Lewis, whose first published article appeared in 1936 and who still reigns today as the great historian of the Middle East, has been collecting tidbits over the decades; this miscellany is the happy result. Although the snippets are arranged by topic, there's no particular purpose or thesis. If any single trait characterizes the excerpts, it is Lewis's fascination in the odd and unexpected ways one people looks at another one. A Persian visitor to England in about 1800, who carries on indignantly at the way Englishmen waste their time on such frivolities as their dress and ablutions (two hours a day), tea (three hours), and the like – leaving a mere six hours a day for "visiting and business." (The same traveler excoriates the French and Italian cuisines and reports that the "only good dinners" he ate was at the homes of English or Americans.) A late eighteenth-century Muslim draws the unlikely conclusion from his visit to Europe that Western husbands better control their wives than do Muslim husbands: the Europeans not only can send them out to work but also, the women being unveiled, can keep track of them.
Then there are the many curiosities of history, now long vanished. The Ottoman ruler required that foreign ambassadors go through a mock trial on the way to see him, as a reminder of his power and justness. The shah of Iran was an unlikely early Zionist, reporting from his trip to Paris in 1873 on having advised a Rothschild to "buy a territory" in which the Jews of all the world could settle and so no longer be scattered. The book is charming – and gently educational.