Remembrance by Brinner, William

Dr. William Brinner—12/6/76

WALI ALI: Could tell me what your knowledge is of Mr. Samuel Lewis involvement with the Near Nest Languages Department.

Dr. BRINNER: As I remember, he started writing to whoever was chairman of the Department around 1960; I think it was Prof. Carn, if I am not mistaken, and indicated that he had an interest in both Islam and the actual physical development of the Near East. He was very interested in water problems and things of that sort, so that he has contacts with people on this campus in Engineering and Agriculture, as well as Near Eastern studies, and we invited him to attend public lectures that were sponsored by our Near Eastern Studies Department and he began to do that. I remember meeting him for that first time at one of those lectures where he was sitting holding his rosary beads, and he told me later that he did that very deliberately so that people would ask him why he was doing that, and that would lead to a conversation, and that was precisely what happened in our case. And from that time on we used to occasionally to talk and then he sent me a number of letters—sometimes very very long letters—and that is what I am for now—because he wrote some six or seven pages closely typed having to do with a number of things: both his interest in Islamabad and the university there, and also the whole question of Middle Eastern peace which was something that was very much of concern. What he wanted primarily of us was to get our students interested in that aspect, and to find every way possible of locating students who would be interested in taking both Hebrew and Arabic, and sort of doing cross-culture things so that they would be open to both sides of Middle East conflict.

WALI ALI: Perhaps he saw in your department a miniature of the situation over there.

Dr. BRINNER: Yes, he told me at one time that he was very impressed with the fact that there were Jews and Arabs on our staff and that we all spoke to each other, and he felt that that might a good sign for possibilities in the Middle East. And then, of course, he recommended various students to us, students with whom he was very friendly and there was one especially who took a number of courses here and then went on to study elsewhere, and that was Frank Tedesco.

WALI ALI: We have been in touch with him.

SABIRA: He is in Philadelphia now.

Dr. BRINNER: Yes, I met him there last spring when I was at a meeting there.

WALI ALI: He is still in school, too.

Dr. BRINNER: Let me see—

WALI ALI: About the University of Islamabad—I know that when he returned from Pakistan, he had been in touch with the man who was founding that University, and he was hoping to have some kind of cross program exchange. I don’t know if anything ever came out of that or not.


WALI ALI: Do you have any knowledge of what came out of the University of Islamabad?

Dr. BRINNER: No. I’ve heard nothing about it since then. He told me little details about his trips, but I didn’t get too much of an impression of what was actually going on in terms of development of the University.

WALI ALI: Of course I am involved in a biography and there are so many – he was a person that had literally thousands of contacts in many different field, and it is quite a job just running around.

Dr. BRINNER: To track them all down.

WALI ALI: Just to track them down, and you might be able to tell me more about why he was involved here—I might know otherwise the sort of things about what he did on his trips—I have data—

Dr. BRINNER: You probably have a lot of data—I was very impressed with one thing about his stories of the trips. He would always stress his complete belief in Divine Protection and Intervention, and he would keep telling me about how well all sorts of incidents that took place on those trips where people were not expecting him, and at least he had not notified them in advance of his coming, and yet they knew that he was coming and would come to meet him, or things would be prepared for him that again he had not indicated that he was interested in them—but he was deeply interested in—and had been hoping to get. So these were the types of things that he often would talk about when he discussed his trips to Islamabad and so forth.

WALI ALI: Did he participate in any colloquia here? Do you recall any areas of particular interest, or any discussion on—

Dr. BRINNER: No, that was one of the things that always sort of surprised me. He came to many of them, but sat very silently.

WALI ALI: That is quite different from his behavior in quite a number of other settings. It shows he had a great respect for what you were doing.

Dr. BRINNER: He would sit, he would smile occasionally to indicate approval—that was very clear—and as I said, he would always have his beads with him, but during the meetings themselves, he would not speak up. He was full of comments, and not always in agreement, but for some reason or other—maybe it was that he had respect for the people that were involved or simply, or simply didn't want to speak up at that kind of gathering.

