Fouad Ajami, Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Johns Hopkins University, has found two niches that are all his own, one scholarly and the other journalistic.
As a scholar, Ajami focuses not on the usual questions of statecraft and foreign policy, but on intellectual developments in the Arabic-speaking world. By making issues and personalities come alive, he manages to interest an impressively large American audience in debates conducted by Egyptians, Lebanese, and Saudis. As a public commentator, Ajami has regular access to leading television and magazine outlets, making him the Middle East specialist with probably the greatest public reach. Though English is not his first language, Ajami's command of language has few rivals in the world of political analysis. Whether speaking on CBS News or writing for The New Republic, U.S. News and World Report, or Foreign Affairs, he dazzles with his metaphors and panache.
He's a poet who happens to do politics. Just as T. E. Lawrence (from whom, incidentally, the title, Dream Palace of the Arabs, is drawn) wrote so distinctively that a single line of his prose is often enough to identify him as the author, Ajami's writing has a unique quality. No one else could have written this passage:
Temperamentally, Iran has been a land susceptible to the power of ideas, to political and philosophical abstraction, to the pamphleteer. . . . The culture of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf states has in contrast always been thoroughly empirical and raw, its politics the struggles of clans and determined men, tribal affairs to the core.
His aphoristic style boils complexities down to their essentials. Middle East politics he describes as "a world where triumph rarely comes with mercy or moderation." Pan-Arabism he characterizes as but "Sunni dominion dressed in secular garb."
Ajami has two other noteworthy qualities. As a native Arabic speaker, he has many advantages over we foreigners who spend years cutting our teeth on his difficult language, and even then know it only imperfectly. "It has been the besetting sin-and poverty-of a good deal of writing on the Arab world," he points out, "that it is done by many who have no mastery of Arabic." Second, unlike so many other prominent Arab-Americans-Khalil Jahshan, Rashid Khalidi, Mohammad Mehdi, and James Zogby-Ajami is a political moderate and an American patriot. He neither apologizes for Arab dictators nor spins anti-American conspiracy theories. He likes the United States and seeks to pursue its interests.
To make matters complete, he is blessedly free of the common Arab obsession with Israel. His outlook on the Arab-Israeli conflict seems to be roughly that of any liberal observer-except that he knows the subject much better. This leads to interesting results. On the question of Iraq, Ajami gently berates President Bush for stopping too soon against Saddam Husayn: "A strong case could have been made for remaking the Iraqi state," something the Iraqi people would have gratefully thanked him for. On the peace process, he brings a skeptical eye to Yasir Arafat's antics. If Shimon Peres hailed the PLO's decision in April 1996 as an annulment of its charter calling for Israel's destruction, proclaiming this "the greatest revolution that the Middle East had known in the last hundred years," Ajami knows better. "Arafat had obliged," he writes, "or so it seemed. True to his past, he was to be in this episode all things to all men. He left enough ambiguity in what he had done to give himself plenty of cover." He's a liberal, yes, but nobody's fool.
Predictably, this robust, blunt-spoken approach to Middle Eastern issues sits badly with Arab-American colleagues, who respond with resentment, shrillness, and peeve. They have engaged in a more-or-less systematic campaign to make him miserable, denouncing him in public and harassing him in private. After appearing at a Jerusalem Fund event in the company of Henry Kissinger some years ago, Ajami came under a barrage of abuse. One would-be rival, Edward Said of Columbia University, accuses Ajami of offering "unmistakably racist prescriptions" toward the Arabs. Another, Asad AbuKhalil of California State University-Stanislaus, calls him "neo-orientalist" (a huge insult in Middle Eastern studies circles). Whatever the internal price Ajami pays for this slander, he soldiers on, unintimidated and seemingly undaunted.
Which brings us to the book at hand, a four-part inquiry into the past quarter-century's experience with the "intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity . . . the rupturing of the secular tradition in the era now behind us." Individual chapters trace the biography of an Iraqi-born intellectual, Khalil Hawi, who symptomized this problem; assess the impact of the Iranian revolution; look at Egyptian public life; and interpret the response of Arab intellectuals to peacemaking with Israel.
