelling in dangerous conditions and often even in disguise across the Pakistani border at the head of international relief teams to deliver urgent supplies of food and medicine to deprived populations deep in the Afghan interior, he successively served as Afghan Affairs observer for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (1979-1985); as coordinating officer for Médecins du Monde’s clandestine field hospitals in the country under Soviet occupation (1985-1989); as consultant and humanitarian team leader in the field for the United Nations (1989-1991); as special envoy of Dr Bernard Kouchner to Kabul to deliver food and medicine to the starving Afghan capital during the post-Soviet civil war and under Tâlibân siege (1992-1995); and finally, after the change in the Afghan régime in November 2001, as adviser for education assistance programmes in Kabul to the French Government. He has testified on Soviet human rights violations in Afghanistan before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December 1982, was received in private audience by Ronald Reagan in the White House to discuss the Soviet-Afghan war in January 1983, and was invited by the Norwegian Foreign Ministry to help organize the International Hearings on Afghanistan held in Oslo in March 1983.
His book A History of Modern Afghanistan for Cambridge University Press summarized in English his research of many years in the country, findings hitherto mainly available in his French-language publications. His French-language monograph on the country, now entitled Le Royaume de l’insolence : l’Afghanistan, 1504-2001 (Flammarion, Paris), has run through three constantly renovated editions, the latest appearing in 2002; his French-language biography of Massoud (Audibert, Paris 2002) was awarded one of France’s most distinguished literary prizes for non-fiction, the Prix Fémina, in 2002.
His medievalist writings mostly dwell on the symbolism underlying much traditional Islamic art and poetry. The French version of his Design and Color in Islamic Architecture (London and New York 1995), a study of the symbolism and recurring patterns in medieval Islamic architectural decoration (from India to Morocco) with pictures by renowned French photographers Roland and Sabrina Michaud and also partly based on the author’s own many years of friendship with the traditional master craftsmen and tile-makers of Herât’s Friday Mosque, won the Académie Française’s Art History Medal in 1997. His French-language verse translation and extensive study of the symbolism of the 12th-century Persian poet Nizâmî’s Haft Paykar or “Seven Icons”, Le Pavillon des sept princesses (Paris 2000), was in turn awarded the Iranian Government’s Prize of Book of the Year on Persian Civilization in 2002. The English version of his latest book, Figurative Art in Medieval Islam and the Riddle of Bihzâd of Herât (1465-1535), (Paris, Flammarion, December 2004, but distributed in the United States as of May 2005 by Rizzoli International), is a lavishly illustrated volume that addresses – and for the first time suggests how to crack - the allegorical code of 15th- and 16th-century “Persian miniatures”, notably in the light of medieval mystical Persian poetry.