The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey.
Part political essay and part cultural critique, The Dream Palace of the Arabs returns to questions that Fouad Ajami had explored in The Arab Predicament (1980). As in that earlier work, Ajami reflects on the political and intellectual evolution of the Arab world since World War II. He does so by taking his reader on a journey through the lives of prominent Arab writers: Lebanese Christians George Antonius (1891-1942) and Khalil Hawi (1919-1982), Egyptian novelists Taha Hussein (1889-1973) and Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911), Lebanese-born Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931), Syrian thinkers Ali Ahmad Said (b. 1930) and Sadiq al-Azm (b. 1937), Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (b. 1923), Saudi novelist Abdelrahman Munif (b. 1933), and Iraqi poet Buland Haidari (1926-1996). In addition, Ajami attempts to assess the legacy of such diverse political figures as Anwar al-Sadat (1918-1981) and Antun Saadeh (c. 1902-1949). The general theme running through the book is that of overwhelming disillusionment with what the past three decades have brought the Arab world in the areas of politics and culture. During the 1950s and 1960s, Ajami notes, a new generation of Arab intellectuals endeavored to sketch an indigenous path toward modernity and development. What came out of this reflection was a political discourse built around secularism and pan-Arab nationalist ideals. Ajami devotes his book to the manifestations and consequences of the failure of that once dominant discourse.
The Dream Palace of the Arabs consists primarily of four essays (Chapters Two through Five). Chapter Two paints the story of Lebanese poet and American University of Beirut professor Khalil Hawi, who committed suicide in the evening of June 6, 1982, the day Israel invaded Lebanon. Ajami looks upon Hawi's life as a metaphor for the disappointed hopes of the generation of Arab intellectuals that came of age after World War II. Presumably, Hawi's suicide was prompted by his despair at his country's descent into hell, by Arab indifference to Lebanon's fate, and, more generally, by the region's disarray and powerlessness on the international scene. Ajami also sees in the Lebanese civil war the reflection of a region adrift. Once spared the bloodshed and violence of its neighbors, Lebanon had now become hostage to warlords, militia leaders, and regional rivalries played on its soil. Arab writers, ideologues, dissidents and political adventurers of all kinds who had once fled the autocracies of their own countries to find refuge in Beirut were now forced to flee their adopted city for London or Paris. The Lebanese capital, once known for its cosmopolitan ambiance, freewheeling ways, and tolerant and pluralistic nature, fell victim to the reassertion of communal hatreds, sectarian prejudice, and the politics of cultural intolerance. Unfortunately, this chapter is too long (84 pages) and occasionally repetitive. Its basic message could easily have been conveyed in a more succinct manner, had Ajami not gone into sometimes excruciatingly painful and unnecessary details about Hawi's life.
Chapter Three, entitled "In the Shape of the Ancestors," focuses on the religious fervor that swept through the Arab world in the 1980s. Alienated from the old order of Arab nationalism and its predominantly Sunni custodians, frustrated by the unfulfilled promises of the two oil booms of the 1970s, and caught in the midst of a grueling economic crisis triggered by the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s, recently urbanized populations, large segments of the youth, and formerly quiescent and excluded elements (in particular the Shiites) succumbed to the appeal of nativism framed in a religious idiom. Ajami argues that the sudden, haphazard and massive introduction into the Arab world of a disfigured form of modernity based on consumerism, materialism, and mimicry of the West produced a cultural backlash that expressed itself in the glorification of a mythical, idealized past. Yet the religious wave, too, failed to bring about meaningful change in a political order that proved more resilient than its critics had anticipated. This was made clear when the Iranian regime failed to export its revolution to the Arab world and was instead forced to sign a humiliating cease-fire in its war with Iraq in the summer of 1988. Like Nasser, Khomeini had promised his followers more than he could ultimately deliver (p. 146).
