Rude Arab Awakening

Martin Kramer, “Rude Arab Awakening,” The National Interest, Summer 1998, pp. 93-96. The article is a review of Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey, published by Pantheon Books.

IN 1936, COLUMBIA University offered George Antonius a visiting appointment. Antonius, then putting the finishing touches on his soon-to-be-famous book, The Arab Awakening, had crossed the United States the previous spring, lecturing at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and Stanford. In Washington, he had an audience with President Roosevelt. His listeners were captivated: he was articulate, charming, persuasive on behalf of Arab independence and Arab Palestine. Had Antonius established himself the following year atop Morningside Heights, he might have had a profound influence upon the way America came to perceive the Middle East. But he allowed Columbia’s offer to languish. America was too far away, too insignificant in the equation of power in the Middle East to attract the ambitious author.

Early in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Fouad Ajami — who lives on Morningside Heights — writes of sifting through Antonius’ papers and visiting his grave in Jerusalem. Here Ajami sets the tone that pervades his new book. Antonius erred. The cause he championed — Arab nationalism, sometimes centered upon the claim to Palestine — later betrayed its children, spawning oppression and poverty, scattering the best Arab minds to the refuge of the West. But Antonius is not judged, for to believe is to be vulnerable. Arab intellectuals believed in the cause, sanctified it, embellished it, even as it robbed them of their freedoms, exiled them, imprisoned them. Only over the last decade or so have the daydreams of nationalism been disrupted. It is a rude awakening, a violent shaking. It has found a masterly narrator in Fouad Ajami.

It was Ajami’s earlier book, The Arab Predicament (1981), that finally broke the spell of The Arab Awakening. In it, Ajami probed the discontent that spread with the failure of the nationalist project following Arab independence and the debacle of 1967. It was a harsh indictment of the post-colonial Arab condition — a condition that has continued to deteriorate, necessitating another regression report. This new book draws its title from the claim by T.E. Lawrence that he had acted in Arabia to give the Arabs “the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts.” If the dream has become a nightmare, and the palace a prison, who must accept responsibility? For Ajami, this has never even been a question: It was not the Lawrences, the well-intentioned or malicious foreigners, but the Arabs themselves who put bars upon the windows of their “dream palace,” and posted executioners in the gardens.

Before the message, a word on the medium — and since many passages in this book are written in the first person, they invite a closer scrutiny of the author’s own remarkable position in America. Fouad Ajami’s authority arises not only from his combination of intelligence, knowledge, and style. It is also evidence of a continuing crisis of self-confidence in the American understanding of the Middle East.

To interpret the Arabs, America long preferred to rely upon its own wandering native sons — missionaries like Daniel Bliss, who founded what became the American University of Beirut, or AUB; artists like Frederick Bridgman and Edwin Lord Weeks; and lovers of the desert outback, like the anthropologist Carleton S. Coon. It was a patchy tradition, stitched together with borrowings from the more substantial British store of knowledge. Still, a distinct American school of Arabism did exist, arguably reaching its summit in the political scientist Malcolm Kerr. Born in Beirut to American educators at AUB, schooled at Princeton, tenured at UCLA, Kerr had all of the tools. Americans like him would interpret the Middle East not only for themselves, but for the world — Arabs included.

Yet almost overnight, this American expertise on the Arab world went bankrupt, betrayed by the Lebanese civil war in 1975. Lebanon was that part of the Arab world the Americans knew best, and they were confident — they knew — it would achieve an American-like equilibrium among competing interests. Later, Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, two American academic “old hands,” wrote of how “social science of the 1950s was possessed by a quest for social order; even conflict was seen as producing in-group solidarity, never as the basis for further and greater disorder.” From this perspective, “class differences and kinship networks were seen to be in complementary distribution in Lebanon. The lines of possible conflict were balanced by ties of common interest. Peaceful coexistence between class and ethnic groups seemed assured.”

When Lebanon shattered, expert assurances lost all worth. In accepting the presidency of AUB in 1982, Kerr himself went back into the flames to save something of the tradition. But it was too late. Kerr once admitted (in a passage quoted by Ajami) that “Our small cast of heroes and villains was being crowded out by a new mass of faceless participants, too numerous and too amorphous to be either controlled or held accountable.” It was from the amorphous and faceless mass that Kerr’s own assassins stepped forward to kill him on AUB’s campus in 1984. As Lebanon imploded, confidence in American understanding of the Arabs sank — above all, among Americans themselves. It has yet to recover.

The failure made space for two Arab-American interpreters: Edward Said and Fouad Ajami. Each opened windows on Arab realities that American expertise had underestimated — Said, the “dispossessed” Palestinian, reminding America of festering grievances against Israel and its backers; Ajami, the “displaced” Lebanese Shi’a, reminding America of how brutally unforgiving the Arabs could be of one another. It does not matter that Said himself is not “dispossessed,” or that Ajami is not “displaced.” Each personifies a different vantage point — in many respects, opposite points — on the choices made by the Arabs, and the degree of responsibility they bear for their condition. Over the last twenty years, Said and Ajami have divided American opinion between them. Other voices are heard, but none count as much, for Said and Ajami come from within, and claim to speak knowingly about what can be known only from within.

