In This Arab Time is Fouad Ajami’s final book. Its appearance is therefore a melancholy occasion: There will be no more original writing from this author, who died on June 22, 2014, at the age of 68. It is also, however, a cause for gratitude: We are fortunate to have one more volume from him. The book is a collection of previously published essays, some of which were expanded and updated under his direction, assembled with the help of his wife Michelle Ajami and his longtime colleague Megan Ring. It calls to mind an observation by the wittiest American comedian of the mid-20th century, Groucho Marx. Corresponding with a friend who had commented on the most recent episode of his popular television quiz program, “You Bet Your Life”, Groucho wrote, “You say that my last program was ‘up to your usual standard.’ This is the least ambiguous insult I have ever received.”
In the present context, however, the phrase has precisely the opposite meaning. The collection is deserving of the highest possible compliment: It measures up to Ajami’s characteristically high literary and intellectual standards. Those standards ensure that his three major books—The Arab Predicament (1981), The Dream Palace of the Arabs (1998), and The Foreigner’s Gift (2006)—will continue to be read, studied, and admired by those wishing to gain an understanding of the history, the politics, and the psychology of the Arab people in the seven decades after World War II.
The present book’s title, In This Arab Time, conveys at least two meanings, which are, as it happens, the principal themes of Ajami’s life’s work. It refers to the history of the Arab world in a particular time, in this case the era stretching from Ajami’s boyhood in the 1950s to the present. The essays that deal with this era are particularly vivid. He belonged, loosely, to an academic guild, now falling out of fashion, known as area specialists: scholars who study the history, culture, politics, and literature of a particular region or country. Area specialists can sometimes seem to be people who can tell you everything about the place they study except what it is actually like. That was not Ajami. The reader will find, in this book as in his other works, the shapes, the sounds, the sights, even the smells, and above all the sentiments of the world about which he wrote and taught. He brought that world to life.
He sometimes did so by bypassing the turgid and mendacious political discourse of the region and writing about its poetry and literature, which often serve as more reliable guides to the truth of things in the Arab Middle East. This collection includes two essays on novels by Arab writers, one about the brutal impact of the Assad regime on a family in the once-thriving Syrian city of Aleppo, the other about a Westernized Algerian resident of Europe who sets out to discover his family’s dark past.
The Arab time that Ajami chronicled so well was not and is not a happy one. It began with high hopes for the transformative power of the movement known as Arab nationalism. As a boy he shared those hopes; in his early teens he traveled to Damascus to catch a glimpse of the hero of that movement and the charismatic repository of those hopes, the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. The hopes were not realized, and in The Arab Predicament Ajami eloquently described how they had not been and could not be fulfilled. That book displayed another signal feature of his writing: unflinching honesty. Most of the other members of the Middle East branch of the area specialists guild, a branch with more than its fair share of charlatans and scoundrels, did not appreciate this. To them, he had committed heresy. As he put it in his introduction to the present volume:
I had broken with the orthodoxy of Arab nationalism; I had uttered, in public, and in English, truths about the Arab world that were to be kept unnamed and unacknowledged. I no longer shared the fidelities of the Arab intellectual class. I didn’t thrill to the passions of the fabled “Arab Street.” I did not partake of the Arab obsession with the Palestinian question.
There were and are people in academic institutions in the Western world and throughout the Middle East who never forgave Ajami for telling the truth. Some never forgave him, as well, for becoming an enthusiastic immigrant to and citizen of the United States. They made life as uncomfortable for him as they could. Because he wrote fearlessly and well, however, he will have the best kind of revenge on those who hurled insults at him. His words and ideas will outlive theirs.
Those who took exception to his writings charged him with being an enemy of the Arabs. Of course, the opposite was true. The affection and anguish he felt for the region of his birth come through in a third feature of his writing that appears in this volume: wistfulness. Throughout the essays, and in his other writings, the reader will find references to what was benign, tolerant, creative, and sometimes brilliant in the Arab world of the first half of the 20th century, which the political movements that came to dominate the Arabs in that century’s second half all but extinguished. Ajami evokes the old Beirut, the old Cairo, the old Baghdad.
He wrote with particular eloquence about Egypt, the Arab country that, next to his native Lebanon, he probably knew best. Aware of its crippling deficiencies, he also knew its considerable strengths:
Egyptians who know their country so well have a way of reciting its troubles and then insisting that the old resilient country shall prevail. As an outsider who has followed the twists of the country’s history and who approaches the place with nothing but awe for its civility amid great troubles, I suspect they are right. The country is too wise, too knowing, too tolerant to succumb to a reign of theocratic zeal.
Included in these pages is a tribute to the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who embodied the virtues that Ajami found appealing and that had not flourished in the era of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. Because he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the regime treated Mahfouz as a national icon, while suppressing the ideas and values in which he believed. Ajami begins his tribute by noting the irony that Mahfouz “had never had a tender thought for the military officers or their regime”, but received a military funeral. He ends the essay this way: “In Cairo, but also far beyond it, there should be mourning for Naguib Mahfouz. We were, many of us, his kin. And he was the last of a breed. Now there is only the barren soil of the autocratic land; there is Pharaoh, and his court, and his military funerals.”
