Bernard Lewis: My earliest ambition was to be a writer

June 07, 2012, Thursday/ 13:11:00

Eminent professor of history Bernard Lewis had an ambition to be a writer, and his study of history gave him something to write about.

“Poetry is about feelings. Novels are about imaginary characters and events. History is about real people, real events -- and historians describe and discuss them,” he said in an e-mail interview with Today's Zaman following the release of his new book, “Notes On A Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian.”

The British-American historian, now aged 96, is the author of the celebrated “The Emergence of Modern Turkey,” published in 1961. He has been described by the Turkish historian İlber Ortaylı as the “last great orientalist.”

Lewis's work was the inspiration behind Samuel P. Huntington's “clash of civilizations” thesis, which contends that after the end of the Cold War the major world conflict to emerge is between the Christian West and the Muslim East.

Lewis is also famous for his public debates with late literary theorist Edward Said after the publication of the latter's book “Orientalism” (1978), which was critical of Lewis.

Lewis became renowned for his extensive research into the Ottoman archives. His lecture "Western Civilization: A View from the East” was later revised and reprinted in the Atlantic Monthly under the title "The Roots of Muslim Rage." His 2007 Irving Kristol Lecture, delivered at the American Enterprise Institute, was published as “Europe and Islam.”

Lewis answered our questions with the help of Buntzie Ellis Churchill, co-writer of the book “Islam: The Religion and the People” (2008).

It is not mentioned on the cover of the book or in its pages that it is an autobiography. Certainly “the autobiography of Bernard Lewis” would be a much more attractive title for readers. What is the difference between “notes” and “autobiography” for you?

It is not an autobiography. It is not an account of my life. It is a chronologically arranged sequence of experiences, recollections and reflections. It is certainly not complete, and it deals only to a very limited extent with my personal life. It also contains short discussions of my views on various issues -- some, but not all of them, still current.

After studying the Middle East almost for eight decades, you are still admirably productive. When you look back over your long and prosperous career, what satisfies you the most?

I have learned to appreciate other cultures, other civilizations, other times, other places, other peoples but remain at peace with who and what and where I am.

The readers of the book will learn about your remarkable interest in poetry and the translation of poetry. We are also lucky to read one of your translations in the appendix. I recall that two prominent Turkish historians -- Halil İnalcık and Kemal Karpat -- said they would prefer to be poets or novelists over historians, and if they had been successful in literature they would not have chosen a career in history. Is it the same for you? Do you see literature as a higher calling?

My earliest ambition was to be a writer. My study of history gave me something to write about. Poetry is about feelings. Novels are about imaginary characters and events. History is about real people, real events -- and historians describe and discuss them.

I am surprised to learn that [Turkish politician, writer, historian and doctor] Adnan Adıvar was your Turkish tutor in Paris. Did you also meet [his wife, author] Halide Edip Adıvar? May I ask your favorite names in Turkish literature?

I did meet Halide, but only socially -- and briefly. She was an immensely impressive person. Adnan Bey was a dedicated and effective teacher and was one of the formative influences in my life. He introduced me to the range and depth of Turkish literature, for which I have always been grateful.

We also learn from your notes that as a young parliamentarian Turgut Özal visited you at Princeton. Can you tell us about his visit and your friendship with him?

I met Özal long before he became a well-known politician. We liked each other and got along well. As with other distinguished visitors to the US, two stops were compulsory: Washington and New York. Princeton lies between them. I persuaded him to stop over. He met with faculty and students, and their reaction was very positive. 

Talking about the current position of Middle Eastern studies in the Western world, you suggest that Edward Said's impact is enormous and his disciples control almost everything. From my humble observation of academia, I can say that you are one of the most respected and credited names, even among scholars from the region itself. Don't you think you are unfair to yourself?

The Saidian view is an enforced orthodoxy in most, but not all, departments of Middle East studies. Fortunately, the opposition to Said is growing and spreading. Facts and logic will, in the end, prevail -- even in the academic world.

What strikes me most in the book is your unique sense of humor. Do you agree that a sense of humor is an indispensable attribute for a true intellectual?

Some form of humor is an essential part of any civilization. The joke is sometime the only form of criticism or dissent that can be expressed in authoritarian societies -- that is, in most of the world and in most of history. It is instructive to be able to laugh at a joke from a long time ago and a long way away. The themes are so often the same, but sometimes contrasting. For example, mother in-law jokes occur in both eastern and western societies, but on one side the theme is what a man suffers from his wife's mother and the other is what a woman suffers from her husband's mother. 

It is obvious that the trial in Paris [where Lewis was accused of denying the Armenian genocide] is one of the most important phases of your life; you devote one chapter to this “absurdity.” It seems, three years later, at the 100th anniversary of 1915, this topic will be hot again. What do you think? As you know, recently a French constitutional body annulled a controversial bill making it a criminal offense to deny the 1915 killings.

I am neither a citizen nor resident of France, and since these absurd proceedings I have not been and will not be a visitor. These problems are therefore no concern of mine. But I think they should be of concern to any self-respecting Frenchman. The trials were a painful experience, but they were not “one of the most important phases of” my life. Historical problems should not be resolved by legislation. The attempt to do so is both absurd and pernicious.

In the book you repeat Syrian scholar Sadiq al-Azm's remark about the future of Europe: “Will it be an Islamized Europe or a Europeanized Islam?” For you, this question is very close to being answered. What is your prediction?

I am not a prophet or the son of a prophet. I am a historian. I deal with the past, not the future.

You write, “Turkey at that time [2002] was still rigorously secular.” What makes you think that the country is not secular anymore, as in 2002? Most Turkish scholars would disagree with you and would claim that Turkey remains secular but is a more democratic state.

As I said, I am a historian. I deal with the past, not the future. The Turks must decide where they are going and by what route.

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