SABIRA: You might be interested in this real short quote that came from another letter that he wrote to a Mrs. Leonard. He said, “The university of California at Berkeley is following Harvard in its Last Asian and South-Asian sections where they teach real history, real philosophy, and real social studies. They don't make up things to limit your right to investigate freely to see if they were right or wrong.” And this was written in 1960.

DR. BRINNER: We had a—it was a very easy relationship, very unusual because we never knew in advance when he was going to appear. He’d come—and that's why I included in there a note, that, a handwritten note—it was the sort of thing that he would leave for me if I wasn't around on the day that he came. He would simply drop a note into my box indicating that he had been here, and indicate what he had in mind at the time. I don’t remember who some of the people were that he had contacts with in some of the other departments; you probably have that.

WALI ALI: I know some of them; I've been trying to locate Dr. Kozicki because; he was one person that he had a great deal of praise for. Of course he had been ahead of his time in terms of interest in the Far East and the Near East, and had had to live through a number of “experts” on the subject who were afraid of having their veneer pierced because their knowledge wasn’t particularly deep, and he was so overjoyed to see a real new generation of American professors coming in who weren’t threatened by knowledge on the subject, and he was particularly delighted with what was going on in Berkeley, so I think as much as anything he had a certain mystical attitude with regard to his involvement in things. In other words, he felt like his participation in something was on a larger scale even if it was on a smaller scale, so if he made a token contribution that he felt was stated on a grander scale than his own inner world, so to seek, and he would support those people that he felt like were really bringing light into the study of these things, and I think that, as much as anything, as I understand it, explains his great love for what was going on here and his wish to start a fund, even though his own means were quite limited.

DR. BRINNER: So I understood, yes, but as you see from the letters he was quite sure that he was going to get the inheritance, therefore he was beginning to make the contributions, and eventually he hoped to do it on a larger scale.

WALI ALI: Do you have any other impressions of him as a person that you think might be of interest?

DR. BRINNER: He impressed me and one of the reasons that I was interested in him was that I always had a feeling of his radiating joy whenever he came here; that was one of the things that I immediately felt and was impressed by. He was a very unusual individual in that sense; we don’t always get people who come to us from the outside who have that type of aura about them. There was definitely something very special about him, but very specific things I just don’t remember. It’s been a while now.

WALI ALI: That’s quite alright, I didn’t expect; I’m very glad to get what you are here to offer and the letters, and while I haven’t just glancing through them, I suspect we have most of these in our files, and yet think there will probably be some things here that we don’t have. Certainly in the earlier periods, the more early it is the less our records are complete and I just wonder if there are any other people that you might think he might have had some close contact with over here in Berkeley—that would be in our interest to contact.

DR. BRINNER: Have you talked to Kilmer?

WALI ALI: No I haven’t, the name slipped my mind.

SABIRA: What was that name?

DR. BRINNER: Kilmer, and I think there must be something or other from her in there indicating—

WALI ALI: Yeah, I noticed that her name was in there—

DR. BRINNER: The receipt of the money, because she was Chairman at that time.

SABIRA: She is a Professor here?

DR. BRINNER: Yes, she is on leave this year so she is at home—

SABIRA: Oh yes she’s the one, alright, I’ll write her.

DR. BRINNER: She lives on Hawthorne Terrace here in Berkeley, but other than that I don’t—

WALI ALI: Is Dr. Algar in your Dept?

DR. BRINNER: Yes, but he is in Turkey this year.

SABIRA: I know that he knew very well.

DR. BRINNER: Yeah, the reason I didn't mention him was that he is away for a whole year, and he is in Ankara working on this study of the Naqshibandi Order. Let me think of others—he had contact with so many scholars that I knew, not necessarily in Berkeley.

WALI ALI: We’ve interviewed Dr. Huston Smith whom he knew fairly well, and also Jacob Needleman whom he knew very well.

DR. BRINNER: What about Bernard Lewis?

WALI ALI: No, this is the first time I have heard his name.

DR. BRINNER: Bernard Lewis was at London University and Samuel Lewis used to visit him when he got to London, and also wrote to him. Lewis once told me that he had a long file, large file of letters from Samuel Lewis. Lewis has since moved to Princeton, and he is at the Department of Near Eastern studies at Princeton, and also, in fact I received some literature from him today, I may have his address handy. He is also at the Institute for Advanced Studies. He is a person that you should contact, yes here it is.

