On his return to London, Lewis was offered an appointment as an assistant lecturer in the School of Oriental Studies at the University of London. But World War II intervened, and in 1939, Lewis was drafted into the army and placed in a tank regiment. “I didn’t stay there long, either because of my aptitude for languages or my ineptitude for tanks,” he says. Transferred to intelligence, he was stationed in London for the most part, but also toured the Middle East, with stops in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. (That was his last visit to Iraq, he tells me.) “It gave me direct insight, which I previously lacked,” he says of his wartime experience, “and I got a feeling for what people think and what they say—and the difference between the two.” When the war was over, Lewis was appointed chair of the University of London’s Near and Middle Eastern History Department. He was in his early 30s and it was clearly a feat, but Lewis credits the dearth of academics in the post-war years—rather than his own merit—for his promotion.
Though his original interest was the Arab world, out of necessity Lewis quickly branched out. As a Jew in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he would have been denied a visa to most Arab countries in the wake of Israel’s independence.“Some people lied [and didn’t disclose their Jewishness], which I was not prepared to do—and which was not very effective,” he says. The result was that he shifted his research to include Turkey and Iran, focusing on the Ottoman period. As luck would have it, he was in Istanbul when the Turkish government opened its archives in 1950. As an up-and-coming scholar, he was the first westerner granted access to these storied treasures, which helped cement his prominence in the field.
He wrote extensively about the Ottoman Empire and Arab history as seen through the lens of the newly opened archives. “He’s the first true historian of the Middle East,” says Martin Kramer, a former student, now a senior fellow at the Shalem Institute in Jerusalem. “Before him, there were linguists and philologists who dabbled in history, but he was the first to bring historical methodology to the study of the Middle East.” Lewis, he says, pioneered fields from Jews in Islamic history to issues of slavery and race in the Ottoman Empire: “These were sensitive areas that required a deft hand, and Lewis had it.”
While in Turkey, Lewis also witnessed that country’s first free election, in which the Democratic Party officially ended the country’s one-party era—something, he says, “that had never happened before in the Middle East and hasn’t happened very often since.” Being present for the “dawn of Turkish democracy” left a deep impression. “It helped me understand the political process in the Middle East,” he says. His 1961 book, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, is still considered by many to be a landmark analysis of that country. Lewis also wrote The Arabs in History, now in its sixth edition, as well as other works, quickly gaining an international reputation in a field he readily admitted was becoming “an obsession.”
In 1974, his 27-year marriage to Ruth Hélène Oppenhejm, a Danish Jew, (they had two children —Michael, now 57, who works for AIPAC in Washington, DC, and Melanie, 60, an art educator, who lives in Pittsburgh) fell apart, and he left England for a prestigious position at Princeton University. He was appointed the Cleveland E. Dodge Professor of Near Eastern Studies, a joint position between the Institute for Advanced Study and Princeton, where his chair was endowed by the family that founded the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). His new job required him to teach only one semester a year, leaving him with more time to research and write. Settled in America, Lewis published at an increasingly dizzying speed. Becoming an American citizen in 1982, he was poised to take on the role of a public intellectual.