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.