“Never accept a gift that eats,” Fouad Ajami, who died yesterday at the age of 68, used to warn me and our faculty colleagues at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, where he taught for thirty years. He would issue the warning, with a smile, in response to some proposal or other that appeared to be a windfall for the School but that, he knew, would ultimately become a drain on its resources. The words expressed the man: wry, witty, an elegant speaker (and more often maker) of English phrases, someone without illusions about the ways of the world and with a knack for illuminating discrete events by placing them in a wider context.
He wrote several of the most important books of the past fifty years on the contemporary Middle East. The Arab Predicament (1981) describes the rise and fall of the kind of Arab nationalism that dominated the world in which he grew up, in a Shia family in Lebanon. The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998) chronicles the fate of Arab intellectuals in a time of turbulence and disillusion. The Foreigner’s Gift (2006) concerns the American encounter with Iraq after 2003. It is one of the few books based on first-hand experience (he spent considerable time in Iraq) written by someone with the kind of access to Iraqi society available only to a fluent Arabic speaker and with a gift for gaining the confidence of those he met.
Academics such as Fouad and I hope that our books will both exert influence in our own eras and be read long afterward. Fouad’s major works fulfill both aspirations. Much discussed when they were published, they will also be consulted a hundred years from now by those wishing to understand the Arab world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
As well as being an author of books, a teacher, and a citizen of the academy, Fouad threw himself into the role of “public intellectual”—someone with scholarly credentials who writes for a wider audience on the issues of the day. Millions of people unacquainted with his books encountered him in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and on CBS News, CNN, and The Charlie Rose Show. He became best known to them as a well-informed, stalwart, and ultimately disappointed champion of the American war in Iraq. Whatever the reckoning of his views under the eyes of eternity—and it is far too soon for a final verdict—he came to them honestly and expressed them fearlessly. He said what his experience, his reading, and his values caused him to believe, and he said what he believed without looking anxiously over his shoulder to gauge the sentiments of the crowd or the popular view of the moment.
His opinions on Iraq, and his dissection, in his books and articles, of the pathologies of the Arab world, provoked criticism from Arabs and in certain quarters in the United States that spilled over into hostility and abuse. Some of it must have been wounding; some of it certainly caused him inconvenience, and worse. Still, he never flinched or wavered. He conducted intellectual and political controversy in the way that it must be conducted for a democracy to function effectively: openly, honestly, and bravely.
His clear-eyed reading of the pathologies of the Arab world can seem to sit awkwardly with his support for the war in Iraq and his high hopes for the Arab Spring. His books, after all, provide a peerless review of the reasons for the failure, at least so far, of the American enterprise and the Arab upheavals to produce decent, stable governments. The apparent contradiction can be explained, I believe, by a sense of optimism that Fouad acquired not in the land of his origin but in his adopted country.
Born an Arab in an Arab country and writing authoritatively about the Arab world, he was often identified—including, in a quotation in his obituary in the New York Times—as an Arab. That was not, however, his deepest and most cherished identity. He was, first and foremost, an American, and all the more so for having chosen to become one. His was a quintessential American story: Coming from the global provinces, he made his way in the global metropolis. He became successful—an important, influential, and respected public figure—in the time-honored American way: through intelligence, enterprise, hard work, and pluck. He knew this, and he knew that the life he made for himself would not have been possible anywhere else. That is why he loved the place in which he chose to live, and his life should be seen, as he surely would have wished, as, among other things, a reminder of what is both great and good about the United States of America.