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From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East Hardcover – May 2, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

As this collection of writings and speeches from the last 40 years demonstrates once again, Lewis is probably the world's most erudite scholar of the Middle East. The pieces cover virtually all aspects of the region—from medieval Turkish history to the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and everything in between. Food for thought abounds: In one essay, Lewis notes that Islam and Christianity had different relations to Judaism because while Christianity wanted to replace Judaism, Islam was more comfortable incorporating Judaism into its traditions. The pieces are divided into three sections: past history, present history and reflections on the historical profession as it relates to the Middle East. The essays are more scholarly than Lewis's bestselling What Went Wrong?—for instance, one focuses on etymology and the origins of propaganda in early Arabic states. As a whole, they demonstrate Lewis's long-held contention that Islam has been unable to modernize and a clash of civilizations with the West was inevitable. Lewis is considered one of the intellectual architects of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, so it is of interest that in one essay, he asks what the West should do to help bring about change in the Middle East, and answers, "As little as possible." (Confused readers should note that the essay was written in 1957.) As a result of its scholarly bent, this book may attract a narrower audience than his other recent works, but they reflect the thinking of a profound mind.
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From Booklist

For more than four decades, Lewis has been one of the most respected scholars and prolific writers on the history and politics of the Middle East. In this compilation of more than 50 journal articles and essays, he displays the full range of his eloquence, knowledge, and insight regarding this pivotal and volatile region. The collection is divided into three sections, dealing in turn with past history, contemporary affairs, and the evolution of Middle Eastern historiography. The breadth of the subject matter covered is immense; topics as diverse as Islamic architecture, the prevalence of Persian culture throughout the region, Ottoman-European relations, and the causes of jihadist terror are explored. Lewis has never shrunk from controversy, and many of his views presented here are widely disputed by other scholars both within and outside the Middle East; but Lewis remains essential reading. Jay Freeman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (May 2, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195173368
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195173369
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 1.4 x 6.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,100,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on October 26, 2004
Format: Hardcover
In reading and reviewing two of Bernard Lewis's recent books (What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response 2002 and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Holy Terror 2003) I was favorably impressed with not only his obvious erudition, but with his reasoned tone and his realistic perceptions. However, in this volume, which is a collection of some of his writings going back to the 1950s, I found myself a bit mystified. On the one hand there is the brilliance and eloquence for which the venerable historian is well known. On the other hand, there are some strange and unsettled statements which lead me to wonder if Professor Lewis has not lost some of his fabled acuity.

First, there is the inclusion of a very short piece entitled "We Must Be Clear" that he wrote for the Washington Post a few days after September 11, 2001 in which he is anything but. Apparently Lewis wants the US to be clear about its intentions in the Middle East in light of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He concludes that "What is needed is clarity in recognizing issues and alignments, firmness and determination in defining and applying policy." (p. 370) What this vague and essentially empty pronouncement follows is Lewis's apprehension that some states are "friends" on two levels, one "a deep mutual commitment" and the other "based on a perception of shared interests." (p. 369-370)

One will permit me a "You don't say?" here. In this same piece Lewis mentions that Saddam Hussein "has made war against three of his neighbors..." and that the other states in the Middle East "are neither forgetful of the past nor confident of the future." What Saddam Hussein (and what his neighbors think about him) has to do with 9/11 is unclear.
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36 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Samuel Saul on May 15, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Prof. Lewis once again demonstrates his rare talent for explaining one of the most difficult subjects of world history in clear, lucid language reminiscent of a more literary era. The book is filled with insightful essays describing real episodes, thought patterns, attitudes and customs that have prevailed in the Middle East over the past millenium. As a frequent traveler to the region over the past 4 decades, I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to get a clear picture, uncluttered by neo-liberalism, of the politics and practices of the Islamic world.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By William Franklin Jr. on June 30, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I have a couple problems with this book, but I will still give it a rating of 5 stars.
My first problem is that it doesn't flow particularly well from one chapter to the next. This is because the book is an anthology of various speeches, op-eds, chapters of other books, lectures, and other work over the years, many previously unpublished. I would have appreciated some more commentary from today's point of view on his work done many decades ago. Because it jumps from year to year, subject to subject, it is hard to digest large portions of it at a time. My recommendation would be to provide even just paragraph-long segues from one chapter to the next explaining why he included each chapter and how it all adds up to the grand point he is making.
Second, I let someone borrow it, and she declared it boring and refused to plug away to finish it. I will admit, this book is not exactly for beginners on the Middle East, nor is it for people looking for exciting quasi-history or conspiracy theories. It is not pop-history. It is, rather, a subtle and mostly objective look at the history and contemporary affairs of the Middle East over multiple generations, and in such a collection of work, one can glean bits of why the world is how it is today. But don't expect the book to jump out and slap you in the face, arguing from the point of view of an extreme ideologue. If you can't handle it being dry in some places, this is not the book for you.
As far as the good things go, the book is a great way to brush up on Middle Eastern history. I've read some of Lewis' other books, and they are also very good. Some of the other ones flow much better than this one, but this one is the one I would recommend to those who want a more comprehensive yet succinct look at the Middle East, because it does cover so many topics.
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17 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Shalom Freedman HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a reader I have known more than one time in my life that very special pleasure of meeting a book, that lifts one spirit and one's mind, seems to put one in another higher realm entirely, and gives a kind of intellectual joy which certainly must be among life's greatest pleasures. Reading and meeting again the mind of Bernard Lewis in "From Babel to Dragomans" is such a pleasure.
Collected in this work are essays of one of the great intellectual figures of this past half - century. Arguably the world's foremost authority on the Middle East ( and most especially the Ottoman Empire) Lewis in these essays displays not only a vast learning but a civilized and often quietly humorous writing which continually inform and delight. In the title essay he elucidates the concept of the ` dragoman' or ` meturgaman' the translator and in so doing also helps us better understand the way societies which contained within themselves a rich variety of cultures and languages operated . In his remarkable essay " A Taxonomy of Hatred" he gives perhaps the most skilled argument I have ever seen for valuing and considering ` the other'. And this as he analyzes and explains how the instinctual hatred that seems to come to us naturally as primates is refined into something more elegant and deadly in human civilizations. As one who has been involved in the study of the Islamic world for over sixty years he brings a fine sense of the transformations that world has gone through in his lifetime while balancing this against what seem almost inherent cultural patterns these societies cannot free themselves of .
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