Bernard Lewis, ‘the Imam’

The importance and magnificence of a Middle East scholar

More than once, after 9/11, I asked Bernard Lewis, “Did you ever think your expertise would be so useful? And so in demand?” “No!” he’d say, sometimes with a laugh.

Bernard Lewis was an historian of the Middle East, and one of the great scholars of our time. His first name, by the way, is pronounced in the British style: BER-nerd, rather than Ber-NARD.’

In a long teaching career, he had hundreds or thousands of students, some of whom called him “the Imam” — the ultimate authority. Lewis, by the way, was a great friend of the Arabs. This is poorly understood both by his enemies and by some of his fans. I’ll have more to say about this in due course.

I was never in a classroom of Lewis’s, but he taught me nonetheless, chiefly through his books. The same can be said by countless others around the globe. Professor Lewis passed away on Saturday afternoon, a couple of weeks shy of his 102nd birthday.

I enjoyed talking with him about his youth. He was born in London during a dark time for his country: 1916, in the middle of World War I (as it came to be known). In ’29 (another bad year), he was due to be bar mitzvah’d. So, he was studying a little Hebrew.

“I was very fortunate in that my teacher was a real scholar, a man who was able to inspire and guide me,” he said. After the bar mitzvah, Bernard did something highly unusual: He continued to study Hebrew — “and that led on to Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and the rest.”

Thus was a Middle East scholar born.

Lewis went to the School for Oriental Studies — now the School for Oriental and African Studies, or SOAS — part of the University of London. He earned both a B.A. and a Ph.D. there. Among his professors was Sir Hamilton Gibb, the famous Arabist (infamous to some). Another was Norman H. Baynes, the historian of Byzantium.

As a student, Bernard had two great loves: languages and history. He was a natural, then, for Middle East studies. But in those days you had to choose. Middle East scholars were either linguists or historians, not both. Bernard said, “Nothing doing,” and excelled in languages and history alike.

In World War II, incidentally, he served in British intelligence. In whatever activities he undertook, I bet he was good.

If you would like to read more about his life, consult his autobiography of 2012, Notes on a Century. Lewis is, in addition to a great scholar, an elegant writer.

I asked him how many languages he knew. He said he had played with about 15. Those were his words, “played with.” He said that he had a gift for “making noises.” That is, he could reproduce sounds in other languages, even when he could not properly speak the languages in question.

And this led to some awkward situations. Why? Because a native speaker might think you know the language, on the basis of your pronunciation. And when you cannot quite converse with him, he may think you’re having him on.

Bernard pointed out a nice thing about language, or the learning of them. Often, you can buy one and get one free — or two free. Bernard learned Danish, via a Danish wife. And that led on to Norwegian and Swedish.

I first heard about Bernard Lewis when I was in college, doing some Middle East studies. My teachers were opposed to him, damning him as an “Orientalist,” a backward gent of the old school. Still, you could tell they respected him. That was a measure of the scholarly heights Lewis had attained.

When I was in graduate school, Lewis published a book called Semites and Anti-Semites, a superb volume, typical of the author. It was clear that this was someone who had labored to learn a lot, and from whom you could learn a lot.

After 9/11, Professor Lewis wrote for us at National Review. The world was hungry, even desperate, to know about the Arab world, and Lewis had spent 70 years preparing to tell them. He became a frequent guest on NR cruises, in the company of his “best girl,” Buntzie Churchill. She was his literary collaborator as well.

I can see Bernard now, dressed in a tux, holding court in a lounge. His fellow passengers loved him, understandably.

From Lewis, you got endless and valuable stories. About the Shah of Iran, for example, or Golda Meir. He told me once about a man from China, I believe, who summed up all he knew about the Jews in one sentence — a memorable, delightful one: “One God, no pork.”

In 2011, I filmed an interview with Bernard, lasting an hour, which you can see here. In his home, outside Philadelphia, two chairs had been set up: a big, comfy armchair and a modest, uncomfortable-looking chair. Bernard insisted he would be more comfortable in the second chair — leaving me in the grand one, and feeling sheepish.

He was open to any and all topics, except one: He did not want to discuss Europe and its prospects, especially in light of Muslim migration. He was very gloomy about Europe. You could see the pain in his face, when the subject came up.

