The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey, Fouad Ajami.
New York: Pantheon Books, 1998
Fouad Ajami's new book is a series of essays on Arab intellectuals and politics, a topic he had tackled in an earlier book, namely The Arab Predicament. Unlike the previous book, in which Ajami advanced the conclusion that Arab nationalism had been defeated and is now dead, this book offers no new conclusions or analyses. The same intellectuals (except for Ajami's recent discovery of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi and a few others) and politicians as well as the same political issues are revisited, only this time they are updated to include the aftermath of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon (but not the invasion itself), the second Gulf War, and the recent peace agreements between Israel and the PLO, and between Israel and the Jordanian government.
Continuing the pseudo-psychological profile of the Arabs and their culture, which he had introduced 17 years ago in The Arab Predicament (a method later employed by one of Ajami's junior ideological lieutenants, Kanan Makiyyah), Ajami diagnoses Arabs as suffering from symptoms that can only be described as collective psychosis. Arabs, unlike other ethnic/national groups, do not seem to have goals, plans, objectives or a sense of purpose. According to Ajami, Arabs suffer from "delirium" (p132) and "supreme delusion" (p 80). They entertain unrealistic "extravagant hopes" and "dreams" of unattainable palaces (p 130). They also hold "bold and fanciful ideas" (p 130). Arab culture is "susceptible to legend" (p 178), and Arab nationalism is a "mirage" (p 246) with its history being nothing but "tragedy" and "farce" (p 246). Given these symptoms, Arabs therefore seem to suffer collectively along with their culture of a psychosis that can be diagnosed as a mixture of megalomania, melancholia and last but not least delusional schizophrenia. Based on Ajami's account, one would conclude that rationality has no place in the Arab collective psyche. As Ajami never tires of telling his television viewers when he appears on CBS television news, the "Arab hordes" are violent, irrational and cannot accept reality and will attack innocent America and Israel.
As in his earlier book, Ajami views the politico-intellectual history of the modern Arab World as extending from Arab nationalists to Islamists. Holders of these ideologies, be they the state or the opposition, have engulfed the Arab World in an "ocean of terror". More recently, such non-pragmatist and illiberal intellectuals have attacked the "peace" with Israel. Ajami, disgusted and horrified by these ideologies and their holders, including Egyptian nationalists and Islamists critical of the US, laments the "pleasant bourgeois age" in Egypt. It is this age of pashas, the loss of which he mourns, which receives the most sympathetic adjectives in his narrative. In describing the career of a pre-Nasserist royalist minister, Fouad Serageddin, Ajami waxes romantic. Those were "quaint and less crowded times...villas once grand but now shabby and covered with dust; homes with gardens where the great bourgeois families once lived, secure in their sense of place and order". Imagining that age conjures up for Ajami a "scent of old Egypt, the Egypt of the grand tour, the country celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet". Today, however, this "crowded land has gone beyond that pleasant bourgeois age and its houses with gardens".
Arab liberal-pragmatist intellectuals who adore the United States and "free-markets" and who now punctuate the Arab academic, journalistic and bureaucratic landscapes from Morocco to the Gulf can hardly be found in Ajami's text. On the few occasions when they do appear, it is as derided and ridiculed lonely voices. In the context of discussing the PLO and the Jordanian regime's "peace" agreements with Israel, Ajami tells us: "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. It was futile to expect a grand apology for [the late Jordanian king] Abdullah, some public warrant for what he did long ago. The tracts of nationalism will not be rewritten. The likes of Laith Shubaylat [the Jordanian dissident who is currently languishing in a Jordanian prison for the mortal sin of holding political views inimical to certain regime policies] will not be appeased. A foul wind, and a spirit that bordered on nihilism, greeted this peace [with Israel]. In the time of the Americans, the Arab intellectual world had become militantly illiberal (as though to compensate for the political hegemony of Pax Americana). In their opposition to the peace, writers and activists marked out an intellectual tradition beyond America's power and beyond America's judgment."
The fact, that a large number of Arab intellectuals today praise the United States and defend the racist and barbaric policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in the Arab world does not deter Ajami. From Arab academics who currently staff the many "research centres" in Egypt, much of North Africa, Jordan, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza (whose "research" and "researchers" are funded by US, German, and French foundations, not to mention the US Endowment for Democracy and other such "democracy"-promoting institutions), to the new brand of Arab Zionists whose pro-Israeli and pro-American views punctuate the pages of the Arab press from London to all Arab capitals, to the recently coopted Palestinian intellectuals in the occupied and "liberated" territories to Arab émigrés of Ajami's calibre whose "liberal" views on the Arab world are the only Arab views allowed in the US mainstream media and government, intellectual liberal-pragmatists have become increasingly hegemonic in the Arab World today. As for the late king Abdullah, even his arch-critic at the time of his death, Abdallah Al-Tall, apologised to his grandson King Hussein when he returned to Jordan in 1966. Al-Tall was so enthusiastic about his new-found respect for King Abdullah that he chastised Nasser for his anti-Hashemite rhetoric and proposed "that King Abdullah be considered a nationalist hero." He proceeded to say that if "erecting statues in order to immortalise heroes was part of our religion and traditions, it would have been imperative that a statue of King Abdullah be erected in every capital of every Arab country."
