The death of Fouad Ajami prompted me to reread an email he sent me in late 2011. I had just written an obituary of Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, and Fouad send me a note saying: "Do me a favor please, after 24 years and don't ask me what the number means, I would love for you to write an obit of me!"
I'm not sure whether Fouad was ill at the time, but it's difficult to understand his message as anything but a witty reference to the cancer that carried him away this week. I had graduated 24 years earlier from Johns Hopkins, where Fouad was my professor, yet had foolishly failed to grasp his meaning. Now I may, and I find myself writing what I insisted at the time I hoped never to write.
I first met Fouad in September 1985 after arriving at Johns Hopkins. I wasn't sure what to make of this spirited man who, once he knew I had just come from Lebanon, began talking about the mobilization there of the Shiite community, before handing me a copy of an article he had recently written on the topic for Foreign Affairs titled "Lebanon and Its Inheritors."
In those two years I would become Fouad's friend and for a time serve as his graduate assistant, a task that required me to do only two things: Find the age of the Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea and go to the National Archives and copy all American diplomatic correspondence pertaining to Antoun Saadeh, the founder of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party.
Ajami's singular gift was to add narrative texture to his observations of the Middle East. There was a literary bent to the man that gave a sweeping quality to his writings. Some disliked this, saying it allowed for no nuance. Yet rare are the writers on the region, among them Edward Said, a man revered by Ajami's detractors, who caught the region's impulses as subtly and brilliantly as he did, against a backdrop of larger historical forces.
The most notable example was Ajami's early recognition of the significance of the Shiite revival. In this regard his biography in 1985 of Lebanon's Musa Sadr, titled "The Vanished Imam," was ahead of its time, showing what would become an Ajami paradox: his exhilaration with the phenomenon of Shiite affirmation alongside misgivings about specific Shiite political actors such as Hezbollah or Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
However, it was Ajami's views of America that would come to define him more than anything else. His adversaries would lazily brand him a "neocon." But what really mattered to Fouad was not American power per se, but the fact that it might be used to transform the Middle East democratically. That may have been too idealistic by half, but it was born of his deep frustration with an Arab world that, for most of the time he had studied it, could not break free from suffocating authoritarianism and sterility.
I believe this view of America was at the heart of his rift with Said, like him an Arab immigrant who had gained prominence in the country. Ajami could never quite stomach someone who had earned recognition thanks to his life in New York, only to build on this through perpetual condemnation of America and its role in the Arab world. Where Said reaffirmed his Palestinianness at every occasion, Ajami invariably spoke of himself as an American, even if he never rejected his Lebanese identity and retained until the end a complicated relationship with his birthplace.
All of Ajami's books were in most ways outstanding, but his admirers will perhaps remember "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" with the greatest intensity. As the subtitle suggests, the book is about an Arab generation's odyssey, one that ended in failure and disappointment – the generation that came of age in the 1950s, weaned on Arab nationalism and hope that the region could be transformed for the better as a consequence. Yet Ajami began his book with an account of the suicide of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi in 1982 in reaction to Israel's invasion of his country. For him Hawi's act of desperation was a requiem for that generation, exemplifying the shattering of Arab expectations.
This had particular resonance for me, as I had been in Beirut at the time of Hawi's suicide. While I felt no great sympathy for Arab nationalism, having spent years watching Lebanon laid waste almost as much by inter-Arab mendacity and rivalries as by the destructiveness of its own people, Ajami's narrative of defeat only reflected accurately what I and others had seen all around us. As a chronicler of this desolate reality, Ajami had few peers.
Not surprisingly, Fouad's last book was on Syria. By that time the America he knew had changed, its president and people willing to witness the Syrian carnage without flinching. "In reckoning with the evils of the Syrian regime, American power was either naive or willfully indifferent," he wrote last February. It must not have been easy for Fouad to hear moral censure of the supporters of the Iraq War by Americans who had no moral compunction about allowing the slaughter in Syria to continue unabated.
You wonder what Fouad felt at the end about the country he had embraced so completely. His articles became more caustic, his condemnation of President Barack Obama's inaction sharper. Fouad's Arab solidarity seemed to be reimposing itself as dominant against an elusive America he had romanticized, one distancing itself decisively from the world he knew best. Perhaps his odyssey, too, ended at a roadblock of disenchantment.