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From Babel to Dragomans by Bernard Lewis

Lost in Arabic translation

Dragoman, a wonderfully resonant word, meaning an interpreter or guide in Eastern countries, derives from the Arabic verb tarjama, to translate. It is one among thousands of lexical items in English that derive from Arabic. Others include admiral, alfalfa, algebra, banana, carafe, giraffe, mohair, sofa, sugar and zero. Bernard Lewis's lecture on dragomans, reprinted in this volume of collected essays, was delivered in 1998. In it he drew attention to the crucial role which Greeks, Armenians, Jews and other Levantines used to have in interpreting the Ottoman world to the Western diplomats they served and, more broadly, to the world at large.

Diplomats and interpreters have had a more important role in the history of Orientalism than some scholars have allowed. From his youth, Lewis has been interested in the instruments and language of diplomacy. He shares the traditional Orientalist's interest in philology and in the effect language has in shaping the ways people think and act.

Lewis, born in 1916 and former professor at London University's School of Oriental and African Studies and later at Princeton, is now retired but still an awesomely productive scholar. The earliest essay in this volume dates from 1953, on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. The most recent pieces were published in 2002 and deal with urgent and controversial issues.

The most famous, or notorious article, in this volume, "The Roots of Muslim Rage", first appeared in Atlantic Monthly in 1990. It had a role in inspiring Samuel Huntington's book on a hypothetical fight to the finish between Islam and modern Western civilisation, The Clash of Civilizations (a phrase Huntington found in Lewis's essay). It is important to note that though Lewis coined the phrase, he did not invent the "clash of civilisations". Such a potential clash was already being preached and discussed in mosques around the world, but he hoped that conflict on a grand scale might be averted: "we must take great care on all sides to avoid the danger of a new era of religious wars, arising from the exacerbation of differences and revival of ancient prejudices".

Lewis has a penchant for bearing bad news and selecting sensitive topics, such as racism and slavery in Muslim history. As he reamrks, "the sensitive place in the body, physical or social, is where something is wrong. Sensitivity is a signal the body sends us, that something is wrong, that something needs attention, which... I try to give".

Lewis is, in many respects, an intellectual product of the Cold War. Not only did he attack the errors and fallacies of Marxist Orientalists and study the way Russia seemed to be consolidating its influence in Nasser's Egypt and elsewhere; the Cold War dichotomisation also seems to have influenced the way he viewed the struggle of the Ottomans and Habsburgs for supremacy in the Balkans. It may have been a factor behind his abiding interest in such subversive movements as the medieval Assassin sect. (Another word derived from the Arabic, hashishiyun - "hashish-takers".) Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, he has turned his critical attention to anti-Western agitation and acts of terrorism. Certain unflattering observations in "The Roots of Muslim Rage" aroused the wrath of Edward Said.

Lewis, unlike his critics (and they, like his fans, are numerous), is always clear and eloquent. He gets his facts right, whereas his opponents often seem to have difficulty with facts. He is a distinguished sc,holar and it is important to note that much of this work deals with the history of such dynasties as the Fatimids, Ottomans, Mughals and Safavids in a lucid and informative way, with no discernible agenda. But in a book as wide-ranging as this, the lack of an index is deplorable.

Robert Irwin's 'Companion' to the Arabian Nights has been reissued by I B Tauris

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