Interviews April 2004

Islam’s Interpreter

Bernard Lewis talks about his seventy years spent studying the Middle East—and his thoughts on the region's future
book cover

From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Bernard Lewis
Oxford University Press
352 pages, $28.

In the foreword to an Arabic edition of one of Bernard Lewis's recent books, published by the Muslim Brotherhood, the translator included a few words of ambiguous praise for the author. Lewis was, he wrote, "one of two things: a candid friend or an honorable enemy," but certainly not one to dodge the truth.

In the West, critics' views on the eighty-seven-year-old known as "the dean of Middle Eastern scholars" are more clear-cut. Conservatives tend to hail him as a priceless gem—the only scholar both erudite and honest enough to tell us the inflammatory truth about the condition of modern Islam. Leftists, particularly among his peers in academe, tend to regard him as a servant of imperial power, prone to making demeaning generalizations about Middle Eastern society, and arrogant enough to consider himself an objective scholar. The rift has deepened as Lewis's influence on Paul Wolfowitz, the chief architect of current White House policy in the Middle East, has become public knowledge.

For those who only know Lewis from his post-9-11 celebrity, From Babel to Dragomans, a newly published collection of Lewis' essays from the 1950s to the present, is a handy guide to his intellectual roots. Lewis's academic career spans seven decades—he enrolled in the University of London's School of Oriental Studies in 1933. A genuine scholar of Orientalism, unabashed by the recent denigration of the field by post-modernists, he believes in rigorous linguistic training, prodigious reading of primary sources, and a no-stone-unturned approach to scholarship. Before he became a national celebrity for telling us "What Went Wrong," Lewis delved as enthusiastically into such topics as the relative merits of donkeys and camels for medieval pilgrims, derivations of the Persian word for eggplant, and property law in the tenth-century Muslim provinces.

There is no doubt that Lewis's harsh critique of modern Islam stems from a deep affection for the civilization that it once was. As a student visiting Turkey in 1938, by a stroke of luck he became the first Westerner permitted to enter the Imperial Ottoman Archives. His recollection of the experience says much about his sentiments toward his field: "Feeling like a child turned loose in a toy shop, or like an intruder in Ali Baba's cave, I hardly knew where to turn first."

Lewis's two trademark preoccupations, historiography and the nuances of language, permeate his writings. The book includes a detailed essay on the evolution of propaganda in Islam, and several discussions of the meaning and uses of "history" in Muslim tradition. In an essay on Islamic revolution, he points out the absurdity of referring to Islamists as "fundamentalists." "Fundamentalist" is an American expression denoting belief in the literal divine origin of scripture–something that all Muslims, militant or otherwise, believe about the Koran. Lewis is not just being picky; language is a crucial issue in Islam. Analyzing Osama bin Laden's appeal, Lewis explains: "The first and most obvious reason for his popularity is his eloquence, a skill much admired and appreciated in the Arab world since ancient times." Representatives of the West, Lewis says, need to pay more attention to the way they communicate with the Middle East, where their every word and signal are scrutinized for signs of weakness or uncertainty. If one had to sum up in one phrase his message to U.S. policymakers, it would be the title of his September 16, 2001, op-ed in The Washington Post: "We Must Be Clear." In trying to understand the intentions and capacities of the United States, Lewis writes, Middle Easterners have two guides: "The first is history... In this the record is not encouraging. The second is their current dealings with U.S. statesmen, soldiers, and diplomats, and the interpretations they put on what is said to them and what is asked of them." With clarity, firmness, and a show of resolve, there is "only a possibility" that the U.S. will win local support, Lewis concludes. "Without them there is a certainty of failure."

Lewis is the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and the author of more than two dozen books, which have been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

We spoke by telephone on April 15.

—Elizabeth Wasserman

Author photo
Photo credit

Bernard Lewis

Your title chapter, "From Babel to Dragomans," examines the history of dragomans—or translators—who mediated between the rulers of Islam and the West, and the near impossibility of achieving anything resembling direct, honest communication between the two civilizations. It's almost comical to read about some of the mishaps that took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but I wonder, how much clearer is the dialogue between the West and the Middle East today?

In the late sixteenth century, not a single person in England knew any Turkish, and certainly not a single person in Turkey knew any English. They had to proceed by two-stage translation. The intermediate language was Italian, which was then the most important European language for international communication. So texts were prepared in Turkish, translated into Italian by an interpreter employed by the Turkish government, translated into English by a translator employed by the English government, and then the reply would go back by the same route. Seeing the three sets of documents side by side is quite a fascinating experience. It alerted me to some of the problems of diplomacy by translation and interpretation. What was quite clear is that there was a pattern of systematic and deliberate mistranslation. I looked into this problem in later periods and right into modern times, and it's still there.

There's been a lot of discussion lately about using "soft power," as we did in the Cold War, particularly through the mass media—channels like Radio Sawa and the Middle-Eastern Television Network. Are we getting closer to winning the propaganda battle?

We have a better opportunity of doing that now than ever before, thanks to the miracles of modern communication. But I don't think we're using that opportunity. There is some improvement, but generally speaking, I see a failure of communication. Simple translation isn't good enough. Even accurate translation may be misleading, because in different cultures we use the same word with different meanings. There is a great danger of misunderstanding. This became clear during World War II, when there was massive propaganda directed towards the Middle East—propaganda from the Axis, from the Americans and the British, and from the Soviets. All of them had their Arabic broadcast programs, and even at the time, it was obvious that there were serious discrepancies between what was said and what was heard and understood. I don't think the problem has improved—if anything it's gotten worse.

Do you have a prescription?

I think the first thing is better linguistic training. For example, when I listen to the broadcasts from the media people who are in Iraq at the present time, they almost always mispronounce the names of Iraqi towns. One town which has been very much in the news is spelled in Latin letters N-a-j-a-f, and I hear one announcer or newsreader after another, even those who are calling from over there, say Na-jaf' (emphasis on the second syllable). Well it isn't Na-jaf', it's Na'jaf (emphasis on the first syllable). Anyone who's ever heard an Iraqi pronounce the name will know that. The fact that this sort of name is systematically mispronounced is really alarming. One wonders who they've been talking to.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.


What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.


How Will Climate Change Affect Cities?

Urban planners and environmentalists predict the future of city life.


The Inner Life of a Drag Queen

A short documentary about cross-dressing, masculinity, identity, and performance


Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.



More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In