cover image A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters, and History

A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters, and History

Bernard W. Lewis. Random House (NY), $35 (496pp) ISBN 978-0-679-45191-4

Balance distinguishes this compendium of writings collected by one of the world's foremost scholars of the Middle East. Lewis (The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years), a professor emeritus at Princeton, demonstrates that both the Middle East and the West, in their interactions through more than a millennium, have exhibited both a mutual curiosity and a tendency to settle for uncomplimentary generalizations about each other. In the 13th century, for instance, an Islamic observer wrote that no people were ""more filthy"" than the Franks. Other entries indicate that such negative attitudes persist to this day: Lewis reprints a short selection from a contemporary Afghani Web site in which it is alleged that, in forcing women to work, the West has destroyed the ""personality, position and identity of a woman."" He also cites the mid-20th-century American diplomat George Kennan calling Iraq a country ruined by ""selfishness and stupidity,"" full of a ""population unhygenic in its habits."" While Lewis does not shy away from the troubling history of this cultural interaction, he also highlights some of its positive effects--devoting a chapter to words such as ""sugar"" and ""magazine"" that have entered the English vernacular from Arabic languages, as well as the descriptions of the rules and etiquette of both societies as described by travelers and diplomats. Nor does Lewis ignore more domestic and less momentous matters: There are chapters on cookery and one titled ""Wit and Wisdom."" What emerges is a vivid, nuanced account of the fascination that the West and the Middle East have had for each other and the troublesome ways that members of both cultures have tried to navigate and then explain their differences. While several chapters contain brief introductions, the nonscholar might want to keep a general history of the Middle East nearby as an accompaniment. Photos not seen by PW. (Apr.)