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.