From Babel To Dragomans: Interpreting The Middle East by Bernard Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Bernard Lewis is one of the most renowned and controversial author on the Middle East and its relations with the rest of the world, more specifically “the west.” At first glance it would be easy to see why he would be considered controversial. He was a British born American academic who served in British intelligence during World War 2 and then with the British Foreign Office. He took controversial stances on the invasion of Iraq and the Armenian Genocide. He was highly sought after by the George W. Bush administration and has been considered a neoconservative. Additionally, he was Jewish writing about Islamic and Middle Eastern topics. That alone, in some people’s eyes, would make him controversial. All this is true but seems to take a simplistic view of, much like the topic he choose to study, a much more complex person.
Reading through From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East was occasional difficult. Many of the passages were academic in the extreme and connecting the various articles that were written over the course of his entire 50 plus year career to the overall thread of the narrative was not always easy. This, however, is characteristic of the arguments Bernard Lewis makes and the complex and more nuanced stances he takes. He is just as hard on his own Jewish history, or as he points out, lack of history, and on the short term memory of his adopted homeland America as he is on the historical inclinations of Islamic historiography, Ottoman biographies, and Persian or Iranian historical constructs.
I do not agree with all of Bernard Lewis’ views or even some of the historic conclusions he makes in this volume. I also do not agree with everything his critics say regarding him or this particular book. Taking the longer and more nuanced view of a topic or a personality is not the easiest course and is often not the most popular either. However, any good critic, student or historian would do well to find the nuance and detail and exploit it. Nuance exploited and detail expanded upon does nothing but increase your credibility and strengthen your argument.
From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East is a thick volume and not intended for the novice in Middle Eastern or Islamic studies. While also not for the doctoral student, the volume covers not only the expected topics of the Israeli/Arab conflict, the Arab/Western conflict going all the way back to the Crusades, the Reconquista, and the Suez Crisis but spreads into more complex questions.The Sunni/Shi’a schism is addressed as well as the difference between traditional Middle Eastern concepts and the vast differences with that and the Ottoman and Persian/Iranian world views.
Having studied Middle Eastern, North African, Turkish and Islamic culture (more specifically the radical and militant variety) over the course of some 15 plus years, the most interesting development with the articles presented in the book were they consistencies and developmental changes in the articles themselves. Seeing the similarities between Bernard Lewis’ comments on the Suez Crisis and the assassination of Anwar Sadat and those of his comments on the Gulf War and the subsequent terrorist acts committed by al-Qaeda are fascinating. His own point of the consistency of cultures to either ignore or misuse history contrast directly with his own review of history and its potential misuse. Seeing his change in stance on the political spectrum but his overall consistency on the historical -used in the social scientific sense – is fascinating.
This also brings me to my most significant issue with the book. Its actual structure more than its content or tone.
The book is divided into three main sections, each of which is constructed by articles previously written and published in various other volumes or academic journals. The sections are entitled; Past History, Current History, and About History, respectively. The articles fall into the three main categories.
With the first section, Past History, Lewis deals primarily with historic, meaning pre-20th century or at the very least primarily with events prior to the fall of the Soviet Union. With these articles Bernard Lewis tries to set the stage for the interactions between the West or European powers and those of the early or Medieval Islam. He also attempts to place the few events that occur within the 20th century in context to their historic roots.
Part Two: Current History, deals with modern, or at least recently modern, events. These include the Gulf War, the Israeli/Arab issue, modern imperialism, both American and Soviet. This section is a little more difficult to follow as the articles don’t follow a strictly linear structure. Nor do they follow any thematic structure that was readily apparent. The articles taken individually are quite interesting and Bernard Lewis’s take on the differences and construction of modern Turkey from the remains of the Ottoman Empire are quite instructive.
It is with the last section, Part Three: About History, I have my primary issue. This section attempts to cover the nature of history and the study and influence of history and historical study itself. It is here the Bernard Lewis takes up his idea of the use, disuse, and misuse of history. He also discuss how the various cultures discussed throughout the rest of the book, broadly speaking the West or Europe, the Middle East or Islamic culture, and Jewish culture perceive history and its virtue in society. The final section attempts to be just that. A final section wrapping up the book and finally explaining the why of the structure. Section three would likely be more instructive if placed at the beginning of the volume as opposed to its end. It could then place the rest of the book in context and provide a framework on which to hang the two other sections.
From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East is an instructive book that goes beyond what would normally be just a beginners textbook and short of a volume for the more advanced student of international relations and Middle Eastern study. By reading and taking time to understand some of the nuance, which, I admit, can be difficult at times due to Bernard Lewis’ prose its is possible to discover a better understanding – not a perfect understanding – of a culture, a conflict, and issues that have been and likely will continue to be primary in world relations for the foreseeable future.