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

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A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters, and History, by Bernard Lewis. New York: Random House, 2000. xxv + 428 pages. Appends. to p. 441. Index to p. 466. $35.

Reviewed by Ray L. Cleveland

The premise assumed in much of Professor Lewis' scholarly work-that the "West" and the "Middle East" (or "Islam") comprise two profoundly distinct, antithetical civilizations-underlies his latest book, A Middle East Mosaic. In this book, he organizes in a textual collage nearly 500 excerpts and snippets excised from the vast literature. He asserts that these pieces, originally in a multitude of languages, reflect the "Interaction between Islam and the West," but also relations between the Islamic world and its other neighbors," as well as "groups within the region" (p. xv).

All but one of the 13 parts of the book reproduce texts, ranging in age from ancient times to the present generation, on various topics, such as, "A Bundle of Prejudices," "Travelers," "Diplomats," "Women," "War," "Arts and Sciences," and "Food and Drink." The exception is Part III, "Migratory Words," which contains a succinct essay (pp. 61-72) by the editor on loanwords passing among various Middle Eastern and European languages, with details on a sampling of 28 words from Middle Eastern languages now used in English. This piece on loanwords would seem better suited as an appendix, like the brief sketch on "What is Your Name, and How Do You Spell it?" (pp. 429-31), which points out the problem in spelling names belonging to languages written in different scripts and which touches on a few of the characteristics of personal names used by Muslims.

In "Cast of Characters" (pp. 432-41), brief identifications are provided for 218 persons quoted, cited, or (in a very few cases) merely mentioned; writers of a few texts cited are not listed. The excerpts in the body of the book are not keyed specifically to the 262 items in the Bibliography (pp. 442-51), nor are page numbers provided, so the reader cannot trace back to the source of each piece. The 15-page Index is quite complete and provides, in a roundabout way, some help in associating some excerpts with specific publications. That a few of the authors of works listed in the Bibliography do not appear in the index suggests that they were not the writers of excerpts included in the book, but rather that these works were the source of quoted or cited material. In such cases, researching contexts is even more difficult.

A text can only be understood in the light of its historical and social context, as well as the outlook of the writer. …