In times of war and in peace, from the earliest days of the Roman Empire to our own, Westerners have journeyed to the lands of the middle east, bringing back accounts of their adventures and impressions. Yet it was never a one way exchange. From the first Arab embassy to the Vikings in the 9th century to the internet musings of the Taliban, A Middle East Mosaic collects a rich, boisterous literature of cultural exchange.
We see the American Revolution through the eyes of a Moroccan Ambassador and the French Revolution through a series of Imperial Ottoman proclamations. We find surprising portraits of Napoleon ("a brigand chief"), TE Lawrence and Ataturk. We learn what George Washington and Machiavelli through t of Turkish politics and hear Flaubert and Thackeray rail against eastern crime and punishment. We peer into Voltaire's business correspondence and follow the footsteps of Mark Twain, Richard Burton, Gertrude Bell and Ibn Battutta, the Marco Polo of the east. Great discoveries are recorded - an Egyptian Ambassador is introduced to electricity and dismisses the spectacle as "frankish trickery;" another pronounces the invention of a secure mail system most useful for assignations. We enter the harem with a 16th century organ maker and emerge with Ottoman reform.
It was not until the sixteenth century that the first middle eastern rulers entered into diplomatic relations with European rulers, but trade often precede diplomatic relations. Business men from the days of the crusades against Saladin to the oil prospecting of Samuel Cox and his descendents have seen great possibilities in the markets of the middle east. And throughout the centuries we have been united by war. We witness the outbreak of the Crimean war with Karl Marx and enter Egypt with Napoleon. We observe Arab customs with George Patton and visit Baghdad and Cairo with George F. Kennan in the second world war. When Usama bin Ladin rails against "Jews and crusaders" occupying the holy land, he is rehearsing a grievance with a long history.
This symphony of voices, full of wit and wisdom, spite and wonder, suspicion, befuddlement and occasional insight, is ordered and explained by our foremost living historian of the middle east. The fruit of a lifetime of scholarship and erudition, A Middle East Mosaic is a dazzling capstone to a brilliant career. In a spirited reappraisal of western views of the east and eastern views of the west over the last two thousand years, Bernard Lewis gives us a brilliant over-view of 2,000 years of commerce, diplomacy, war and exploration.
This book is a delight, a treasury of stories drawn from letters, diaries and histories, but also from unpublished archives and previously untranslated accounts. Diplomats and interpreters, slaves, soldiers, pilgrims and missionaries, princes and spies, businessmen, doctors and priests all pour forth their stories of the people and events that shaped history. A Middle East Mosaic cannot fail to appeal to anyone with an appetite for history and a curiosity about the vagaries of cultural exchange.
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November 12, 2001
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Excerpt from A Middle East Mosaic by Bernard Lewis
Toward the middle of the tenth century, an Arab geographer and cosmographer from the great city of Baghdad wrote an account of the known world in which he included a few words about some of the strange, wild people beyond the northwest frontier of civilization-that is to say, the Islamic empire of the caliphs. Of the northernmost of these peoples, he observed, "Their bodies are large, their natures gross, their manners harsh, their understanding dull and their tongues heavy. Their color is so excessively white that it passes from white to blue.... Those of them who are farthest to the north are the most subject to stupidity, grossness and brutishness."
In 1798 an Ottoman secretary of state wrote a memorandum to inform the Imperial Council about the recent troubles in Paris. He began his description of the events which, in the West, came to be known as the French Revolution: "The conflagration of sedition and wickedness that broke out a few years ago in France, scattering sparks and shooting flames of mischief and tumult in all directions, had been conceived many years previously in the minds of certain accursed heretics.... The known and famous atheists Voltaire and Rousseau, and other materialists like them, had printed and published various works, consisting ... of the removal and abolition of all religion, and of allusions to the sweetness of equality and republicanism, all expressed in easily intelligible words and phrases, in the form of mockery, in the language of the common people."
During the nine and a half centuries that intervened between these two reports, the level of information about Europe among Middle Eastern visitors and observers had improved considerably. The basic attitudes of contempt and certitude, however, remained substantially unchanged. Much the same may be said about Western attitudes toward the Middle East. Though in general rather better informed, medieval and early modem Western observers of the Middle East, including travelers, show a similar self-satisfied ignorance in their discussions of the places they visited and the peoples they met.