Bernard Lewis in 2006. Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images.
As a graduate student at Princeton University in the mid-1990s, I grew to know and love Bernard Lewis, the preeminent historian of the Middle East who passed away on May 19, less than two weeks before his 102nd birthday. At the time, I was in my early thirties and he was a year or two short of eighty, though you would not have known it from the pace of his work—a pace with which I soon became familiar as his research assistant.
By then I had met any number of extremely accomplished people, but never anyone quite like him. Lewis was a genius, by which I mean not just that he was extremely intelligent but that he possessed dazzling and unique intellectual gifts. He knew somewhere between ten and fifteen languages. The ones that mattered most to him professionally—Arabic, Hebrew, Farsi, modern Turkish, Ottoman Turkish, French, and German—he knew extremely well. He also had a photographic memory.
Near-perfect recall is an impressive instrument, though it entails its own peculiar complications. One day, Lewis handed me a manuscript of his new book, The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years. He asked me to proofread it and to be on the lookout, especially, for repetitions—not just within the text but also between it and his other publications. Edward Said, the author of Orientalism and Lewis’s nemesis and bête noire, had accused him of “recycling old notes.” Lewis had no wish to turn Said into a truth-teller.
No sooner had I begun my work than I discovered a passage that had appeared, verbatim, in an article written by Lewis some two decades earlier. Was Said correct, then, and was Lewis cutting and pasting from earlier work? This I knew to be false. Lewis didn’t write books in the conventional sense of the word “write.” He would collect primary sources, organize them into manila folders—a separate one dedicated to each chapter in the book under construction. Then he would sit comfortably in the chair at his desk and speak into the Dictaphone. Out they would flow—perfectly formed sentences. Uninterrupted by so much as an “uh” or an “umm,” they would soon turn into neat paragraphs, and the paragraphs would grow into chapters. A light editing after dictation was sometimes all it took to ready the material for publication. If Lewis sometimes repeated himself verbatim, it was because ideas that he had formulated over the years were simply engraved in granite in his mind.
At our next meeting, I showed Lewis the repeated passage. He turned beet red and quickly changed the subject. When on a later occasion I tried to discuss the subject of his phenomenal recall, it was plain my questions irritated him. So I never broached the topic again—but I did once ask if he’d ever experienced writer’s block. “Rarely,” he said. “However, I am occasionally at a loss for the right word.” He had a method for overcoming this ordeal. “I draw myself a hot bath, ease down into the water, put my head back and relax. And then it comes to me.”
To call him prolific is an understatement. Wikipedia’s list of his books runs to 33 titles ranging across all periods of Islamic history. The list, however, is incomplete. Among the omissions is Days in Denmark, a lighthearted guidebook published in 1950 under the pseudonym Louis Bernard; alongside its voluminous information and advice, the book pokes fun at the foibles of the Danes. I’d discovered it by chance one day while puttering around in his study. After skimming through it, marveling as I read, I brought it to him fully expecting a show of pride at his command of so offbeat a subject. To my surprise, he was unforthcoming.
“You even know Danish?” I asked, brandishing the book.
“Where did you find that?”
“Over there on the shelf. Did you work on Denmark during the war?” (He had served in British intelligence.)
“What prompted you to learn Danish?”
“Personal reasons,” he said, taking the book from my hand. The conversation, he made clear, was over. I would subsequently learn that his wife had been Danish, and that the marriage had ended unhappily.
Actually, Lewis’s guide to Denmark points to the grand theme of his career: cross-cultural perception, misperception, and conflict. This subject came naturally to him, and was never far from his mind even in the unlikeliest-seeming contexts. One such context that I’ll never forget involved his reaction to a California jury’s notorious verdict of not-guilty in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. For the purposes of an upcoming speech, and prompted by the uproar over the verdict, Lewis was intending to relate an anecdote drawn from the memoirs of a judge in Ireland, a certain McGillicuddy. Would I go to the library, he asked, and hunt down the book to double-check the accuracy of the quote?
Lewis explained what he was looking for. McGillicuddy had served on the bench before Ireland received its independence. With the British ruling the country, Irish Catholic juries were notoriously reluctant to convict Irish Catholic defendants, no matter how damning the evidence. McGillicuddy was outraged when, at a murder trial over which he presided, the jury returned a verdict of not-guilty for a man who was patently guilty. Unable to bring himself to pronounce the prescribed formula for setting free an exonerated defendant—“You have been found innocent by a jury of your peers. You leave this courtroom with no stain on your record”—McGillicuddy, Lewis recollected, revised it to fit the circumstances: “You have been found innocent by an Irish jury. You leave this courtroom with no other stain on your record.”
