The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey
By Fouad Ajami
Pantheon Books; 344 pages; $26
Why have America’s Arab allies from Operation Desert Storm been so skittish about a sequel? Saudi Arabia’s leaders say they won’t let the United States use combat jets stationed in their country in raids against Iraq. Al-Ahram, the main state-owned newspaper of Egypt, recently warned the United States that any strike would be “coercive, aggressive, unwise, and uncaring about the lives of Iraqis.” The most outspoken opponent of renewed bombing has been Syria, Iraq’s arch-rival. Even the Gulf emirates are nervous.
You’d think they’d all be more accommodating. Just eight years ago, with Kuwait occupied and Iraqi troops massed along the Saudi border, the Saudis asked for U.S. help. That unprecedented request, enlisting Western aid in an intra-Arab war, seemed to mark a turning point in Arab politics, triggering a regional reconfiguration of alliances. So why are America’s former partners balking?
F ouad Ajami helps explain this riddle–and many others–in his new book, The Dream Palace of the Arabs. Ajami, a Lebanese Shiite who now heads Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, offers a haunting portrait of a generation of Arab intellectuals forced to come to terms with the West. All too often, he finds, they have failed to do so, preferring the invocation of Arab unity and anti-Western defiance to dealing with the political realities of the Middle East.
This is one reason America’s threat to bomb Iraq is provoking such resistance. Meddling by the West is still widely unpopular in many parts of the Arab world, even among those who don’t relish the thought of Saddam Hussein’s chemical and biological weapons. U.S. intervention smacks of the old Western habit of arranging Arab affairs to suit Western convenience. Many Arabs would rather relive the glory days of the 1956 Suez crisis, when the great hero of Arab nationalism, Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, withstood an invasion by Britain, France, and Israel. Ajami empathizes with the frustration engendered by Western inconsistency and arrogance. But he knows that Saddam’s brand of nationalism is as much of a dead end as Nasser’s proved to be, and he worries that so many Arab intellectuals seem not to mind being taken for another ride.
Ajami, the author of The Arab Predicament, the classic 1981 intellectual history of modern Arab political thought, is probably the second most influential Arab-American public intellectual. Pride of place goes to Columbia University’s Edward Said, who is no fan of Ajami’s. In his groundbreaking 1978 study, Orientalism, Said accused previous generations of scholars of peddling a view of an exotic, backward, savage Orient, the intellectual justification for colonizing or manipulating the region. As Albert Hourani, the dean of Middle East historians, once put it, in a stroke Said changed “Orientalist” from a legitimate academic specialty into an insult.
Some of Said’s admirers refer to Ajami by the ugly term “Uncle Abu”–a play on Uncle Tom meaning, in this case, an Arab Orientalist. They will note that Ajami takes his new book’s title from T.E. Lawrence, the arch-Orientalist British colonel of World War I fame, and they will accuse him of imperialist sympathies. But Ajami, a scrupulous commentator with a rich sense of irony, is using Lawrence to make a subtler point. The Arabs did not build the “inspired dream palace of their national thoughts” that Lawrence sought to give them; they tried to build a dream palace of their own, “an intellectual edifice” influenced by the West but not of the West. Ajami is invoking Lawrence knowingly, to underscore what he views as the central Arab quandary. To Ajami, Lawrence represents both the good side of the West–its ideas of democratic governance, its support for Arab sovereignty–as well as its bad side: Orientalism, meddling. Lawrence and his heirs, the colonial masters from Britain and France, left the Middle East with a complicated legacy of attraction and repulsion.