Ajami did not glorify Egypt’s past, or the past of the Middle East as a whole, but he knew what cultural flowers, such as Mahfouz, had once bloomed there and how much their loss had cost the Arabs. The title of a book of photographs of the city where he grew up, for which he supplied the text, captures this aspect of his writing: Beirut: City of Regrets.
The title In This Arab Time also denotes the period in the history of the West in which the Arab world figures prominently. The title can be taken to refer more specifically to the encounter—perhaps “collision” would be more accurate—between the Arabs and the United States. Knowing both parties well, Ajami understood that their relationship was destined to be a difficult one. In an essay published in 2001, shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, he took note of the “free-floating anti-Americanism that blows at will and knows no bounds among Islamists and secularists alike.” He went on to explain it for a Western audience by referring to a Middle Eastern proverb he sometimes used in conversation:
A world lacking the tools and the political space for free inquiry fell back on anti-Americanism. ‘I talk to my daughter-in-law so my neighbor can hear me’, goes an Arab maxim. In the fury with which the intellectual and political class railed against the United States and Israel, the agitated were speaking to and of their own rulers.
The Arab-American encounter is represented in this volume by, among other essays, a review of a book by the Iraqi exile-turned-politician-turned-exile-again Ali Allawi, entitled The Occupation of Iraq: Winning the War, Losing the Peace. The Allawi book is one of only two on the American experience in Iraq with which I am familiar written by someone deeply knowledgeable about the Middle East and fluent in Arabic. The other such book is, of course, Ajami’s own contribution, The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq. The subtitle is significant: By including the Arabs, Ajami signaled a crucial feature of that historical episode, one that most did not recognize. There were three in the U.S.-Iraq relationship; the Arab world beyond Iraq played a major and, as he documented, malevolent role in the American effort to transform that country.
When the Americans entered Iraq, Ajami permitted himself another spell of hope for his native region. His hopes, he soon came to see, were destined to be only imperfectly and partly realized, and if so only in the future—perhaps the distant future. The forces of sectarianism, repression, and apocalyptic violence, about which he had written with such insight, proved too strong. They defeated the American effort to conjure a politics of decency and tolerance out of the ruins that Saddam Hussein had created. Along with his disappointment at the results of the American enterprise, he harbored deep respect for the individual Americans, above all those in the armed forces, who were charged with carrying it out. In this volume, in what will have to stand as his last word on the subject, he wrote: “The terrible errors of this war can never smother its honor.”
He experienced yet another moment of optimism with the rebellions against long-entrenched, sclerotic, corrupt governments in 2011, which acquired the rubric “The Arab Spring.” He did not live to see those events play themselves out, and in any event that process has not yet ended. In an essay about the Arab Spring in this collection he explains the origins of the uprisings and puts them into historical perspective as the third such development in the history of the Arabs, after the liberal movements at the end of the 19th century and the surge of Arab nationalism in the middle of the 20th. His view of the various iterations of Arab Springs is anything but starry-eyed, but he retained the hope—“faith” would be too strong a word here—that they would ultimately bring some benefit to the long-oppressed peoples of the region.
In The Foreigner’s Gift and in his other writings during the first decade of this century Ajami became the best American interpreter of Iraq, but he was not the only one. In his essay on the Allawi volume he renders his verdict on the other interpreters, which is worth quoting not only to record his judgment but also because it demonstrates his gifts as a writer of English prose:
The travelers and the journalists and the talking heads made the obligatory visit to the Green Zone and returned with a spurious authority. This was how you staked a claim to the airwaves; it was important to go over there if you were to be listened to over here. Iraq became a background, a credential. A kind of nonaggression pact was entered into by the instant experts: no one called anybody else’s expertise into question. In this way, Iraq became the subject of some of the darkest hours in the history of expertise.
Consider that phrase: “some of the darkest hours in the history of expertise.” It’s a jolting juxtaposition of concepts from different worlds that nonetheless fit together perfectly and makes the reader chuckle and wince at the same time. It’s mordantly funny and piercingly accurate. Ajami had a distinctive, compelling style, on display throughout these essays.
The style, in this case, was the man—or at least the man in print. Reading Ajami is almost like talking with him, and he was a great conversationalist. In full conversational flight his words resembled a jazz solo, presenting an initial theme punctuated by detours, departures, and digressions—all of them relevant, all of them gripping—without ever quite losing the thread, and were filled with his sly humor and his pointed insights into whatever part of the human comedy happened to be under discussion.
Conversations with Ajami, at least those he conducted with me and with my wife Anne—another devoted friend of his, whom he called his “sister”—always concluded with a particular phrase, a phrase I remember when I think of him. It expressed both his way with words and still another feature of his personality, his exquisite courtesy. When the time had come to end our talks he would say, “Well, I’ve kept you long.” The phrase implied, wrongly, that it had been I who had been indulging him with the gift of my valuable time: It was, of course, the other way around. Those five simple words capture some of Fouad Ajami’s remarkable qualities; they are deft, original, effective, and generous.
“I’ve kept you long.” But not long enough.