Memoir of a Middle-East maven

Robert Low admires the autobiography of "the world's most eminent Middle East historian"


At the age of 95, Bernard Lewis has written (with the help of his partner) a fascinating account of his extraordinary life and the events and influences that have made him the world’s most eminent historian on the Middle East.

His admirably terse style and the freshness of his recollections could be the work of a man 30 years his junior but we are fortunate that he has waited until now to write his autobiography, for he can place the past 30 tumultuous years, with the rise of militant Islam and the Middle East in constant turmoil, in their historical context. He is, for instance, pessimistic about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and similar Islamic movements.

Lewis was born into a middle-class, Jewish family in London and, although not religious, insisted on continuing with Hebrew after his barmitzvah, which was the start of his lifelong devotion to the study of all things Middle Eastern, including a mastery or at least working knowledge of some 15 languages.

Yet the fact of his being Jewish was a severe obstacle to his ability to carry out his researches in the region itself, after London University and wartime service in British Intelligence; he could work only in Turkey, Iran and Israel. Fortunately, Istanbul housed the hitherto closed Ottoman Empire archives, which, to Lewis’s surprise, were made available to him. Their precise cataloguing of everyday life over many centuries laid the foundation for Lewis’s richly deserved reputation for meticulous scholarship.

His courage in placing historical accuracy above political opportunism, for instance in his work on slavery in Muslim countries, has made him persona non grata among the politically correct brigade that rules so many Western campuses and Middle Eastern faculties.

He is notably scathing about Edward Said and demolishes not only Said’s claim to scholarship but also his motives: “I often found myself wondering where ignorance ended and deceit began.”

Lewis, who moved to Princeton in 1974 partly because of a devastating divorce, has long been consulted by world leaders and he provides perceptive insights into many of them. Even Colonel Gadaffi wanted to pick his brains. As he and Buntzie Ellis Churchill, the partner of his later years, were leaving the Colonel’s tent, he whispered sotto voce to Lewis, then nearing 90: “Next time come alone. We’ll find you a younger woman.”

Lewis recalls a Jewish guest at one of Pope John Paul II’s dinner parties asking the pontiff what his attitude was to Jews and Judaism. “His reply was truly memorable, ‘As to an elder brother.’ The profundity of this remark grows on you.” The profundity of Lewis’s own thinking has a similar effect.

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