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12 - 18 October 2000
Issue No. 503
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

How not to do it

Reviewed by Denys Johnson-Davies

A Middle East Mosaic. Fragments of Life, Letters and History, Bernard Lewis, New York: Random House, 2000. pp512

The jacket blurb to Professor Bernard Lewis's latest book describes it as "a dazzling capstone to a brilliant career...a rich, boisterous literature of cultural exchange by our foremost living historian of the Middle East." However the great range the book covers, in terms of time, area and subject matter, makes it too much of a pot-pourri garnered from too many fields. Both the general, educated Western reader, and, more particularly, readers who already have an acquaintance with the available literature in English and Arabic, will surely be disappointed at not finding more tidbits not already known to them.

Some of the items included seem to serve no particular purpose, as is the case, for instance, of Lewis's inclusion of 11 different English translations of Verse 34 of Chapter Four of the Qur'an, a well-known verse dealing with the relationship between husbands and wives. The first of these was published in 1734 and the last in 1987. Why, though, did Lewis not provide the rendering by Marmaduke Pickthall, an Englishman who became a Muslim and whose translation, first published in 1930, is that which in general is most acceptable to Muslims?

The book is divided into 13 parts under such headings as "Travellers," "Government," "War," "Women," "As Others See Us," "Food and Drink," etc., and it includes quotations from a wide range of English and other European writers, among them Jane Austen, Byron, Dickens, Milton, Marlowe and -- of course -- Shakespeare, all in Middle Eastern contexts. Many of the entries are devoted to politics in one form or another, and several of the selected passages show where the compiler's sympathies lie.

Lewis quotes an assessment of Saddam Hussein made by the Israeli historian Uriel Dann, for instance, as well as the "Declaration of a Jihad" made by Usama bin Laden and published in 1998 in an Arabic newspaper published in London.

Let me also quote -- without comment -- the first paragraph of the compiler's introduction to his chapter on "Prophecy and Retrospect." He writes that "the Middle East has traditionally been the home of the prophets, that is, all those who are revered as prophets in the three prophetic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The prophets revered by Jews and Christians all lived and died without exception in the little country which is holy to both religions and which has been known at different times by different names: Canaan, Israel, Judea, Palestine. Muslim tradition and scripture recognize some, though by no means all, of the biblical prophets and add a few others: Salih, Shu'ayb, Hud and, most important of all, Muhammad. These all lived in the holy land of Islam: Arabia."

However the book includes several amusing quotations from well-known Arab writers, such as from Al-Jahiz. One from Al-Watwat, the Egyptian compiler of anecdotes, might be felt to be particularly apt at a time when the world is beset by particularly stupid wars:

"A man of Medina was asked: 'Won't you go out to fight against the enemy?'

He answered: 'I do not know them, and they don't know me. How did we become enemies?'"

For my money, though, this cake just doesn't have enough cherries. One suspects that if it had had to stand on its own merits, it would not have found such a prestigious oven in which to be baked.

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