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Notes on a century
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 16 - 08 - 2012

Bernard Lewis, one of the world's best-known writers on the history of the Middle East, has published his long-awaited autobiography, writes David Tresilian
Bernard Lewis, Notes on a Century. Reflections of a Middle East Historian, New York: Viking, 2012, pp388
The Anglo-American historian Bernard Lewis, born in London in 1916 and now well into his nineties, became a best-selling author late in life when his book What Went Wrong? The Clash between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East appeared in 2002, some months after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in September 2001. Though written before the attacks took place, the book seemed to answer a public need for explanation of them, particularly in the United States, and Lewis, already an established commentator in various publications, became a familiar figure to a wider audience.
Some months later, the US-led invasion of Iraq took place in March 2003 despite demonstrations against it in many European and other countries and the threat of a French veto at the UN Security Council. Lewis was credited with providing part of the intellectual rationale behind the invasion, notably through his association with the then US vice-president Dick Cheney. Such was Lewis's reputation as an expert on the Arab Middle East at the time that it might have been possible to forget that he had retired from his position as professor of Near East Studies at Princeton University in New Jersey 17 years before and that his academic expertise had been in Turkish, notably Ottoman, history.
Lewis has now published an autobiography, written with Buntzie Ellis Churchill, and in it he has much of interest to say about the success of books like What Went Wrong?, the role he played in the lead-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the thesis, with which he was as much associated as Harvard University professor Samuel Huntington, of a "clash of civilisations" between the Arab world and the West. The book, entitled Notes on a Century. Reflections of a Middle East Historian, contains some sharp pages on the "malignant charlantry," according to one author, of the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, whose 1978 book Orientalism on the relationship between Europe and the Arab world Lewis describes as "an absurdity" and "just plain wrong."
Perhaps more surprisingly, in the book Lewis denies having played any role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, despite the perceptions of the time, writing that despite efforts making "me responsible for the policies of the Bush administration, and more particularly for the invasion of Iraq�ê� I did not recommend it. On the contrary, I opposed it." The real threat to US interests at the time and later came from Iran, not Iraq, he says, and "my primary concern was Iran's nuclear program, not toppling Saddam Hussein."
One possible motivation for publishing this book now may have been a desire on Lewis's part to set the record straight and to correct the misrepresentations of which he believes himself to have been the victim. Notes on a Century can certainly be read in this way, and the book inevitably contains much material that may be of most interest to those professionally involved in the academic field of Middle East Studies in western countries. Lewis thinks that this is in a pretty poor state, among other reasons as a result of the influence of Said, leading him to resign from "the [ideological] straitjackets of MESA, the Middle East Studies Association" in the US and to chair the breakaway Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa instead.
However, in addition to such material, aimed at a specialised audience, there is much that is of wider interest, notably because of Lewis's unusual longevity in his field �ê" his first academic appointment was in the 1930s �ê" and because as he himself says in the book "over the course of my life I have watched the world of Islam shift from the realm of musty archives and academic conferences to the evening news." There is now a much larger western audience for books on all aspects of the Middle East than there was when Lewis started work, and Notes on a Century, written in a formal, rather old-fashioned style, but admirably clear throughout, contains many amusing anecdotes and recollections. Given the controversy that surrounds Lewis's name, it seems unlikely that these will appeal to everyone.
The first half of Notes on a Century describes Lewis's childhood in London, his university studies, war service with British intelligence and earlier academic career as a lecturer and then professor at London University. Lewis makes the point that when he started studying the history of the Middle East in the 1930s, his teachers were mostly philologists, broadly speaking writers on language and literature, and not historians, since there were few, if any, historians of the region in British universities at the time. Having completed a course of historical studies at London University under the guidance of the then professor, Sir Hamilton Gibb, followed by a period spent in Paris studying with the famous orientalist Louis Massignon, Lewis travelled to Egypt, Syria and Palestine, publishing his first book, The Origins of Isma'ilism, in 1940.
