From Babel to Dragomans
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 2004
Two passages from this collection of essays catch the eye for quotation. The first is from the author himself, written in 1999, in an essay entitled The Taxonomy of Group Hatred:
Let me begin with a proposition that may seem outrageous: to hate the other, the outsider, the one who is different, who looks different, sounds different, smells different; to hate, fear and mistrust the other is natural and normal – natural and normal, that is to say, among baboons and other gregarious animals, or in the more primitive forms of human existence, such as forest tribes, cave-dwellers and the like. Unfortunately it survives into later forms of human development. It survives in even the most advanced and sophisticated civilised societies. It is, and we should not disguise this from ourselves, a very basic human instinct, not just human, but going back beyond our most primitive ancestors to their animal predecessors. The instinct is there, and it comes out in all sorts of unexpected situations. To pretend it does not exist and that it is some sort of ideological aberration cannot lead anywhere useful.
The second is itself a quotation, from the Baghdad-born conservative British historian Elie Kedourie (1926-92), and is the epigraph of Lewis’s essay Islam and the West:
There was nothing unreasonable in believing that the Muslim world would attain the power and prosperity of Europe by the same methods Europe had used, and that this could be done without endangering any of the essential values of Islam.
Sad to say, I have encountered the work of Bernard Lewis late in the lives of both of us, but this collection of essays written during the last fifty years, between 1953 and 2003, provides some samples to encourage investigation of his more extended productions and here I can only discuss a sample of his samples. His territory is what used to be called the Near and Middle East, that area of Asia (like Europe, a strictly non-Islamic term) extending from Turkey to Pakistan. It is probably best to say at once, for those who do not know it, or others who might think that I was trying to conceal a relevant fact, that Bernard Lewis is Jewish, though how “observant” I do not know and cannot infer from these essays. The xenophobia, elucidated in his first quotation and amply displayed in his subject matter, past and present, does not lead him to lose hope in the fulfilment of the belief stated in the second. Yet his explanation of how Islam and the “West” (another non-Islamic term) fundamentally differ in their political philosophies makes it clear how difficult such a fulfilment will be. When, in the 7th Century the Arabs conquered all the land mass stretching from the borders of India to the Atlantic, bringing Islam, their new religion with them, they were also bringing a social system with no distinction between the sacred and the secular and certainly not between church and state. There was (and is) no “church” or indeed any religious hierarchy, as Lewis keeps pointing out. Christianity had penetrated the Roman Empire in quite a different way, over a period of some three hundred difficult years, resulting in two organizations, church and state, ideally harmonious but often antagonistic. For Muslims, by contrast, religion seamlessly laid down both the rules by which they lived and the authority by which they were ruled.
Until comparatively recently Muslims were rarely subjected to infidel rule and the Islamic core lands when conquered were conquered by Muslims. Lewis points out more than once how this promoted isolation from and ignorance of their Christian neighbours until it was too late: a medieval Muslim description of European political geography is quite ludicrous, but, its author apologetically explained, only put in for completeness. Even as late as the seventeenth century, when the Thirty Years War (1618 – 48) was devastating central Germany, the Ottomans seemed unaware of the opportunity this gave them to smash through the Habsburg bulwark.
Lewis makes clear that almost all of the traffic and travelling, such as it was, between the two rival civilizations took place, until almost the end of the nineteenth century from Christian to Muslim lands. Muslims were used to Christians, as such, for there were tolerated communities of these living among them. The converse was certainly not the case; Muslims were unwelcome in Christendom, had no incentive to go there and for centuries could assume, as members of a superior culture, that nothing was to be gained from visiting such a benighted place, one of whose main exports was slaves.
Compared with what educated Muslims knew about Europe, educated Christians during all this time knew far more about the Near and Middle East; it was, after all, where their beliefs, and much of their intellectual heritage had come from. They would know more, indeed, of the pre-Islamic Persian, Mesopotamian or Egyptian Empires than any of the Muslim historians who knew next to nothing about them.
The title essay, From Babel to Dragomans extends this theme of physical isolation to that of mutual linguistic incomprehension. A dragoman (a word Lewis derives ultimately from ancient Assyrian) was an interpreter, used, by the sixteenth century by Europeans to make themselves understood to Turkish officials, merchants and others. He was usually Greek and something of a professional, having been sent to Italy by his well-to-do family for his education, returning fluent in that language which perforce became the medium of communication.
