A few weeks ago, when Fouad Ajami, the Lebanese-American lion of Middle East studies, died suddenly, I dashed of a short memorium to him and Politix was kind enough to run it. He was full of insight, but also a generous and genteel man. Personally, I was always jealous of him both for his keen insight but also for his masterful command of language. Knowing that English was his third language was only salt inth wound. He'll be missed as a person and as a scholar.
Op-ed by Aaron Mannes
July 9, 2014
Fouad Ajami’ s elegy to pan-Arabism, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, begins with the suicide of Arab poet Khalil Hawi after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982. Lebanon’s collapse and the subsequent Israeli invasion exposed pan-Arabism, the ideology to which Hawi had devoted his life, as a hollow failure. There is a terrible irony that Ajami, an incisive analyst of Arab politics who was deeply associated with the American undertaking in Iraq, died of cancer on June 22 at the age of 68 just as that endeavor was coming undone.
Born in the shadow of the Crusader-built Beaufort Castle in 1945, a member of Lebanon’s marginalized Shia community, Ajami came to America in 1963. He earned his doctorate from the University of Washington in Seattle and taught at Princeton and later Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC. Initially enthralled with the fiery pan-Arabism of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ajami embraced his adopted country, grew to love it, and begin to swim against the tide of orthodoxy in Middle East studies. His first book, The Arab Predicament: Arab Political Thought and Practice Since 1967, rejected traditional Arab complaints of Western colonialism and placed the blame for the region’s ills squarely on the corrupt self-serving Arab leaders.
Academic work that is clear and intelligible is often described as “lucid.” But this is insufficient to describe the power and beauty of Ajami’s prose, particularly in what was perhaps his greatest work, The Dream Palace of the Arabs. The title itself evokes the sense of unreality that pervades Arab politics. Poetry resonates in the Arab world and language and Ajami traces the evolution and decay of pan-Arabism through the eyes of poets and intellectuals who were inspired by this dream and then fell into despair. The Dream Palace of the Arabs, a book on a seemingly obscure topic, is spellbinding, captivating, and sad. Describing the dashed hopes of a people, it is an elegy: a mournful poem, a funeral song, from the Greek for lament.
Developed in the first half of the 20th century, pan-Arabism was an effort to develop an Arab modernism that would pull the Arabs into the contemporary world. Its chief architects were Arab Christians who sought a worldview that would end the pervasive religious and tribal divides and place them on an equal footing with their Muslim neighbors. It was an enterprise doomed from its inception. Ajami writes that a village elder told Anton Saadah, the Christian founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, “…you want to rule the Muslims and they will not be ruled by someone from outside their faith. If you persist they are sure to kill you.”
(Saadah was executed by Lebanese authorities in 1949.)
This is the great lesson of Ajami’s book. The Middle East is riven with these deep divides, rooted in history and geography, between sects and clans, families and languages. Political parties and ideologies (to some extent Islam itself) are efforts to bridge these chasms by creating all encompassing super-tribes. But alas, whatever the virtues of these ideologies, they become tools that empower tyrants, a new veneer over hoary structures built on clan and sect.
Even the tendentious skirmishes of the Arab literati and intelligentsia were ultimately fronts in these ancient feuds. Ajami himself was reminded of all this after an academic junket to Kuwait. He made a few, innocuous recommendations to improve the political science program at Kuwait University and found himself attacked by a leading Kuwaiti pundit as an agent of imperial interests. Of course the real source of animus was that Ajami was Shia. Ajami wrote, for Americans “…these furies were incomprehensible. But those for whom Arab lands were home… were face to face with atavistic feuds that had never gone away.”
In all of this, Ajami was a sober observer who recognized the dark unfathomable waters that could sink Western ambitions in the Middle East, and yet Ajami became a leading proponent of the American endeavor in Iraq. In part this reflected Ajami’s stubborn hope that the Middle East did not have to trapped in its brutal cycle of cruelty.
Ajami threw his formidable literary talents into The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, The Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq to explain to Americans what was happening, what was possible, and what was at stake. He unabashedly supported the enterprise, but was clear-eyed about the difficulties. Ajami believed the United States could do a great good in Iraq, not a establish a democracy but instead, “…something more limited but important and achievable in its own way: a state less lethal to its own people and to the lands and peoples around it.”
The Foreigner’s Gift was written, in great part, because Ajami feared that “innately optimistic America” would tire of Iraq, “a land steeped in a history of sorrow.” Changing Iraq would take many years, but “The custodians of American power were under great pressure to force history’s pace.”
Even a few months ago it was possible to believe that Iraq could muddle through. While the Prime Minister was showing “autocratic tendencies” this was a vast improvement over the Saddam’s naked tyranny. But the collapse of Iraq’s army in the face of the rag-tag followers of the a pretender to the Caliphate and the re-emergence of Shiite militias to oppose them shatters any illusions that Iraq was somehow finding its way. Ajami himself knew better, just weeks before he died he wrote in The Wall Street Journal that President Obama, in his desire to be free of Iraq, had indulged the Iraqi Prime Minister’s growing despotism. The scenario Ajami had feared came to pass. Sect and clan have re-emerged, shredding the delicate cloak of Constitutionalism brought by the Americans.
Unlike the despairing Khalil Hawi of The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Ajami continued to hope. Over his career he wrote half a dozen books and hundreds of articles and essays. In recent years, at the Hoover Institution, he wrote The Syrian Rebellion and called on the United States to support efforts to end the cruel tyranny of the Assads. His latest book, The Struggle in the Fertile Crescent, on the history of great power involvement in what is now Iraq, has been published posthumously.
As a prognosticator and advocate, Ajami may have embraced his adopted land’s optimism more than the land of his origin warranted. But as a historian he was clear-eyed and honest about the Middle East in a way few others have been. Born Shia, he could respect the needs and priorities of the Sunni powers. An acolyte of Arab nationalism, he grew to understand Israel. A child of Lebanon, he came to love the United States. Our discourse will be poorer and less profound without him.