Returning to academic life from war service in 1945, Lewis found himself to be "the first professional teacher of Middle Eastern history anywhere in England," part of a development that eventually dislodged the more traditional philologists, and one of the very few people, "probably fewer than a hundred in the entire United Kingdom," who knew Arabic. This language had "acquired sudden importance during the war years," and it became increasingly important thereafter because of the strategic position of the Middle East. Lewis's next book, still one of his best-known, was The Arabs in History, written for a general audience, which he describes as one of the first synoptic accounts of its kind. But the real breakthrough came in 1949 when he set out for Istanbul in order to carry out research in the recently opened Ottoman archives. A resulting book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, appeared in 1961.
Lewis gives prominence to his Jewishness throughout this first part of the book, claiming that he was unable to carry out research in any countries in the Middle East aside from Turkey and Iran as a result. However, other themes may strike readers of his book, among them the leap in interest and expertise from his first book, on mediaeval Shi'ism (The Origins of Isma'ilism), to his second, on modern Turkey, and Lewis's desire to play a public role. While it is possible to imagine a professor of Middle Eastern history confining himself to purely academic matters, writing on mediaeval history while making occasional gestures towards a wider audience, as indeed Lewis did by writing first The Origins of Isma'ilism and then The Arabs in History, Lewis seems always to have wanted to play a different role, accepting offers of work from the British foreign office and engaging in what he calls "cultural diplomacy."
Following his move to Princeton in 1974, this second side of Lewis's career seems to have loomed ever larger, though the invitations now came from different organisations and the US media gave him a more influential platform. There seem to have been fewer episodes of archival work, such as that carried out in the Ottoman archives, and more and more articles in magazines and newspapers commenting on contemporary affairs. Could the one have come at the expense of the other, even to an extent replacing it? Lewis does not say, though his insistence throughout on the value of "objective" history, undermined in his view by Said and others, seems to indicate that he still thought of himself as pre-eminently an academic historian and not a media pundit.
Nevertheless, in chapter nine of his book, after describing his award of the "George Polk Award for media reporting" for an article in the US magazine The New Yorker entitled "The Revolt of Islam," Lewis says that there is "a hidden urge toward emulation" among academics for journalists, "with a corresponding desire for recognition." Sixty pages later, he describes a meeting of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and the European Union in Istanbul, to which he was invited by the Turkish government. "I accepted with alacrity�ê� We were given two rooms in one of the most luxurious hotels in Istanbul, a car and a driver, and driving to and from the meetings we were preceded by a police motorcycle escort." Apparently, Said was also invited to this meeting, but turned the invitation down. Perhaps he had other things to do. Whatever the case may have been, it is difficult not to wonder whether Lewis's delight in such occasions, and the "desire for recognition" that drew him into journalism, possibly in the long run damaged his academic reputation.
Such thoughts may be reinforced by looking through Lewis's academic CV, included as an appendix to the present volume, in which the number of publications based on original research seems to decline over time to be replaced by dozens of opinion pieces in the newspapers. Some readers may wonder why Lewis, who was capable of writing so interestingly on the history of the Middle East in his academic publications, felt obliged to write pieces such as the notorious article "The Roots of Muslim Rage," published in the US magazine The Atlantic Monthly in 1990, in which he told American readers of "the war against modernity" among the Arabs, the "aimless and formless resentment and anger of the Muslim masses," and, that journalistic staple, "the clash of civilisations." Two decades on, and after numerous actual wars in the Middle East, has all this loose talk of anger, rage, hatred and warfare come back to haunt him?
Notes on a Century may have been completed too early for Lewis to work out his views on the Arab Spring, but the final chapter of his book does include some pages on last year's uprisings. "What does 'democracy' mean in a Middle Eastern context," he asks. "It's a political concept that has no history, no record whatever in the Arab, Islamic world." Were the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power in Egypt, through democratic or other means, "the consequences could be disastrous for Egypt." There is a danger of such organisations "gradually sink[ing] back into medieval squalor," taking the region with them.


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