Ajami, the pragmatist, is horrified because there remains a body of Arab intellectuals who still resist US political, economic and intellectual diktat. Even these pockets of Arab intellectuals with little if any political power constitute an eye-sore for Ajami and his American benefactors. Presumably, Ajami and kindred spirits prefer that such intellectuals be "appeased" like Layth Shubaylat, or even silenced altogether.
Ajami speaks of himself in the book as an Arab. For example, he identifies a number of Arab intellectuals as "my generation of Arabs". When addressing an earlier generation of intellectuals including Naguib Mahfouz and Buland Haidari, he states that "I, and Arabs of my age were their heirs". While examining Malcom Kerr's writings about the Arab world, Ajami asserts that "I was of that world [emphasis in original]". All these assertions of his Arabness strike this reader as odd and uncharacteristic of the TV Ajami. When "interpreting" the Arab World to his CBS News viewers or at the conventions of pro-Israel lobbying groups in the US, Ajami always speaks of "we, the Americans" versus "they, the Arabs." It is interesting to note that when Ajami speaks of his Arabness in the book, he always speaks of it in the past. As for his present identity, it is unquestionably and unequivocally American with the only traces of Arabness being his heavy Arabic accent when speaking English.
Still, Ajami is not secure in his staunchly American identity. After co-authoring a report that recommended the use of English instead of Arabic in "some courses" at the University of Kuwait, Ajami recounts how he and the report became the object of "controversy." The "real issue was my invitation to the university, the very fact that I had been permitted entry into Kuwait." Ajami is appalled that a "writer by the name of Baghdadi" attacked him. "For him, I was a servant of American imperial interests...I was a friend of Israel and the Israelis, and, most damning of all, I was a Shu'ubi." Ajami deflects attention from the first two criticisms by engaging only the third. Whereas Ajami is correct in attacking Baghdadi for labeling him a "Shu'ubi," he understands perfectly well that when he is attacked by Arab intellectuals, this is based on his pro-imperialist and pro-Israeli views which always accompany his virulent hostility to the Arabs. His orientalist views of Arab and Muslim countries are everywhere in evidence. The Arab and Muslim worlds, we are told are "stagnant" and do not change. After quoting Adonis, Ajami proceeds to assert that Arab political "language ó and the banners ó could change... the dilemmas of the society ó its backwardness, its inability to see and define its malady ó would persist ...The culture would have made another detour. It would have headed right back to its stagnant past." His orientalist generalisations are passed off as pearls of wisdom: Iran is "a society known for both its long periods of submission to despotism and its recurrent rebellions... 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." These grandiose conclusions are not given to the reader after a thorough examination of Iran's and the Arab Gulf states' histories, societies and politics, rather as logical assertions and truth claims. In much of the book, Ajami sets himself the task of chastising the US for its well-intentioned interest in the Arab World. The US, according to Ajami, is a sort of Jesus Christ, "a foreign saviour" of the wayward Arabs. The US is said by Ajami to endanger itself and its soldiers and citizens to provide valuable services for the Arabs only to receive in return resentment and contempt from these ingrates. The actions of the US and its citizen-lieutenants representing it in the Arab World, he insists, are cases of "innocence" and philanthropic altruism. Of the American withdrawal from Lebanon after their 1982-1984 intervention, Ajami speaks with much sadness. He tells us that the "young men of Ayatollah Khomeini's crusade and a new breed of wholesalers of terror...proceeded to demolish the American presence in Beirut." America, Ajami proceeds, had come to Beirut after a "hasty" decision in September 1982. "This was an open-ended, ambiguous errand to a place America did not fully know or understand. America had indulged great hopes that an American era had begun in Lebanon, but the Americans would not stay the course in Lebanon: there was no taste in America for tribal wars in places with tangled histories." American commitment to save Lebanon was so great, Ajami tells us, that despite the murder of American citizens and later the bombing of the American marine barracks, "American officials talked bravely of not walking away from Lebanon." When the Americans had to leave, "Beirut was lost to the new reign of cruelty." The well-intentioned US intervention in Beirut had ended in "heartbreak" and "carnage." Ajami tells us of the 240 (the real number is actually 241) American marines who died in the suicide attack on their headquarters in Beirut in October 1983. Nowhere in his story of the pristine and loving Americans, does Ajami tell us of the US