Off to the library I went. I scoured the stacks and all the relevant databases, but with no luck. No research library in North America had a copy of McGillicuddy’s memoirs. Lewis had read the passage when studying law in the mid-1930s, and recalled it verbatim a half-century later.
Total recall, command of sources, mastery of hard languages—these are indeed powerful tools. I’ve encountered other scholars who’ve possessed them, but they often tend to be hopeless pedants, capable of boring you to tears in five languages. Not so Lewis. He yoked his innate intellectual gifts to a powerful analytic intelligence and expressed the result in lively and urbane prose.
Memory plus languages plus analysis plus talent for expression—this was the magical combination that put him in a class all his own. But that, too, was by no means the end of it. His lectures and his writing always had a point: a big, significant thesis into which even an anecdote plucked from a half-century-old book on a different subject would take on special meaning.
In the 1950s, in the archives of the Ottoman empire in Istanbul, Lewis had found the grand cross-cultural story worthy of his prodigious talents. As one of the first Western historians to gain access to the empire’s official records, he also belonged to a very small fraternity of non-Turkish scholars who had truly mastered the Ottoman language. His archival research allowed Lewis to examine the practical strategies that the last great Muslim empire adopted to contend with the rise of the West.
European expansion was an old story, but Lewis had a new take: how that expansion looked from the heartlands of the Middle East. His research in Istanbul, which in the first instance yielded The Emergence of Modern Turkey, also shaped his thinking in general, and in a way that some commentators on his work have missed: it gave him a particular perspective on modern history.
Nationalism sometimes fosters a shallow intellectual culture, but among the Turks, furtively before World War I and openly thereafter, it generated an original and sophisticated literature. The Ottoman empire was a multiethnic, Islamic polity. To become nationalists, the Turks had to think themselves out of traditional categories and entirely reconceive their history, culture, and politics. This intellectual enterprise, massive and multi-generational, culminated in Kemalism, the ideology associated with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey.
Anyone curious about the influence of Kemalism on Lewis can compare The Emergence of Modern Turkey with The Development of Secularism in Turkey, a masterful history written by Niyazi Berkes, the leading Turkish scholar of the day. Lewis and Berkes, the comparison will immediately reveal, are close cousins.
But this is hardly to deny the uniqueness of Lewis’s own take on the Turkish national story. With his inimitable panache, he placed it in the broadest possible context, presenting it as it was in itself but also as a chapter in a world-historical drama: the interaction as a whole between the Middle East and the West.
At the center of Lewis’s story is Islam—its nature, power, and persistence. As the men who ran the Ottoman empire and its successor states sought to modernize their societies, they continually butted heads with the champions of traditional society, who expressed their own values and aspirations in an Islamic idiom. This led Lewis to be on the lookout for possible recrudescences of anti-Western Islamic movements. So armed, he was able to identify important political developments significantly in advance of other experts.
Two essays stand out for their prescience in this regard. “The Return of Islam,” published in Commentary in 1976, identified Islamic-based politics as a rising trend—three years before the Iranian revolution that toppled the shah and brought to power the rule of the ayatollahs. Two decades later, in “License to Kill,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1998, he drew attention to Osama bin Laden’s call for jihad against America—three years before 9/11.
It is impossible to exaggerate how hostile the academic field of modern Middle East studies was to these two essays—or to the author of the large corpus of historical research out of which they grew. This hostility was spearheaded by Edward Said in Orientalism (1978). Taking aim directly at Lewis, the book depicted the scholarly tradition of which Lewis was the leading figure as, in its essence, a highfalutin cover for Western prejudice—a learned justification for Western imperialism and Israeli expansionism.
As an intellectual rival to Lewis, Said was hopelessly outgunned. As an academic ideologue, however, he proved the more talented figure. The genius of Orientalism was that it built an intellectual bridge between Middle East studies and the guilt attitudes commonly held by American liberals toward the issue of race in their own country. The cause of the problems in the Middle East, Said implied, lay in the bigotry of white men, for which Lewis’s claim—that a deep knowledge of history and culture was relevant to understanding present-day issues—was just a smokescreen. The essence of the story was the domination of brown people by white people.