Who has got it right? If you are a denizen of academe, you most probably will have preferred Said. He will have reached you through his easy mastery of the postmodernist, deconstructionist theories that first became fashionable in his field of literary criticism, and which have since infiltrated every discipline. He will have played successfully upon your own nagging doubts about whether American power is a benevolent thing in the world. And he will have drawn upon your almost automatic sympathy for those who claim themselves its victims, and whose lingering defiance reassures you that, somewhere, the struggle goes on.

But if you are a downtown consumer of the news from Arab lands, you most probably will have preferred Ajami. His approachable prose will have made complex issues comprehensible. His presentation of the Arabs as people who have made choices of their own will have appealed to your sense that people decide whether they know peace or war, wax rich or grow poor — that, as Hegel put it, nobody is coerced who does not will his own coercion. And he will have given you some inkling as to why the Arabs, for all their talk of their undying commitment to unity and freedom, remain divided and oppressed, and fill your television screen with “presidential palaces” and slit throats.

IN MANY RESPECTS, the message of Ajami’s new book is a reiteration. The Arabs have defeated themselves by a blind adherence to anachronistic ideologies of self-glorification, both nationalist and Islamist. They are now adrift. “A deep political crisis had set in by the early 1980s,” writes Ajami, “and what remained. . . was a new world of cruelty, waste, and confusion.” This crisis culminated in the “hatching” of Saddam Hussein, the most hideous of the mutations of Arab nationalism.

The intellectuals were supposed to guard the ideal against its corruption. After all, Arab nationalism had been their project, and even today, when raw power is wielded by men like Saddam, a political poem by Nizar Qabbani — who died on April 30 at age 75 — can fire Arab imaginations. But the record of the Arab intellectuals over the past two decades has been mixed at best. Some bowed down before the tyrants, others ridiculed the drift towards pragmatism — “normal traffic” with America or peace with Israel. Again, Ajami is careful to withhold final judgment: he quotes their poems and tells their stories with a judicious restraint. But there is a subtle suggestion that the poets, novelists, and playwrights, in their fervor, have done the Arabs an unforgivable disservice. This is not the Arabic khiyana, the treasonous trafficking with the enemy; but it is the trahison des clercs, the self-betrayal of the intellectuals, for which others must pay the price.

For the Arab reader, there is much in this book to give pause — but so, too, for the American reader less riveted by pirouettes of Arab poets. Ajami, as it happens, does believe that American power can be used to benevolent purposes, and that an opportunity to do so was missed in the last days of the Gulf War — a “heartless ending for a moral crusade,” a “moral abdication.” James Baker, the “spinmaster,” is described as a man “oddly disengaged” from the consequences of his own decisions over Iraq. The United States, having urged the Shi’a and Kurds to rebellion, abandoned them to a grim fate; the American victory has remained tarnished and incomplete.

There is also a warning here over Egypt. The regime is steady, but the country is losing its race with modernity. Its “pride is more than its accomplishments”: Egypt is scarred by unrelenting poverty, a bleak political landscape, sectarian strife between Muslim and Copt, and a precipitous decline in the country’s cultural life. Over the last two decades, Egypt has received $40 billion in U.S. military and economic assistance, yet there is “a curious free-floating hostility to American ideals and interests, a conviction that the United States wishes Egypt permanent dependency and helplessness. . . [and] a belief that the United States is somehow engaged with Israel in an attempt to diminish and hem in Egypt’s power and influence.” What is really happening, believes Ajami, is that Egypt is slowly imploding upon itself — an outcome that could complicate America’s position in the Middle East far more than the implosion of Lebanon over a generation ago.

And then there is the “orphaned peace” with Israel. The peace is opposed violently by Islamists, but its more formidable critics are the very people regarded by American political scientists as the nucleus of “civil society.” True, writes Ajami, “it is hard to know with any precision where opposition to the rulers per se ends and animus toward Israel begins.” But the sum is the same: even the most idealistic Israeli peace, the “exuberant” peace of Shimon Peres, has only a handful of partisans among the Arab intellectuals — most of whom, Ajami reminds us, preferred the aloof Yitzhak Rabin and, now even more, the blunt Benyamin Netanyahu, who they believe validates their caricature of Israel as hating and hateful.

And so now the poets are free to indulge in even greater excess. Here is Qabbani, in one of his last poems (which Ajami does not quote):

I am with terrorism
as long as this new world order
is shared
between America and Israel
I am with terrorism
with all my poetry
with all my words
and all my teeth
as long as this new world
is in the hands of a butcher.

“Let us leave politics to the diplomats and the soldiers,” said Goethe. The (real) palace is probably just where Arab politics belong.

© Martin Kramer