Sixth-fleet's marines' savage bombing of the Lebanese mountain town Suq al-Gharb near Beirut with more than 600 shells a day. Those who attacked the US marines are not portrayed by Ajami as responding to this US imperialist aggression, rather as "bloodletting" psychopaths intent on killing Americans because they are simply Americans. Despite such ingratitude, America, the saviour of some Arabs from what Ajami calls "local predators" came again to the succour of Kuwait in 1990. This was not the first such visit that the Americans had paid to the Gulf. Americans, Ajami tells us in a romantic rendition, "came to Arabia in the 1930's and 1940's, but they arrived after the age of empire had passed. And they came to Dhahran, on the Persian Gulf, to soften the life of the desert and take it beyond its history of desolation and scarcity... They were careful not to offend the cultural sensibilities of their hosts and to conform to the decorum and style of the place." The monumental American pillage of the Arabian peninsula's wealth since the 1930's constitutes for Ajami a "softening" of the life of the Gulf's Arab inhabitants. For daring to give a different account of the American presence in the Gulf, Abdel-Rahman Munif is accused by Ajami of being nothing short of an orientalist whose fiction is "drawn from the Arabian Nights."
Ajami ridicules the Kuwaitis whose foreign minister had the audacity to dismiss the Carter Doctrine, a decade before Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, because of the minister's assertion that Arabs are "perfectly capable of preserving their own security and stability." When America came again to save Kuwait, Ajami tells us, it was "a moral crusade... to repel aggression." Ultimately, for Ajami, the American intervention in the Gulf was "a battle between a local predator and a foreign savior." Again, this Christ-like saviour received no proper gratitude or respect. The ungrateful people of the region paid America back with a "terrible bloodletting" in the summer of 1996, killing 19 Americans, a horror preceded by another "terrorist" attack in November 1995 in Riyadh killing five Americans. During the Gulf War, Ajami's concern was for American lives that were lost, never for the Iraqis. "The victory had been swift, American and allied casualties surprisingly light." In fact, in his interminable praise of the Americans, Ajami tells us that it is "not in the American military tradition to shoot a fleeing Army in the back." The fact that US forces strafed the retreating Iraqi soldiers on the Basra-Kuwait highway after their withdrawal from Kuwait, savagely murdering in the process thousands of Iraqis is not relevant to Ajami's pro-American propagandistic assertions.
Whereas Ajami always tells us the numbers of Americans killed in the Middle East, we never learn the numbers of Arabs America killed, nor do we hear of the victims of Israeli aggression. It is not the tens of thousands of Palestinians killed by the Israelis in the last 50 years that Ajami tells us about, rather he provides an inflated number of "four hundred" Palestinian collaborators killed by fellow Palestinians during the intifada. The young Palestinians who fought the Israeli occupiers during the intifada are not described as anti-colonial resistors, rather as "cruel, young, undeluded but merciless."
Reading Fouad Ajami, I cannot help but be reminded of an infamous figure in Mexican history ó Malinche. La Malinche, an Aztec woman who spoke Nahuatl, had been sold to the Mayans as a slave and as a result also spoke Mayan. She was offered as a gift to the conquering Spaniards in one of the first encounters between the Spanish conquerors and Native Americans. La Malinche quickly learned Spanish and became one of the main interpreters for Cortés. Having much resentment against her own people propelled her to side with the conquistadors. The importance of La Malinche, however, was not that she became a collaborator with the enemy or even an interpreter for them, but rather her adoption of the Spaniards' value system, their epistemology, and ultimately their goals of conquering and destroying her people. As Tzvetan Todorov explains in his book The Conquest of America, La Malinche "performs a sort of cultural conversion, interpreting for Cortés not only the Indians' words but also their actions." In reminding the reader of La Malinche, I am not arguing that Fouad Ajami is the Arab La Malinche, but rather that he dreams of being the Arab La Malinche. Whereas La Malinche had good reason to seek revenge from her own people for selling her as a slave, it is unclear what Ajami's excuse is.
Although Ajami thinks of himself as a dream-interpreter (a sort of modern oneirocritic) delving into the "dreams" and "dream palaces" of the Arabs (an expression he appropriately borrows from T.E. Lawrence), the book is rather an expression of Ajami's own dreams and dream palaces which he projects onto Arab intellectuals. It indeed provides the reader not with a "Generation's Odyssey" of Arab intellectuals, but rather with an account of Ajami's own Odyssey from Arabness into Americanness.