Said’s argument, such as it was, is often presented as one side in an ongoing war of ideas, but the real key to understanding its repercussions is to be found in the underlying emotions that it touched on and would later inflame. Consider, for example, a Muslim student of mine, a son of immigrants to the United States, with whom I held hours of solemn conversation in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. (I was working at the time as a professor.) The student unburdened himself to me about the emotional turmoil into which Osama bin Laden’s attacks had thrown his family.
His parents were barely on speaking terms. His father was enraged—at America and at Americans. Before the 9/11 attacks, the father had been just another colleague at work; afterward, he suddenly became the Muslim colleague. He felt unfairly singled out by his non-Muslim co-workers. Some of them became distant, while others insistently asked him to explain Osama bin Laden as if being Muslim gave him special insight into the arch-terrorist’s motivations.
My student’s mother, meanwhile, had the polar opposite reaction. If her husband felt falsely accused, she felt genuinely implicated by bin Laden’s crimes. Overcome with a sense of shame, she grew visibly depressed, staying in bed to avoid going out in public.
As my student’s home became an unhappy place, and as he tried to sort through his own complex feelings, he also found himself unable to talk about these matters with his Muslim friends. They were simply too close to the problem. So he’d come to me instead.
Now consider what Bernard Lewis’s books, articles, and interviews were telling Americans at this same time. Osama bin Laden, he argued, represented a politically significant development, one with deep roots in the history of the Middle East if not in Islam itself. Lewis was not saying that this was the only current in Islam, or necessarily the most authentic one. But the mere fact of his attributing popular legitimacy to it, as well as a connection to Islamic tradition, was enough to enrage men like my student’s father. To his ears, it sounded as if Lewis were tarring both him and his religion with the brush of terrorism.
Many scholars working in Middle East studies in the United States, being themselves of Middle Eastern heritage, share similar emotions. Those who don’t share them are surrounded, professionally and socially, by people who do. Dissenters have thus been under heavy pressure to repudiate Lewis’s perspective and to produce analyses, instead, that put the blame for the ills of the Middle East on exogenous forces—specifically, on Western and/or Israeli policies.
Modern Middle East studies has therefore become a field rife with pro-Muslim apologetics. In this sense, it is fair to say that although Lewis won the argument, Said won the crowd. Thanks to Said, insufferable blowhards who willfully obscure the difference between scholarship and politicking now run the field.
Indeed, by the time I got to know Lewis in the mid-1990s, the ground had already shifted. The rising generation wanted as little connection with him as possible—at least in public. Young academics on the make, some of them his own students, recognized that search committees for coveted jobs would often include an aging curmudgeon who still respected Lewis. To disarm and mollify these older types, they would kiss up to Lewis and ask for recommendations even while denigrating him to their peers.
Out of a sense of professional responsibility, and also because he was loyal to a fault, Lewis would produce the requested recommendations. He recognized rank careerism for what it was, but was he aware of the depth of duplicity being displayed by individuals who owed their careers to him? Of that I’m not so sure.
As academia increasingly disavowed Lewis, the allure of Washington grew stronger. For a man who could effortlessly quote the verse of the 10th-century Arab poet al-Mutanabbi, Lewis also revealed a remarkable talent for talking with policymakers. He was always well briefed on current affairs. For four months of every year, he traveled to the Middle East. When back at Princeton, part of his daily routine was listening to Arab political broadcasts over shortwave radio. Having spent countless hours during World War II eavesdropping on Arab leaders’ telephone conversations and briefing British commanders about them, he had a very keen sense of the day-to-day realities of regional politics and of how to distill the essence for non-experts.
Truth be told, however, he was more an analyst than an implementer, and he was not especially gifted at formulating policy. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of 9/11, he allowed himself to be drawn into the debate over the Iraq war, which he supported. Looking back on it now, I wish he had played the role of grand old man of Middle East analysis rather than becoming, as he did, an intellectual icon for policymakers. I even suggested to him once, over a late-night scotch, that he might remain aloof, issuing Delphic statements that kept him above the fray. “At my age,” he responded, “what difference does it make?” I had no response. He was playing a significant role in the world, in a way usually denied to people in the second half of their ninth decade. And he’d earned the right.
Bernard Lewis was a loyal friend and a scholarly legend. The sadness at his passing only grows as one is forced to acknowledge that the age of academic giants has now definitively come to an end. The professional study of Middle East history now belongs to the heirs of Edward Said—to, that is, intellectual pygmies.
Have I closed on a word, and an image, unpardonably “Orientalist” and “colonialist”? I certainly hope so.