Once — I don’t remember the year — he was being interviewed by a Dutch journalist. Bernard mentioned, in the course of the interview, that, if present trends continued, Holland would be majority-Muslim in 20 years. The journalist said, “So?” Bernard thought, You poor sap. You don’t have the foggiest what’s coming.

At the same time, Lewis insisted on Arab rights — on the right of Arabs to live freely, or at least decently. He thought the Middle East should liberalize. He saw no reason that Arab people should not have a say in their own government.

I can just hear Bernard say something with perfect irony: “Some people believe that Arabs should be free of dictatorship, like others in the world. This is known as the anti-Arab, or Western-imperialist, view. Other people say or imply that Arabs are destined to live under dictatorship, as the natural and rightful state of affairs. This is known as the pro-Arab view.”

His antagonist, Edward Said, once charged that Lewis was “dripping with condescension and contempt toward the Arab world.” I love the following story about Lewis, and he did too.

A book by Lewis was translated into Hebrew and published by the Israeli defense ministry. The same book was translated into Arabic and published by the Muslim Brotherhood (unauthorized). In his preface to the Arabic version, the translator said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”

Lewis always said that this was one of the great compliments of his career.

When he co-founded ASMEA — the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa — he said, “A lot of people in the Middle East are with us. We in the West complain about these odious tyrannies, but they are the first sufferers, the first victims.”

Lewis was a founding member of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association, in 1966. Forty-one years later, in 2007, he and Fouad Ajami found it necessary to start ASMEA, as an escape from MESA. The older organization had been taken over by radicals and ideologues, just as the Maoists had taken over China studies.

That’s the way Lewis put it to me: What happened to China studies, happened to Middle East studies. Moreover, the Chinese government has a corrupting influence on Western departments, and so do Arab governments (and Arab money).

When ASMEA began, Lewis gave an inaugural speech. At the outset of it, he quoted Dr. Johnson, to wit, “A generous and elevated mind is distinguished by nothing more certainly than by an eminent degree of curiosity. Nor is that curiosity ever more agreeably or usefully employed than in examining the laws and customs of foreign nations.” Bernard then pointed out that this was a uniquely Western statement.

And it is one that Lewis certainly exemplified.

He wanted the United States to be more confident in its principles and values, and indeed in its greatness. There’s an old saying, “My country, right or wrong.” Lewis said that Americans had turned this into “My country, wrong.”

Early in 2011, as Egypt and other Arab countries were exploding, Lewis said to me, “At the moment, the general perception, in much of the Middle East, is that the United States is an unreliable friend and a harmless enemy. I think we want to give the exact opposite impression.”

On another occasion, he was praising George W. Bush. In doing so, he cited Harold Nicolson, the British diplomat, who said something like, “You can never really know the Oriental mind, try as you might. But what is absolutely necessary is that they have no doubt about your mind.” Bush, said Lewis, had the virtue of making himself clear.

In the midst of the Egyptian explosion in 2011, Lewis made a statement I thought was very interesting. I asked, “Are we witnessing a democratic revolt?” He answered, “I don’t know what ‘democratic’ would mean in this context. It is certainly a popular revolt.”

He also said, “Many of our so-called friends in the region are inefficient kleptocracies. But they’re better than the Islamic radicals.” Democrats, however, are best of all — “and they do exist.”

I could keep on quoting him, but I should probably wrap up. Maybe after one more quote? A witticism? This was so typical of Bernard. Sometime in 2014, the word “ceasefire” was in the air, as it often is. Buntzie reported that Bernard had made a comment — four words — that expressed an important, alarming truth: “We cease, they fire.”

Four years earlier, in 2010, I wrote,

I’m tempted to think that there will never again be anyone like Lewis — that he is the last of a certain type of scholar. The last of the first-class scholars. But this cannot be true. . . .

I’m sure that, in the time of Thucydides, and shortly thereafter, people said, “That’s it — history-writing has come to an end. There will never be another one who is up to the job.” And it wasn’t true.

Nonetheless, I can’t imagine another scholar — another scholar of the Middle East — like Lewis.

I went on in this vein before saying, “I’ll stop whining and worrying now, and simply say how grateful I am that Bernard Lewis is here.” Yes. I am so grateful for Bernard Lewis. A great mind, and a brilliant, useful life.


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