Reading Bernard Lewis’s memoirs, Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian, is like sitting down to tea with a brilliant, well-connected 96-year-old scholar and gentleman who is conversant in 15 languages and has been a dinner companion of many of the major diplomatic figures of the past 60 years, who unfortunately tends to ramble and repeat himself but who is rarely boring.
While Lewis is best known as an expert on the Middle East, he is much more than that. He was an intelligence officer during the Second World War, one of the first westerners allowed access to the central archives of the Ottoman Empire, and a friend of the Japanese emperor’s brother and the late King Hussein of Jordan, among others. He probably saved the life of the shah of Iran’s granddaughter through some pinpoint global networking, while his astute document reading may have helped break apart the Egyptian-Soviet alliance in 1972. They just don’t make Renaissance men like this any more.
Thus, after more than 30 books analysing Middle Eastern history and culture – two of them bestsellers – it’s about time that Lewis wrote his own life story. Of course, his story is inevitably also a story of this region and beyond, because he has been a close-up observer during the most tumultuous times: the collapse of European colonialism, the creation of Israel, the separation of Pakistan, the Iranian revolution, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in Washington DC and New York City, and now the Arab Spring. Nor would most readers want a book entirely bereft of his analysis or his trademark behind-the-scenes teatime anecdotes.
Perhaps his overarching message is that the study of history matters in practical and profound ways. “The past as remembered, the past as perceived, the past as narrated, is still a powerful, at times a determining, force in the self-image of a society and in the shaping of its institutions and laws,” the author writes.
To get an idea of the scope of Lewis’s life, consider that when he was born in London, in 1916, to struggling middle-class British-born Jewish parents, Tsar Nicholas II ruled Russia, the Ottoman Empire controlled the Middle East, women wore ankle-length skirts with wide-brimmed hats, and the first Model T cars had only recently rolled off the production line.
Although he had long been interested in history and the Middle East, Lewis at first assumed that he would need a different career – probably as a barrister – to support himself. But in one of the many instances throughout his life when he was in the right place at the right time, he finished his PhD in history and was hired as an assistant lecturer in Near and Middle East history at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (having abandoned law) just as the Second World War broke out. With the German invasion of North Africa and the uneasy alliance between Turkey and Britain, his linguistic, cultural and geographic knowledge were in high demand. He spent most of the war in London working for British intelligence, mainly translating intercepted
documents and phone calls.
That work may or may not have helped the Allies win the war, but it may have saved Lewis from injury or death on the battlefield.
The West’s desperate need for Middle East experts only intensified after the war, as the British and French colonial empires unravelled, Arab nationalism burgeoned, and Cold War rivalry focused on the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. Over the next six decades, the region’s importance – and, therefore, demand for Lewis’s insights – never waned. He was constantly invited to write books and papers, advise government leaders, and give guest lectures around the world.
After the Iranian revolution in 1979 and again after the September 11 attacks, for instance, publishers even reached back to translate and reprint Lewis’s 1939 PhD thesis on the Assassins, an extremist offshoot of Shiite Islam that targeted Islamic national and religious leaders in Iran, Syria and Lebanon in the 11th to 13th centuries. “The resemblances between the medieval Assassins and their modern counterparts are indeed striking,” he says in Notes.
Among other similarities, he cites “the calculated use of terror” and “the expectation of recompense in an eternity of bliss”.
During all this, Lewis maintained a full-time academic schedule, teaching first in London and then at Princeton University in the US until he “retired” in 1986 and wrote 15 more books.
Was there a head of state, diplomat or intellectual of the second half of the 20th century that Lewis didn’t know personally?
He was a houseguest of Pope John Paul II, a neighbour of the violinist Isaac Stern, and a school chum of the Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban. He lunched at Buckingham Palace with Queen Elizabeth II and dined in Washington with US vice president Dick Cheney. He corrected the Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi on a point of medieval history, advised the US government in favour of the first Gulf War in 1990 (but insisted that he opposed the second), and attended the shah of Iran’s parties.
It was a different meeting with the shah, in 1978, that accidentally gave Lewis the opportunity that may have saved the monarch’s granddaughter. The young woman was a student at Princeton, and Iranian friends alerted Lewis, who was teaching at the college by then, that the ruler would undoubtedly want to know about her academic progress when Lewis sat down with him the next day. “It so happened that the adviser to foreign students was the wife of a good friend of mine” – this kind of thing is always happening with Lewis – so after a few transatlantic phone calls, he discovered that the young woman had missed so many classes and ignored so many warnings that she was about to be expelled. Grandpa, obviously, would not be pleased. “Couldn’t you get her an extension, just one more semester, until I get back to Princeton?” Lewis asked his friend’s wife.
As Lewis notes, “The following year was the revolution. If she had been thrown out she would have been sent back to Iran and would have been in real trouble.”
His linguistic and research prowess may have also changed history. In 1971, soon after Egypt and the Soviet Union had signed a major treaty, Lewis was participating in one of his innumerable academic panels when he realised that he didn’t have his copy of the treaty. The one he borrowed had been translated into English by Russians, from the Russian-language text. “Glancing at it, I saw immediately certain differences” with his own version, which had been translated into English by Egyptians from the Arabic original.
“The differences were significant and far-reaching, and led me to some further comparisons – between this treaty and other treaties signed by the Soviet Union, with its allies, its satellites and neutral powers,” he writes. That research, in turn, led Lewis to publish an article in The Times of London, which was presumably read by Egyptian diplomats. This “may even have had some influence on their subsequent dealings with the Soviet Union”, he says, pointing out that a year later “President [Anwar] Sadat ordered the Soviet military to leave Egypt ... The way was open for a radical change in Egyptian policy” and, ultimately, a peace treaty with Israel.
Unfortunately, the last third of the book collapses into a jumble of narrative, sharp insight, personal vendettas, advice about stopping Iran from getting nuclear weapons, discourses on the difficulty of translating poetry, and gossipy titbits.
Interspersed in the confusion are some fascinating analyses of the different ways Muslims, Christians and Jews have traditionally viewed religion and society and how those differences reverberate today. “In the West,” writes Lewis, “we think of a nation subdivided into religions. In the Islamic world, they think rather of a religion subdivided into nations, subdivisions which, though locally important, are globally secondary.” Actually, narrative disorganisation is a problem throughout the book. The repetitions and meanderings desperately need pruning. It’s one thing when Lewis’s reminiscence about his efforts to learn a few words of Japanese (not one of his 15 languages) in preparation for a visit in the 1960s veers into a story about a colleague’s difficulty with the language; both examples might be seen as part of a discussion of international communication. But what possible reason is there for repeating a third-hand anecdote about Winston Churchill, or telling a silly pun about a pair of American professors named Stone eating chicken? Readers may also be put off by the old-fashioned writing style, especially the stilted grammar.
However, such problems are far outweighed by the pleasure of being right at the dinner table of history, guided by someone who lived through it.
Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.