An Exceptional American
Fouad Ajami, 1945-2014.
Jul 14, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 41 • By LEE SMITH
Hardly a day passes that I don’t think it’s a good time to go back and reread Fouad Ajami. As events unfold in the Middle East, he always offers some insight or information, or better yet one perfect and memorable sentence or phrase, that points at an answer to the whole puzzle. And now I want to read it all again—the books, the countless essays and newspaper columns, transcripts from interviews and TV appearances—all at once, as if to fill the hole left by his death in late June.
Ajami is best known as a historian of the modern Middle East, but he was primarily a writer who became one of the great stylists of English prose, to be read not simply for instruction but for pleasure, too. He was essentially a memoirist, though the man himself appears rarely in the books. He makes an appearance, briefly, in the introduction to The Vanished Imam, his second book, touching lightly on his adolescence in the Lebanese capital, as a “Shia assimilé, from a background in the rural south, anxious to pass undetected in the modern world of Beirut.”
It’s hard not to conclude that this writer steeped in world literature means to identify himself here as a type of literary figure, like a protagonist in 19th-century novels of education—for instance, Julien Sorel in The Red and the Black, a young man from the provinces who would witness some of the momentous social and political upheavals of his time. In Ajami’s case, this took him from the Levant to the White House.
His first and third books, The Arab Predicament and The Dream Palace of the Arabs, perhaps his greatest single work, chronicle the political and intellectual ambitions and errors of an Arab generation. The Foreigner’s Gift, concerning the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, maps the intersection of his past and his present, and what America embodies for everyone, the Arabs, too. The Syrian Rebellion, his fifth book, documenting the brutal ongoing civil war and Western apathy, is the culmination of what is a quintessentially American autobiography, recording the growth and formation of an American mind, Ajami’s, even as the central figure stays in the margins. His final volume, The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent, is a short coda written by a man who, knowing he was dying, chose as his final keywords mercy and light.
Ajami wrote about great events and the greater passions, both the fine and the damaged, moving them. Looking at the arc of the career described in his books, it becomes clear that the modern Middle East was merely the focus of his attention, the frame on which he hung his argument. His real subject was human freedom and possibility, the greatest of American themes.
Like Joseph Conrad and George Santayana, other writers whose mother tongue was not English, Ajami added to the song and therefore wisdom of our written language. He was interested not in color or cadence, but exposition and argument, which is the force undergirding his syllables as they are spoken aloud.
If prose has a shape, Arabic’s, unlike that of English, is too often a spiral, circling in on itself, concluding where it started, driven not by reason but by rhetoric and sometimes rhyme. It was Ajami, the man of letters as well as the historian, who saw that this linguistic style reflected both Arab private ambitions and public life. Generations of Arabs had staked their fates on empty talk, like Gamal Abdel Nasser’s threats, Saddam Hussein’s posturing, and the “divine victories” that Hassan Nasrallah boasted of with his community in ruins after Hezbollah’s disastrous 2006 war with Israel.
“The tragedy of Arab political culture,” Ajami wrote in 2008, “has been the unending expectation of the crowd—the street, we call it—in the redeemer who will put an end to the decline, who will restore faded splendor and greatness.” Ajami was alarmed to hear this same effect reproduced in his adopted land. He heard it in Obama. As he wrote in that same Wall Street Journal column shortly before the 2008 presidential election: “America is a different land, for me exceptional in all the ways that matter. In recent days, those vast Obama crowds, though, have recalled for me the politics of charisma that wrecked Arab and Muslim societies. A leader does not have to say much, or be much. The crowd is left to its most powerful possession—its imagination.”
Ajami was keenly attuned to the dangerous and delusional poetry upon which the Arabs had built their political culture, and it clashed with his idea of America. Political charisma, resentment, identity politics were what you had left if you emptied us of our pragmatism, resilience, and conviction that all men, created equal, seek life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
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