SABIRA: Oh great, can I see it.

WALI ALI: Anyone else that you…

SABIRA: You didn’t know Dr. Paul Keim did you, or Keim?

DR. BRINNER: I think he may be retired.

WALI ALI: I think he is retired.

DR. BRINNER: I think he was an older man already then.

WALI ALI: Was he in this Department?

DR. BRINNER: No, he was in Engineering. He was one of the people that Lewis was interested in because of the other aspects of his work, and he spent time in the Middle East.

WALI ALI: I know, he makes reference to him all over the place. He was impressed with some work that he had done in the Middle East.

DR. BRINNER: Yes, he worked in Egypt for awhile. Here’s his address—oh he lives in Los Angeles now—4552 Fountain Ave. Apt. 2, L.A. (213 666 8397) and his telephone number given here if you are interested in that is: 666 8397.

WALI ALI: That’s very good because I will write him.

DR. BRINNER: Yes, I remember Keim, we had a colloquium at which he spoke. We used to have monthly colloquia.

WALI ALI: Did you have any impression, just from your contact with him, about his erudition?

DR. BRINNER: Yes, in any of the conversations that we had, it was obvious that he had read a great deal, and he understood what he read. He very often would interpret those things differently than the standard interpretation, but he certainly knew what he was doing.

WALI ALI: When you say “differently from the standard interpretation,” what do you mean?

DR. BRINNER: Very often when we would talk about Islam, I would say that there are certain ways in which scholars who are not necessarily within the Islamic tradition will interpret various things. Lewis considered himself to be within the tradition, in a sense, and would accept—or at least give an interpretation that was, I would say, closer to what one would expect of an orthodox Muslim.

WALI ALI: Of course I would say that Dr. Algar wouldn't necessarily agree.

DR. BRINNER: No, absolutely not. He would—Algar considered him a heterodox, yes—after all he played around with things that were not Islamic to Algar, and—No, Algar, I know, would consider him not only dangerous but a madman—

WALI ALI: It would be interesting to interview him on the subject to get his point of view if I could arrange it. I have had some unfortunate contact with Dr. Algar who probably considers me also a dangerous person.

DR. BRINNER: Anybody who doesn’t hew to the line is dangerous as far as Algar is concerned. I shouldn’t talk about a colleague that way, but we just got a very unpleasant letter from him today—even from a distance he works his magic.

WALI ALI: We had an encounter at a meeting of the—I guess it was the World Council or whatever it is—the World Council of Churches; it's not a meeting, an interfaith gathering of different people and we had something of an harangue because the Sufi Order which we represent, is heterodox in the sense of its acceptance of some Islamic traditions and its independence from others and this makes for conflict when there is a man like Algar—


WALI ALI: I appreciate your time and—

DR. BRINNER: I’m sorry I can’t give you more. I was trying to dredge up memories just knowing that you were going to be here, and for some reason some of these things have just gone so far away. I left Berkeley in 1970; I went on sabbatical then, and so when I heard about his death while I was abroad, and it just came as a terrible shock, the way it happened and the fact that I wasn’t going to see him, when I got back from being abroad. At any rate, I just don't remember a lot of things that might have been interesting. I will keep looking for material; I have your phone number, and if I come across my own file of letters, I will let you know and certainly send them to you.

WALI ALI: Thank you. This is just one of many things that is going on. He, unlike most people, at least he died at the right time in relation to his work in the sense that he was able to pass on a great deal to others, and all his writings are now getting published and films and the dances that he started are actually becoming something of a phenomena in terms of their acceptance in the U.S. and Europe, so his—he was very concerned at one point in his life about some kind of recognition and fame or acceptance, and it looks like it is now virtually assured in terms of—at least from the very interesting subject of infusion of Eastern ideas and mysticism into the culture of the West and the transition is taking place .

DR. BRINNER: That's very interesting. I will look through this and thank you for the book.

WALI ALI: Thank you for your time.