(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The troubled and oil-rich Middle East has long been an area of fascination and concern for Europeans and Americans. Western interest in this region grew more intense after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and other targets in the United States by Islamic extremists and after the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis has emerged as an influential interpreter of Middle Eastern events, able to present his specialized knowledge to a wide readership. He was also a strong advocate of the American invasion of Iraq and continues to support the American military presence in that country.

From Babel to Dragomans offers a selection of fifty-one essays from his long career, dating from 1953 to 2002. Some of these are short newspaper and magazine opinion pieces of only two or three pages. Others are more conventional scholarly essays. Lewis has divided them into three sections: “Past History,” “Current History,” and “About History.” He also provides an introduction that many readers will find interesting and useful because in it he reflects on his own career and discusses how these essays relate to that career.

Most of the pieces in the first section are scholarly in character and will probably be less immediately appealing to most readers than his works on current events. This first section is important, though, because in it Bernard considers the complicated ways in which Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East have understood and misunderstood each other over the centuries. The title essay, the second in part 1 on past history, was first published in 1998 and deals with some of the earliest intermediaries between these two neighboring civilizations. The word “dragoman” in English refers to someone who is a guide or interpreter in the nations of the East. As Lewis explains, it comes from an Arabic word that means “to translate.” The two major civilizations of the Mediterranean, Christendom and Islam, needed to communicate with each other. Because most of the Islamic world had fallen to the control of the Ottoman Turks by the end of the Middle Ages, this meant that the Turkish rulers of Istanbul and the powers of Europe needed to find interpreters.

Many of the earliest interpreters were slaves, refugees, or renegades. They were Europeans who had been captured by the Turks, Jews fleeing European persecution, or Christian converts to Islam. Eventually, some groups came to provide professional dragomans. The Levantines, usually Catholics of Italian origin living in the eastern Mediterranean, provided many of the professional interpreters. However, the Levantines had no commitment of national loyalty to the European embassies they served and no diplomatic protection from the Ottoman rulers under whom they lived. The dragomans were reluctant to deliver messages that might give offense, and they often engaged in systematic mistranslation, compounded by the problems of finding precisely equivalent meanings in different languages and cultures. Lewis made a good choice in selecting this as his title essay because it gives readers a cautionary tale about taking the explainers of Islam uncritically.

Most of the essays in the past history section do not touch directly on twenty-first century events. One of the exceptions is “Religion and Murder in the Middle East,” which treats both the political and the religious meaning of murder and draws parallels between the past and the present. Beginning with the assassination of the caliph ʿUthmān in 656 c.e., Lewis poses the problem of seeing a religiously motivated killing as a crime or as a legitimate act of justice. He traces religious killings through the emergence of the medieval order of the Assassins. He suggests that assassins are dedicated volunteers, motivated by promises of reward in the afterlife, and willing to engage in elaborate planning. He draws parallels between older historical assassinations in the Middle East and modern acts of terrorism and the Iranian death...

(The entire section is 1640 words.)