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.

Khalil Hawi was born in 1919, to a poor Greek Orthodox family from Mount Lebanon. He was forced to leave school at the age of 13 to earn a living as a stonemason. More than a dozen years passed before he was able to return to school, and then, in 1966, a scholarship took him to Cambridge, where he got a doctorate in literature. Along the road Hawi had adopted first Syrian nationalism, and then pan-Arabism, only to return to a simple love of Lebanon. Literary fame came relatively late in his life. He was much admired as the batunji (bricklayer) who became a professor and a poet; but the private pain of the journey had left its mark, merging as it did with a progressively more pessimistic assessment of the prospects for Arab nationalism. A premonition of disaster ran through his work. By the time the Arab national movement suffered its most spectacular defeat at the hands of Israel in June 1967, Hawi had become a seasoned exponent of the politics of disappointment. But the defeat of the pan-Arabism with which he had become so closely identified was like a descent into a bottomless pit. ‘Let me know if Arab unity is achieved; if I am dead, send someone to my graveside to tell me of it when it is realised,’ Hawi said on one occasion. Death, whether individual or collective, was never far from his thoughts.

Hawi’s poetry reflects the torments and tribulations of Arab modernity. He had known moments of public exaltation but a nemesis lay in wait. He was an avid reader of foreign books but they were no help to him; he was a proponent of modernity but his modernity had been a false promise. Its dawn ushered in a ‘strange morning’, he wrote in a volume he published in 1979 under the title Wounded Thunder. The sun had reversed its orbit, rising in the West and setting in the East. Hawi wept for himself and for that ‘Arab nation’ whose rebirth and regeneration he so much wanted to see:

How heavy is the shame,
do I bear it alone?
Am I the only one to cover my face with ashes?
The funerals that the morning announces
echo in the funerals at dusk.
There is nothing over the horizon,
save for the smoke of black embers.

Older writers hailed Hawi as the voice of a new Arab generation and the expositor of a new kind of reality, but they often missed the underlying gloom. Ajami shares their admiration for Hawi’s poetry but not for his politics. Indeed, he considers Hawi’s life to be emblematic of both the rise and the fall of the tide of nationalism. He shows sympathy for Hawi’s existential predicament but also suggests that the ideology of nationalism was doomed to failure from the start, was bound to lead into a literary as well as a political cul-de-sac:

The failure of the written word convinced Khalil Hawi that the battle of his generation of Arabs had been lost. The text had sustained the men and women of the Arab nationalist tradition. Sweeping out all that stood in its way, the language of secular nationalism had been heady and sure of itself. It had wished away great timeless truths that were everywhere in Arab life: the truths of the clans and the religious sects; the split between the thin layer of literary and political culture and the popular traditions below that mocked the optimism and bravado of the written word. Hawi was ahead of his time in his despair of writing and the written word. In the years to come, the problems of writing, the difficulty of matching Arab words and Arab things, became a steady lament in the world of letters. Arab men and women of this century escaped into the word, and the word failed them.

Not long after Hawi’s death, the romantic poet Nizar Qabbani and the poet and literary critic Adonis offered their own autopsies. For both, the crisis of writing was simply a reflection of the Arab political condition. There was a disturbing discontinuity between the discourse of politics and poetry and the world Arabs confronted every day. It had become harder to write, both seemed to be saying. Qabbani borrowed the term jahiliyya, meaning pre-Islamic ignorance, to describe the reality of the 1980s. In that original time of darkness the poet was his tribe’s spokesman, chronicler and scribe. The new jahiliyya is darker than the old, however. It has no use for the poet because it wants people to live on their knees. The rulers, ‘the sultans of today’, want only supporters and sycophants, and this has had the effect of emasculating the language. They fear the word because it is ‘intrinsically an instrument of opposition’. The conflict between the word and al-sulta, or authority, is inescapable.

Qabbani was born in Syria but made his home in Beirut, the capital of Arab letters and the Arab enlightenment. But having to witness the destruction of the enchanted city of his youth by the civil war prompted him to speak of the death of Arab civilisation. Beirut’s wars showed how all the grand ideas resulted in endemic violence and a return to primitive tribalism – his own wife was killed in 1981 in one of the daily episodes of violence. In his grief he wrote ‘Balqees’, a long lament:

Balqees ... oh princess,
You burn, caught between tribal wars,
What will I write about the departure of my queen?
Indeed, words are my scandal ...
Here we look through piles of victims
For a star that fell, for a body strewn like
fragments of a mirror.
Here we ask, oh my love:
Was this your grave
Or the grave of Arab nationalism?

