Notes on a Century

Reflections of a Middle East Historian

by Bernard Lewis

Notes on a Century

Paperback, 388 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $18 | purchase


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Book Summary

The linguist and historian Bernard Lewis began his career before World War II, and since then he has both witnessed and participated in many of the tumultuous events in the Middle East. At 96 years old, Lewis looks back on close to a century's worth of work and study, covering issues as wide-ranging and as sensitive as race and slavery in Islam and his role as adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney — not to mention a few indelible moments with Ted Kennedy and Moammar Gadhafi.

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Excerpt: Notes On A Century

Ascertaining what they were doing

When war broke out in 1939 the only Arab state that was completely independent and free from any kind of imperial control, domination or presence, was Saudi Arabia. The Saudis at that time had two embassies abroad — one in London, one in Paris. Curiously, neither of the ambassadors was a Saudi. The ambassador in London, Hafiz Wahba, was an Egyptian; the ambassador in Paris, Fuad Hamza, was a Syrian. Presumably the one was chosen for his skill and experience in speaking English and dealing with Englishmen; the other for his corresponding skill and experience with French and Frenchmen.

At the time of the French collapse and surrender, we were very much concerned about the position of the Saudi embassy in Paris. Since the French government had surrendered and had in effect become a German satellite, we asked the Saudis to close down their embassy in Paris. They refused, and instead moved it to Vichy where it remained in contact with the German satellite French government based in that city.

The Saudi embassy in Vichy now became a place of major concern and importance to us. More specifically, it became a major place of contact between the Arab world and the Axis. There were other places of contact, notably Ankara in neutral Turkey, where the German ambassador, Franz von Papen, was able to maintain an extensive network of communications in the Arab world. But the Saudi embassy in Vichy was of particular interest. We found ways of keeping informed about what was going on there, and more particularly about the contacts between the Saudis and the Germans. We were especially interested in the activities of Dr. Fritz Grobba, a leading Arab expert in the service of the Third Reich. He entered into extensive and detailed contacts with the Saudi embassy in Vichy and through them with the Arab world in general.

We monitored the Embassy's correspondence and telephone calls. Ambassador Fuad Hamza reported to the Saudi foreign minister who was based in Jedda, the only place in Saudi Arabia where foreigners were allowed to be resident and where, therefore, the embassies accredited to the Saudi government were based. The foreign minister, in Jedda, communicated with King Ibn Saud, in Riyadh, entirely by telephone. They didn't realize how vulnerable telephone conversations were, and were often surprised at the degree of intimate knowledge that we had of what they were doing, even of what they were thinking.

For several years of my life I began my day's work by reading the previous day's transcripts of telephone conversations and written messages between various people. Because of this experience during the war I developed and still retain an almost neurotic fear of telephone conversations and therefore am extremely reluctant to discuss anything of significance on the telephone.

Dealings with other Arab governments during the war were sometimes quite complicated. King Farouk of Egypt demanded that as a friend and ally he was entitled to know of our military plans and insisted that we provide him with full details. We didn't trust him, and concocted a totally false plan and gave it to him. When we captured the Italian headquarters in North Africa, we found a copy of this plan. At that time Italy was, of course, a member of the Axis and a German ally.

When the French surrendered to the Germans in 1940, most of the French overseas empire was beyond their reach and the governors of the colonies were free to choose between Vichy or de Gaulle in London. The overwhelming majority chose Vichy, including the French-mandated territory of Syria-Lebanon. Under Vichy rule, Syria-Lebanon was wide open to Nazi infiltration and became a Nazi base in the heart of the Arab Middle East. The Germans established themselves there and played a very important role.

From Syria the Germans extended their activities into Iraq where they were able to set up a pro-Nazi regime, headed by the famous, or notorious, Rashid Ali. We felt it was imperative that we do something about that. We dealt first with Iraq. A brief military campaign was sufficient to overthrow the regime of Rashid Ali, who fled to Syria and later to Berlin, where he joined his friend the Mufti of Jerusalem as Hitler's guest. Then, with the aid of the free French who provided us with a cover of legitimacy, we invaded Syria and Lebanon, defeated the "Vichyssois" and established a new free French regime there. It was in that campaign that Moshe Dayan, who was serving as a volunteer with the British forces, lost one of his eyes. After the departure of the Vichy people, a new regime was established in Syria-Lebanon under French authority but controlled by the de Gaulle center in London.

I was in Syria about that time and one of my most vivid impressions was of the violent hostility, even contempt, of the Syrians for the French. Like other Arabs they disliked all the imperial powers, but they found the continued French presence particularly humiliating. The rival imperialists were seen as the British and later the Americans on one side, and the Germans and later the Soviets on the other. The French, regardless of whether they were loyal to Vichy or de Gaulle, were seen as the servants of either the Germans or the British. What made them particularly angry was when de Gaulle's free French, being short of troops, brought Senegalese battalions of the French colonial army into Syria. That was the supreme and ultimate insult. The Syrians protested, "Now we are being ruled not just by the servants of the imperialists, but by the slaves of the servants of the imperialists!" A poster was put up in Damascus at that time showing a black Senegalese soldier with a French kepi and a French uniform and a knife between his teeth saying, "Je viens te civilizer!" (I come to civilize you).

From Notes on a Century by Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. Copyright 2012 Bernard Lewis and Buntzie Ellis Churchill. Excerpted by permission of Viking.

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