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.”
Born in Britain in 1916 into a Jewish family, Bernard Lewis had the distinct advantage of growing up fluent in Hebrew. Knowledge of that language has been the point of departure in the careers of the significant number of Jews who have distinguished themselves as Orientalists. As a teenager on a visit to Carlsbad, the Czech spa, he was taken to meet Nahman Bialik, the great Jewish-nationalist poet who wrote in Hebrew and helped to revive what had been a dead language. One of his treasured possessions, Lewis is proud to reveal, is a signed copy of one of Bialik’s books. As a schoolboy he learned French and wrote a poem in Latin against Hitler. His father, a businessman in textiles, liked to sing arias from operas, and the attentive Lewis soon added Italian to his portfolio of languages.
When he set out as a young man in the 1930s to study and teach Arab history, he says, all he could expect were “musty archives and academic conferences.” At the School of Oriental Studies in London he learned Arabic. Sir Hamilton Gibb at Oxford and Louis Massignon in Paris, both eminent Orientalists in their day, directed him towards medieval Islam, intending him to become a conventional student of conventional subjects. Even thoughtful people then took it for granted that, whatever Arabs and Muslims might or might not be doing in the present, they were not fully masters of their fate and therefore of interest only to specialists. Lewis could perfectly well have turned out to be just another such specialist unknown outside the university. Picking up Russian, Turkish, and Farsi without apparent difficulty, he prepared himself for greater things.
Linguistic skills were vital during World War II. In the whole of England, Lewis surmises, probably fewer than a hundred people knew Arabic. Recruited into MI-6, the branch of the British secret service dealing with foreign intelligence, Lewis had to translate or summarize texts in Arabic, some of them in code or cipher. His onetime boss, a major, made a comment on his file that showed he had the measure of one important facet of this unlikely subordinate: “His sense of humour should not be taken as seditious.” Although still today under oath not to reveal secrets, Lewis nevertheless reports a few newsworthy items, for instance that British intelligence was bugging the Saudi embassy in Vichy France.
In the aftermath of the war, Lewis traveled and made friends in Egypt, Iraq, and what for a short while longer was still the British Mandate of Palestine. At the time of his first visit to Iran, there was no piped water in Tehran and he had to be granted access to a spring at the British embassy. In Turkey in 1949, he was the first Westerner given permission to read in the Ottoman archives and so accumulated material for studies — sometimes written decades later — on subjects as controversial as race, slavery, and color in Islam. His tone is invariably judicious, even when addressing something as painful as Muslim anti-Semitism.
As the deadlock of the Cold War settled in place half a century ago, Lewis was already predicting the repetitive violence and confusion that would spread throughout the Middle East. Some put the blame for this exclusively on the United States and the Soviet Union, as both superpowers were pressuring Arab-nationalist leaders of that moment into alliances and policies that served their interests at the expense of the Arab masses. Lewis had the different insight that what might look like an ideological clash was more profoundly civilizational. Muslims had discovered the West only to misunderstand and misrepresent it. Their longstanding cultural and intellectual failure to modernize has left the legacy of a severe identity crisis, for which they and everyone else will be paying for a long time to come. Short of revolution, the sole possible protest open to Arabs on the streets has been seditious humor of the kind Lewis himself used to practice, and he has a special delight in jokes about Gamal Abdel Nasser, the windiest and most unrealistic of nationalists.
The great and the good soon recognized that they had a lot to learn from Lewis, and he gossips most enjoyably about high-life encounters. There he was at a ceremonial dinner in Tehran given to honor Senator Edward Kennedy when the host, the shah of Iran — in a deliberate snub — did not turn up. At a lunch in Buckingham Palace, he was asked to interpret for British and Arab royalty. Pope John Paul II invited him to annual highbrow get-togethers in his country residence at Castel Gandolfo outside Rome, and Moammar Qaddafi flew him out to Libya for 48 hours of political and personal slapstick. In England, before emigrating to Israel, Abba Eban asked Lewis whether Eban’s style of speaking might suit the House of Commons. No, Lewis answered, the House of Lords. An admired friend was Muhammad Shafiq, prime minister of Afghanistan, hanged after the Soviet invasion of his country. One of Lewis’s graduate students was a Palestinian who had spent World War II in Berlin, and afterwards he, too, was hanged, for shooting King Abdullah of Jordan.
In more than one chapter Lewis gives professional advice about writing history. Freedom of expression and the exchange of ideas, he says, have an absolute value. The inflexible rule is to follow the evidence wherever it leads, even or especially if that means rejecting some prior hypothesis or exposing wrongdoing on the part of one’s own nation or some of its representatives. That was really the core of Lewis’s celebrated controversy with Edward Said. As the foremost spokesman of Palestinian nationalism, Said was unable or unwilling to consider that he or his people could act self-destructively. This meant that Jews were held responsible for the plight of the Palestinians. Singling out Lewis partly because of his reputation and partly because he was Jewish, Said concocted a syllogism: Lewis is an Orientalist; by definition Orientalists are at the service of imperialism and this is bad; therefore Lewis is at the service of imperialism and bad. Pure and simple tribalism of this kind carries the unspoken charges that a Jew has no right to an opinion about anything to do with Muslims and that Israel is an imperialist creation with no right to exist.
The fantasy that Orientalists are secret agents of Great Powers further presupposes that Muslims are victims whose destiny is in the hands of Lewis and others like him. A Turkish journalist who was a correspondent in Washington for seven years has just testified that, in 1997, in the State Department building, he saw Lewis conspiring with Madeleine Albright and others to arrange the military coup of that year in Turkey. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, an Egyptian journalist has been asserting that Lewis is part of an American plot to split the country four ways. Lewis has achieved so much, in other words, that he can do almost anything that can be imagined.
– Mr. Pryce-Jones, a senior editor of National Review, is the author of many books, including The Closed Circle: An Interpretation of the Arabs.