Adonis’s account of his predicament went beyond Qabbani’s even. It appears in a book of literary criticism, al-Shi’riyya al-Arabiyya (Arabic Poetics), published in Beirut in 1985. Here he depicts the Arab writer as being under a ‘dual siege’, caught between Western thought and the hold of Islamic tradition. ‘Our contemporary modernity is a mirage,’ he writes. As long as the Arabs fail to grasp that there is more to the West than they have found in it – its spirit of curiosity, its love of knowledge, its defiance of dogma – their ‘Western’ modernity is doomed to remain a ‘hired’ form of it. Real modernity can only be attained when the ‘contrived’ world of the foreigner and the ‘contrived’ world of the ancestor are transcended.

Adonis, like Qabbani, endured Beirut’s carnage and breakdown, and like him was driven into exile. Reality had surpassed their worst fears. Is it any wonder that many of those in the Arab world who traffic in words felt that they had so little to say? Moving back and forth in time, Ajami keeps returning to the false premises and the baleful consequences of Arab nationalism. The political crisis of the early 1980s made it difficult even for its most passionate advocates to persist. Arab society, he observes, had run through most of its myths and what now remained in the wake of the proud statements Arabs had made about themselves and their history was a new world of waste, confusion and cruelty.

The oil-based economic boom of the 1970s had done nothing to sustain the myth that a collective condition prevailed from one end of the Arab world to another. On the contrary, the windfall created a fault line between those that were able to share in this new wealth, and the ‘modernity’ that came with it, and the large sectors of the population who were only on the fringe. The petro-era catapulted the Arabs into an unfamiliar world. Ajami himself sees only shadows and no light in the new order:

Whatever its shortcomings, the old world ... had been whole: it had its ways and its rhythms. At least people knew who they were and had some solid ground to stand on. The winners may have been a little uppity or cruel, but they could not fly too high. There were things that people were ashamed to do, limits that marked out the moral boundaries of their deeds. The permissible (halal) was distinguishable from the impermissible (haram). Scoundrels and bullies knew what they could and could not get away with. There was, in sum, a moral order. Then all this was blown away. The continuity of a culture was shattered. All attempts to reconstitute the wholeness, to ignore the great rupture by means of cultural chauvinism or a hyperauthentic traditionalism, brought only greater confusion and breakdown.

Egypt has always held an endless fascination for Ajami because of its resilience and its civility in the face of serious difficulties. His chapter on it here opens with a defining episode in modern Egypt’s history: the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in October 1981, an event illustrative for Ajami of the tension in both the Egyptian psyche and the country’s history. Ajami had long been mesmerised by the assassination and had read practically all the court transcripts and the details of the police investigations. Something that the principal assassin, a young Army lieutenant with strong Islamic convictions, said lodged itself in his memory: ‘I shot the Pharaoh.’

In this book Ajami elaborates on the duality of Egypt: on the modernity at the core of its national aspirations and the threat from theocratic politics. During a recent visit, Ajami spent four evenings in the company of the great novelist Naguib Mahfouz. Now in his eighties, Mahfouz is still recovering from a knife-wound inflicted by religious fanatics that nearly cost him his life and paralysed his writing hand. For Ajami, he epitomises at once modernity and the beleaguerment of the literary community. Ajami considers Egypt to be too tolerant a country to succumb to theocratic zeal, but he notes with sadness that the theocratic alternative has seeped into the local culture: ‘The danger here is not sudden, cataclysmic upheaval but a steady descent into deeper levels of pauperisation, a lapse of the country’s best into apathy and despair, Egypt falling yet again through the trap door of its history of disappointment.’

Predictably, Ajami does not think much of the resurgence of Egypt’s pan-Arab vocation. The Nasserite revolt against the West, and the series of Arab-Israeli wars ended in futility and defeat, and then in dependence on America, he argues. He dismisses the calls of intellectuals for Egypt to assume a larger regional role as a mirage and a warmed-over version of the failed pan-Arab creed of the 1960s. Egypt’s primacy in Arab politics is a thing of the past; Arab states have gone their separate ways. Egypt was the last of them to proclaim the pan-Arab idea and, under Sadat, the first to desert it. If the country succumbs again to its temptation as a distraction from intractable domestic problems, Ajami warns, pan-Arabism would have afflicted the country twice, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

The last part of the book, ‘The Orphaned Peace’, is devoted to the intellectual encounter with Israel, which for fifty years has both fascinated and repelled her Arab neighbours. Talking about Israel has been an indirect way for Arabs to talk about themselves and to take stock of their own condition. Yet, despite the fascination, the Arabs have remained profoundly ignorant about Israel, its political institutions, its culture and society, its language and literature.

Progress towards a settlement at the diplomatic level has done surprisingly little to break down the psychological barrier that sets the two societies apart or to lift the taboos on direct dealings between them. No sooner was the Oslo Accord signed in September 1993 than a new campaign was launched in the Arab world, fuelled by the fear that Israel’s military supremacy would be replaced by a cultural hegemony. The matter of Israel was bound up with Arab modernity. Some Arab intellectuals admitted it was time to stop looking at Israelis as though they were extraterrestrial beings – Adonis was one of them; but they were a distinct minority.