Ajami begins his book with a bang: the suicide of Khalil Hawi, a Lebanese poet who shot himself on the day in 1982 when Israel invaded Beirut. Hawi, a Christian from Mount Lebanon turned big-city academic whose often political poetry had once made him an Arab nationalist hero, despaired over the wider Arab world’s abandonment of his beloved Lebanon. The weakest, most fractured Arab state had become the front line for an Israeli-Palestinian war that other Arab countries wanted kept far from their borders. Hawi had also come to detest the willingness of his fellow thinkers to become rented mouthpieces for Lebanon’s myriad parties and militias, to cheer as the country imploded. Hawi saw Lebanon’s dirty war as a meaningless blood bath rather than as another glorious confrontation with Israel. Through the tragic figure of Hawi, Ajami mourns the tolerant, graceful, cosmopolitan Beirut of his youth and decries the factionalism that led to its ruin.
Ajami complains that many Arab writers and pundits prefer simply not to deal with the cruel realities of the Middle East today: the gap between petrodollar wealth in the Gulf and uninspiring economic growth elsewhere; the persistence of autocracy and the failure to develop accountable governments; the debilitating enmity with Israel; the legacy of foreign rule; the influence of Western political ideas and the sheer power of the United States. And so they have fled into pan-Arabism instead.
Pan-Arabism dates back to the collapse of the Ottoman Turks in World War I, which paved the way for what the Greek Orthodox writer George Antonius in 1938 famously called the “Arab Awakening”–the prospect of Arab self-rule. Pan-Arabists sought to unify all Arabs across the artificial borders drawn by the Western empires, hearkening back to the glorious Arab caliphates. Britain and France, who vanquished Turkey in the war, had other ideas, and the emergence of real Arab states was deferred. But by the 1950s and 1960s, the awakening seemed underway, led by Nasser and Egypt.
The problem was that it didn’t work. The Arab states that arose were uninspiring monarchies or autocracies, and Nasser’s grand dream of a united pan-Arab state that included Palestine came crashing down with the Arabs’ ignominious defeat in the 1967 Six Day War. But despite Nasser’s humiliation, die-hards still cling to his legacy and excoriate those who dare doubt its ultimate triumph. Having seen pan-Arabism bankrupted in 1967, more and more Arabs are seeking solutions from the past–in Islamic fundamentalism, which seeks to remodel Muslim societies along the lines of Arabia under the Prophet Mohammed. This path has been smoothed by the nihilism of those Arab intellectuals–including Said–who prefer utopian dreams to a view of politics as the art of compromise.
T he Arab predicament is most painfully evident in what Ajami calls “the orphaned peace” with Israel. The intellectual guardians of Arab nationalist orthodoxy–Said, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, Egyptian cultural leader Saad Eddin Wahbe, Egyptian editor and pundit Mohamed Heikal–have never accepted the fact of Israel; they cannot envision a world without the rallying cause of anti-Zionism. Nothing could have been more infuriating to them than the sight of Yasser Arafat, the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism, shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin, Israel’s late prime minister. They never forgave Arafat for bowing to what Ajami calls “the logic of brute, irreversible facts.” To them, the 1993 Oslo accords meant settling for a sadly truncated form of Palestinian self-rule without extracting an Israeli admission of wrongdoing. Indeed, Said and other rejectionists showed a perverse glee when Israel’s dovish Labor Party was defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud. Here, again, was a world they could understand. “Men love the troubles they know,” Ajami witheringly observes.
Ajami’s heroes are figures such as Egypt’s novelist Naguib Mahfuz, the Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibah, and the tragic Hawi–men of integrity imbued with “the old, confident spirit” of cosmopolitanism and an openness to the Western ideas that led to the Arab awakening in the first place. But they are under siege. Mahfuz’s secular liberalism so enraged Egypt’s Islamists that one fanatic knifed the old man, paralyzing his writing hand.
“The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests,” Ajami writes. Campaigns do not come much more ruinous than Saddam’s 1980 invasion of Iran or his occupation of Kuwait a decade later. But Saddam, for all his strategic blunders, is deft at posing as today’s heir to the tradition of Arab nationalism. As Bill Clinton ratchets up the pressure on Baghdad, Saddam will inevitably bellow Nasserite defiance. Ajami’s book is an indispensable guide to why anyone in the Arab world still listens to it.