The book's recurrent theme is mistaken hopes and misplaced faith. Hawi committed suicide in 1982. The Iranian revolution's struggle with the dominant order "led down a blind alley." Arab nationalism "hatched a monster" in the Iraqi bid for Kuwait in 1990. Egypt's experience with revolution under Gamal Abdel Nasser "ran aground." The Oslo accords degenerated into "a grim wave of terror" against Israelis. Generalizing, Ajami finds that "What Arabs had said about themselves, the history they had written, and the truths they had transmitted to their progeny had led down a blind alley" (that metaphor again).
To this reader's taste, the early chapters are a bit contrived. Ajami's use of poets and intellectuals to represent their eras sometimes gets mired in detail. As the book goes along, though, the analysis becomes more direct, culminating in a remarkable final chapter on "The Orphaned Peace," where Ajami explains what went wrong with the Arab-Israeli negotiations. "No sooner had the peace of Oslo [been announced] than the new battle began, the fear of Israeli military supremacy now yielding to the specter of Israeli cultural hegemony." Ajami locates a few intellectuals who scorn this fear ("I can assure my Arab brethren," writes a Syrian, "that Israel does not have culture richer than ours and intellectual achievements deeper than ours") but finds them to be an excruciatingly small minority.
Instead, the great majority of the Arab intellectual elite repudiated Oslo as "not their peace but the rulers' peace." For these many, enmity with Israel served as the "one truth that could not be bartered or betrayed, the one sure way back to the old fidelities." The peace process even had the surprising effect of making writers, journalists, and professors yet more determined in their opposition to Israel. Muhammad Sid Ahmad, an Egyptian who favors the peace, explains: "The diplomats and military men have to follow rules and talk to Israel. But with intellectuals nothing has changed. It's even become more radical than before."
Ajami rightly ascribes much importance to the intellectual class rejecting Oslo: it "did not govern, but it structured a moral universe that hemmed in the rulers and limited their options." Bereft of its support, the Egyptian, Jordanian, and other rulers found they could not sell the idea of peace to their civil societies-the professionals, voluntary groups, religious elements, and other leaders. Generally, "the most articulate sections of the society, among the professionals and the enlightened," most resisted normalization. Governments, unsure and cowardly, deferred. "Diplomatic accommodation would be the order of the day," Ajami observes, "but the intellectual class was give a green light to agitate against the peace." The author pays homage to "the rulers who dared break with the culture's prohibitions and the few traders eager for a new order of things," but sees them losing to "the centurions of Arab political orthodoxy."
Ajami's assessment of Peres's "new Middle East" holds particular interest. Caught up with the demise of their pan-Arab, pan-Syrian, Third-Worldist visions, Arab intellectuals were in no mood for his sunny vision of economic expansion. "Peres had walked in-exuberant, wordy, and hopeful-during a funeral." The Israeli politician "arrived trumpeting a world that held out nothing but the promise of cultural alienation. Instead of an Arab world that was whole and true, the popular Syrian poet, Nizar Qabbani, lamented, 'we now get a supermarket with an Israeli chairman of the board.'" Qabbani and his ilk shed no tears for Peres when he lost to Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996. Quite the reverse: Peres's defeat was a gift that got them "off the hook."
Ajami confesses he finds this outlook of his intellectual peers "strange," then soberly explains why their seemingly perverse attraction to failure:
In an Arab political history littered with thwarted dreams, little honor would be extended to pragmatists who knew the limits of what could and could not be done. The political culture of nationalism reserved its approval for those who led ruinous campaigns in pursuit of impossible quests.
Extremism and failure, in other words, beget more of the same. Ajami closes his book with a forlorn prediction: "The day had not come for the Arab political imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs wanted for themselves." If Ajami is right, Arab intellectual life will continue to exalt irrationality and aggression.
We may not like that but at least, having read Dream Palace of the Arabs, we can at least begin to understand it.