The Oslo Accord was greeted with dismay in some quarters: it was peace without justice or honour, the critics said. It fell to the Arab world’s most popular poet, Nizar Qabbani, to express the widespread opposition to the agreement. He did so in a prose poem, ‘al-Muharwiluun’ (‘those who rush or scurry’), which he wrote in London and published in 1995. Qabbani’s bitter disappointment, and his anger with the Arab leaders who signed the Accord, were given free reign:

After this secret romance in Oslo
we came out barren.
They gave us a homeland
smaller than a single grain of wheat
a homeland to swallow without water
like aspirin pills.

Oh, we dreamed of a green peace
and a white crescent
and a blue sea.
Now we find ourselves
on a dung-heap.

Qabbani’s poem triggered an exchange between the poet and Mahfouz, who praised the beauty of the poem while taking issue with its politics. There can be no peace without negotiations, Mahfouz argued, and since the option of war was not available, there was no justification for this attack on the pragmatic Arab negotiators. Qabbani took refuge in poetic licence. ‘As a poet I am constitutionally of the party of peace,’ he wrote in response,

for poetry cannot be written in the shadow of death and desolation. But what we are offered here is not peace but a pacifier made of rubber with no milk in it, a bottle of wine with no bottom, a love letter written in invisible ink. What we are offered takes from us what is above us and what is under our feet, and leaves us on a mat ... Nothing remains for us of Palestine in the shadow of this ruinous peace.

In Egypt, the debate over relations with Israel has been going on for decades. Sadat’s ‘pharaoh’s peace’ was allowed to stand in his lifetime but his successors have let it wither. A tacit understanding was reached, however, between Mubarak’s regime and the chattering classes: diplomatic accommodation was to be pursued but the opposition was allowed to denounce the unloved peace agreement. Indeed, no one who reads the Egyptian daily al-Ahram would believe that Israel and Egypt are at peace. Its contributors wage a steady campaign against normalisation, conjuring up the spectre of Israel as an enforcer of Pax Americana, and as an enemy bent on diminishing Egypt’s power and influence. On all other subjects clear limits of the permissible are laid down from above, but over Israel there is a free-for-all. The intellectual class likes to resort to wordplay, whereby normalisation, tatbi, is equated with tatwi (domestication) and peace, salam, dismissed as surrender, istislam.

Mohamed Heikal, a former editor of al-Ahram and a keeper of the Nasserite flame, argued that just as the 1950s and 1960s had been an ‘Egyptian era’ of nationalism and political struggle, and the 1970s and 1980s a ‘Saudi era’ of wealth and petro-dollars, so the 1990s had turned into an ‘Israeli era’. The peace that was then emerging was sure to reflect Israel’s ascendancy. It was pointless to blame the Palestinians for their acquiescence, he said – the world had wearied of them and their leader was struggling. Nevertheless, a new map was being drawn for the region and this map was a ‘birth certificate’ for a new order destined to subjugate the Arab world.

Ajami sees the Mubarak regime’s hostility to Israel as a safety valve for a severely troubled political order and as an olive branch held out to its critics in the professional classes and the universities. When he goes back to the pre-Mubarak era, Ajami writes with evident admiration for the intellectuals who sustained Sadat in the 1970s, and the older generation of writers and thinkers who wanted to end the conflict with Israel. This group included, aside from Mahfouz, the critic Louis Awad, the playwright Tawfic al-Hakim, the historian Husayn Fawzi, and the novelist Yusuf Idris. All of them, says Ajami, were individuals of broad horizons and wide-ranging interests. They had seen the pan-Arab vocation of the Nasser era and the wars that followed as an unmitigated disaster for Egypt. They had no love for Israel but they wanted to extricate their country from the conflict and from the authoritarian political culture that it fostered and justified. For them, peace was a precondition of modernity and an open society.

Ajami’s own sympathies are clearly on the side of the modernists. Time and again he berates Arab intellectuals for refusing to look reality in the face, for failing to incorporate the logic of power into their programme. For modernity to have a chance, he argues, the Arab political imagination will have to go beyond the old enmity, and start looking more seriously at Israel’s place in a region at peace. He concludes with a plea ‘for the imagination to steal away from Israel and to look at the Arab reality, to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs want for themselves’.

Ajami is no stranger to controversy, and this book is as likely to generate it as was his first book, The Arab Predicament. He represents the school of thought that blames that predicament on the Arabs themselves, as against the much larger school which blames it on the West. In between these polar opposites come many intermediate points of view. Ajami’s implicit assumption is that Arab failures and frustrations are due to factors inherent in Arab society, which leads him to draw Cassandra-like conclusions about future prospects. He tends to exaggerate the role of intellectuals in Arab politics, as well as the role of poets in shaping, as opposed to reflecting, public opinion. But there can be no doubt that his book makes an exceptional contribution to the study of Arab culture and society.