By far the strongest chapter in this book is Chapter Four, "In the Land of Egypt." It is clear that Ajami is fond of the place and, therefore, feels great sorrow at the country's intellectual decline, bleak political landscape, and increasingly tom social fabric. He laments the poverty of Egypt's public discourse, the growing mediocrity of its cultural life and the crisis of its educational system. He notes with alarm the existence of a sprawling underclass that lacks the skills to help the country compete in the global economy. But he dwells mostly on the despair felt by the advocates of a liberal order, the lapse into cynicism and apathy on the part of ever-growing segments of the population and the increasingly heavy-handed ways of the unimaginative and inarticulate man at the helm.
In Ajami's depiction, Egypt has long been tom between the seduction of the West and the lure of tradition. Consequently, those who look to the West for inspiration and those who are determined to keep the West at bay have long battled for the soul of the country. Ajami attempts to convey this point by drawing on the life of national icon Naguib Mahfuz, a standard bearer of liberal and secular ideas who in October 1994 narrowly escaped an attempt on his life by a religious extremist. To Ajami, "Mahfuz and his ordeal represent at once the modernity of Egypt and the siege of its secular men and women of letters" (p. xv). They also illustrate the complexity and contradictions of Egypt. On the one hand, it is "a country where lawyers and the rule of law had an early footing, a society with a rich syndicalist tradition and associational life and an independent judiciary with pride in its legacy" (p. 205). In the region, Egypt also has the longest experience with multi-party politics and parliamentary government. On the other hand, Ajami argues, a strong religious undercurrent has long stood in the way of Egypt's ability to realize its modernist ambitions. This drama, he notes, still plays itself today, in part because of the way in which the state has dealt with the Islamist challenge: not only through tough repression of the terrorist fringe, but by multiplying concessions toward those advocating an Islamization of society. Ajami highlights the terrible price paid by victims of that strategy, including secularists, who feel embattled and physically endangered, and Copts, who experience bigotry and discrimination and have become very apprehensive about the future of their community in the country.
Chapter Five, "The Orphaned Peace," contends that even in the wake of the Oslo agreement, Arab intellectuals remain unable to come to terms with Israel. With few exceptions, Ajami argues, Arab intellectuals have perceived the 1993 agreement as a capitulation that threatens to usher in Israeli cultural hegemony and economic domination of the region. Ajami argues that, just as Arab governments and heads of state moved halfheartedly if not reluctantly toward accommodation with Israel, what he calls the "intellectual class" was unable to break away from the old taboos and "was [even] given a green light to agitate against the peace" (p. 285). Consequently, Ajami claims, Arab intellectuals on the whole welcomed the the defeat of Shimon Peres in May 1996 as "a gift of political deliverance" that let them "off the hook" (p. 277).
The victory of the Likud was the sort of outcome that the Arab intellectual class [...] could live with [...]. True, the men of political power -- some of them who had bet on the peace -- mourned the passing of Rabin and the defeat of Peres. But in the main, and among the writers and thinkers of the Arab world, no tears were shed for a breakthrough they had never trusted and had never wanted in the first place (p. 307).
The reality, however, is more complex. To begin with, there is no monolithic "Arab intellectual class," including on the matter of Israel. Arab intellectuals have been divided over the issue of normalization. While some have indeed remained unwilling to bury the hatchet, others were ready to give peace a chance, though many in that latter category became alienated from the Oslo process after it went sour following the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in the May 1996 elections. The complexity of Arab attitudes toward Israel and peace does not find its way in Ajami's broad-brush account. Ajami also portrays resistance to normalization as being due to the unwillingness of Arab intellectuals to wave off a fight that had been so critical to their self-identity. In fact, many an Arab intellectual's opposition to Oslo was not an opposition to normalization per se, but to the extremely unbalanced nature of the specific bargain that Arafat struck with Israel and to the manner in which that bargain was implemented.
