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The Scholar

by David Pryce-Jones

Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, by Bernard Lewis with Buntzie Ellis Churchill (Viking, 400 pp., $28.95)

Bernard Lewis is far and away the single most influential commentator in the English language on the Muslim world past and present. In the course of a long lifetime, he has published books of general political and historical interest, monographs that are the last word on some aspects of Islam, and innumerable articles in learned journals or the press. His affinity for all things Muslim is unmistakable, and survives the growing perception that the Middle East is the stage of a drama that may not end well. Publicly a Princeton professor emeritus, privately he was welcome in the Bush-Cheney White House, and he is known to have contributed to policy on Iraq at this level.

Notes on a Century, then, is the autobiography of a scholar whose researches have unexpectedly found their way into vital issues of the day. Easy to read, completely free from jargon, the book has the cheerful conversational fizz of someone able to give a good account of himself. He dearly loves anything funny. Going out of his way to have a laugh, he recalls that a lady from New York, obliged to state her religion on a form for Muslim officials, put, “Seventh Avenue Adventist”; and “Kuwaitus interruptus” is the pun he coined after the first Gulf war against Saddam Hussein. Saudi Arabia goes to lengths to exclude Jews, and the racist King Faisal could not resist telling Henry Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, that he was receiving him as a human being. Lewis quotes with relish Kissinger’s retort: “Some of my best friends are human beings.” At a conference in Rome, he recounts, a Soviet historian was asked whether historians should try to predict the future. “In the Soviet Union,” the historian replied, referring to Communist rewriting of history, “the most difficult task of the historian is to predict the past.” On another occasion, Lewis overheard a Turkish general explaining that the trouble with having Americans as allies is that you never know “when they will stab themselves in the back.”

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