A History of Disappointment

Avi Shlaim

  • The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey by Fouad Ajami
    Pantheon, 368 pp, US $14.00, July 1999, ISBN 0 375 70474 4

Fouad Ajami’s The Dream Palace of the Arabs is at once an intellectual tour de force, and an intimate and perceptive survey of the Arab literary, cultural and political worlds. Ajami was born in Southern Lebanon and raised in Beirut, and he has a rare ability to listen to and convey his culture’s inner voice. Equally rare is the quality of his English prose. Like Conrad, of whom he’s an admirer, Ajami fell under the spell of the English language, and this new book displays his skills as scholar, as stylist and as literary critic.

The title comes from the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the book in which T.E. Lawrence described his campaign in the Arabian desert during the First World War as an attempt to give the Arabs the foundations on which to build ‘the dream palace of their national thoughts’. Lawrence, however, dwelt only on the fringe of modern Arab history, and the task that Ajami has set himself is to tell that history from the inside, through the Arabs’ own fiction, prose and poetry:

On their own, in the barracks and in the academies ... Arabs had built their own dream palace – an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity. In these pages I take up what has become of this edifice in the last quarter-century. The book is at once a book about public matters – a history of a people, the debates of its intellectuals, the fate of its dominant ideas – and a personal inquiry into the kind of world my generation of Arabs, men and women born in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, was bequeathed.

The ‘odyssey’ of the subtitle is the ideological journey of the intellectuals and poets who propounded a new vision of Arab culture and this vision’s gradual disintegration in the second half of the 20th century. The battle of ideas is sketched against the backdrop of Arab politics and enlivened by Ajami’s account of his encounters with some of the protagonists. His central theme is the fit, or rather misfit, between ideas and politics in the postwar Arab world, and his method is to use the lives and writings of major literary figures to illuminate the larger themes of Arab history – the revolt against Western dominance, the rise and fall of pan-Arabism, and the conflict between the liberal tradition and the more assertive Islamic tendency of recent years. Albert Hourani called his great work in the history of ideas Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798-1939, but Ajami would deny that there has ever been a genuinely liberal age in either Arab thought or Arab politics. His view of the Arab condition is comprehensively and irremediably bleak. His pet hate is nationalism, and he reserves his most withering critique not for the dictators but for the intellectuals who, in his judgment, have led the Arabs down the wrong road.

The Dream Palace of the Arabs opens dramatically and symbolically with a nightmarish account of a suicide and of the cultural requiem that followed it. Khalil Hawi, a gifted Lebanese poet, took his own life on 6 June 1982, the day on which Israel invaded Lebanon. ‘Where are the Arabs?’ Hawi had asked his colleagues at the American University of Beirut before he went home and shot himself. ‘Who shall remove the stain of shame from my forehead?’ The eulogists told a simple story, portraying the patriotic poet as the sacrificial lamb for an Arab world that had fragmented. In his death the world of letters saw a judgment on the political condition. ‘He was weary of the state of decay,’ wrote the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, ‘weary of looking over a bottomless abyss.’

But there was more to his death than met the eye and more to Khalil Hawi than the stereotype this politicisation had turned him into. From Ajami’s researches a much more complex and richly-textured picture emerges. The poet’s life had begun to unravel long before Israel swept into Lebanon and there had been a suicide attempt a year earlier, when Hawi had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. He had been in the grip of a long, deep depression and he never recovered from that earlier attempt.

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