Going through this last chapter, the reader is struck by Ajami's determination to absolve Israeli policies from any responsibility for the reluctance of Arab intellectuals to come to terms with the Jewish state. Ajami also overstates his case when he discusses Ahmad Musa Daqamsa, the Jordanian soldier who in March 1997 opened fire on a group of Israeli schoolgirls visiting the Jordan valley, killing seven of them. Ajami elevates Daqamsa into a symbol of "the full sense of the bitter opposition to peace" and "the mix of rancor and nihilism that attended the accommodation with Israel" (p. 310). He reads in the demonstrations held by Jordanian students to protest Daqamsa's 25-year jail sentence a proof of the inability of Arab civil society to accept Israel. To see the Daqamsa matter, as Ajami does, as "a window onto the culture" (p. 311) of an undifferentiated Arab intelligentsia and professional class seems a stretch.
More generally, Ajami suggests a specifically Arab cultural inability to break away from old enmities. Yet an equally strong opposition to normalization can be found among large sections of Israeli civil society. Arab intellectuals and professionals are not alone in having difficulties imagining new ways of relating to former enemies. Nor do they have a monopoly on the politics of rejection, intolerance and religious messianism. For every Ahmad Musa Daqamsa and his victims, one can think of a Baruch Goldstein and the 29 lives he took in Hebron in February 1994. Yet that does not mean that Goldstein, and the status of hero/martyr that he has acquired in some right-wing Israeli circles, provides a "window onto the culture" of the Israeli intelligentsia and professional classes.
There are other significant weaknesses in this otherwise insightful and provocative book. For one, Ajami's account is excessively bleak. It is a tale of relentless and unmitigated decline, dashed hopes, betrayals and unfulfilled promises. That portrayal does not do justice to the positive changes that have transformed Arab politics and societies since the late 1980s, including the rising demand for accountability and political reform, the growing concern with issues of transparency and rule of law, the emergence of a public opinion that significantly constrains what governments can and cannot do, the limited but significant concessions that ruling elites have made toward allowing greater participation and access to decision-making circles, and the burgeoning of voluntary associations in fields ranging from education, health and economic development to human and civil rights, women's rights and minority rights.
Furthermore, in Ajami's account the Arab world remains unable to free itself from the ideological battles of the past. It is a region in which leaders invariably pursue impossible dreams and in which populations inevitably pay the consequences of such futile endeavors. In reality, the Arab world has witnessed increased pragmatism over the past decade. It has experienced a decisive, if incomplete, shift in the nature of political contestation, away from ideological disputes and toward disagreements over procedural issues. This process, which is still on-going, means that Arab politics are increasingly driven by the pragmatic search for widely agreed-upon rules to govern political competition. That, in turn, suggests improved prospects for the institutionalization of more democratic polities.
At times Ajami also comes dangerously close to implying that the most formidable obstacles to political reform in the Arab world are cultural in nature and that the region cannot escape its past. This form of pessimistic cultural essentialism is manifest when, for instance, he writes of "the return of the Lebanese and other Arabs in Lebanon to a primitive tribalism" (p. 121), when he refers to the existence of "atavistic resentments along that ancient fault line between Sunni and Shia Islam" (p. 165), or when he describes the politics of the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf states as "struggles of clans and determined men, tribal affairs to the core" (p. 148). Such depictions oversimplify and distort complex political landscapes. They fail to do justice to the interplay of internal and external forces and to the mix of economic, social and political factors that account for the situations Ajami is discussing. In these as in other instances, Ajami's prose is too elegant for his own good, as he appears to sacrifice accuracy and meaning for stylistic effect.
Finally, it is not clear what audience Ajami is addressing. He appears to claim the general reader as his target, but the book assumes a significant amount of factual knowledge and historical background on the Middle East. For their part, scholars of the Middle East will undoubtedly question many of Ajami's generalizations and his reliance on culture-based arguments about Arab politics. Still, this beautifully written book is filled with the sort of perceptive observations, original ideas and high-quality, broad-brush analysis that we have come to expect from this author.
Associate Professor of Government, Colby College
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|Publication:||Middle East Policy|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Feb 1, 1999|
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