The reliability of such translators was suspect, and rightly so when it is taken into account that they were Ottoman subjects who had to be careful what they said to whom and how they said it. Thus a firm ambassadorial message tended to get turned into a humble supplication. (The Russians apparently got round the problem by ending any such communication with “Do so, or I will declare war,” which was normally effective.) The plea of the British Ambassador’s dragoman to a top Aga who had locked him up for some reason is the most obsequious piece of writing I have ever read (p. 26) – and that was just its page one.
By the eighteenth century clever young men were being sent out to their embassies to pick up the language and matters were not lagging behind back at home: by 1800 there were 70 Arabic, 10 Persian and 15 Turkish grammars in print, with 10, 4 and 7 corresponding dictionaries, as well as a lot of matter to use these aids on. The preponderance of Arabic was due to its acceptance as a “classical” language, fit to be studied at universities: the others were not – any more than were English, French, German or Spanish. The old system of making oneself understood at official (as distinct from tourist) level might be said to have packed up for good when the Grand Dragoman was publicly hanged, together with the Oecumenical Patriarch, in 1821 on suspicion of complicity in the Greek Revolt of that year.
As distinct from travelling outside it, within the Muslim world from its beginnings there was wide scope for such activity and “Mediaeval Islamic society enjoyed a far greater degree of voluntary, personal mobility than did any other known premodern society (p. 399)”. The obligatory pilgrimage to Mecca, instituted by Muhammad, who died before the Arabs broke out of Arabia, gave the impetus to those with more secular matters on their minds. Merchants did not suffer from the low status they had in most other contemporary societies, for was not Muhammad himself a merchant? Scholars, attaching themselves to the merchants’ caravans wandered as far as China in search of knowledge. Borders were permeable and, during the first few centuries, non-existent. Quite a large travel literature (rihla) emerged as a genre, the best-known example of which is probably that of Ibn Battuta in the first half of the 14th century who started from (and returned to) Tangier and got as far as Canton in China, with considerable journeys to places in between, including a visit to Constantinople and an eight-year stint as a judge in India.
Lewis is also much impressed by Islamic history-writing: “The first thing that strikes us is its immense richness and variety, as contrasted with other history-writing civilizations. It has been calculated that the historical literature of medieval Islam is far greater in bulk, just in Arabic, that the literature of medieval eastern and western Christendom in Latin, Greek and all the vernaculars combined.” It would be interesting to know whether the availability of paper, common in the Islamic world long before it reached Europe, had anything to do with this. “Islam, from the very beginning, has attached enormous importance to history. Indeed, in many parts of the world, reliable history begins with the advent of Islam (p. 406).” This last applies particularly to India. Lewis also stresses that Muslim historians were scrupulous with their facts – and as frank about their defeats as about their victories. It seems strange that with all this material to transmit, printing did not “take off” until the 19th Century.
One can almost see Lewis licking his lips as he describes in an early essay (1960) the opening of access to The Ottoman Archives, which date back to 1453, when they began to be kept in Istanbul; but their perils started when the Empire came to an end in 1923. However, when nearly 200 “bales” faced what is now called recycling, the scandal involved ensured their proper treatment. Official obstruction over the centuries to their inspection has ceased and now researchers have merely to face “a difficult language and an obscure script . . . an involved chancery style and a highly technical official vocabulary (p. 419).” Lewis makes clear just how hard a job this will be.
The last essay, undated and “previously unpublished” and which I suspect may have been written especially for this collection is On Occidentalism and Orientalism and is more or less a justification of the author’s specialty. It may even be a riposte to Orientalism, by the late Edward Said (1935-2003), though neither the book (which I have not read) nor the author is mentioned by Lewis. Googling a long way down an article entitled Debunking Edward Said, however, I came across “If Said can be said to have a bete noir it must surely be Bernard Lewis,” with quotations to prove it. It might be mentioned, for those who do not know it, that Edward Said, a Christian Arab born in Cairo, for many years until his death held a secure academic position in the US. Lewis quite mildly points out the natural, if irrational, resentment those from one culture feel when practically all the study of it has been carried out by members of another. Somehow we are back at the first quotation from Lewis’s essay The Taxonomy of Group Hatred: “to hate the other, the outsider… is natural and normal.” Amongst academics? God forbid!
Can this reader suggest to the editor of such a collection as this that the source of each essay be placed near the essay itself, either at its beginning or end? The information itself is there, but printed at the beginning of the volume. Some of the essays in the text, justifiably arranged thematically rather than chronologically, are headed by the date, but many are not. The absence of an Index is regrettable, but forgivable.