Farewell to Fouad Ajami, Great Scholar of the Arabs, Truth-Teller, My Mo’allem
A former student remembers the influential scholar and expert in Arab history, who died this week at age 68
Of all the pre-Islamic Arab legends, Zarqaa El Yamama’s story is perhaps the most tragic. A gifted woman with extraordinary eyesight, she warned her people of the coming doom in the form of an advancing army using trees as a cover. Her curse was similar to that of Greek Cassandra—her people never believed her. They paid a heavy price.
Fouad Ajami, who died this week at age 68, was a man of two worlds; a bridge between two cultures, and he spoke truth to both. His words were never welcomed in the cultural salons of Beirut and Cairo and are unfashionable today in the halls of power in Washington—in large part because words of criticism are never popular. He was a man excommunicated by his brethren. After all, he had committed the worst of sins: Instead of following the herd and blaming the ills of the region on the foreigner, he had written in the opening pages of his 1981 book The Arab Predicament that “the wounds that mattered were self-inflicted wounds.”
For those who continue on the old path, there is something especially threatening in the man who leaves the pack. He knows the old ways well; he had once made the same arguments, even taught them to others. Worse yet is the question his change of convictions poses: If it happened to him, if he now questions our revealed truths, does that make them weak or untrue? These are challenging questions. They are questions better left unasked. Old friends are soon turned into the worst enemies; sometimes the deeper the relationship the larger the wound and the bitterness it leaves.
Ajami’s detractors never measured up to the power of his arguments and the beauty of his prose. Instead they were left with name-calling. Unable to explain his new convictions, and the force with which he stood for them, they sought easier answers than engaging them; the man hated his people, he was a racist, he was hungry for power, he was a traitor. Words like “House Arab” and “Native Informant” were popularized by men who could not but stand in his shadow. They could never understand why a man who drank from the fountain of Arab nationalism would abandon it, and they never forgave him his betrayal.
His moment of truth came on a fateful early morning in June 1967. His abandonment of his old beliefs would take time and serious self-reflection, but his path was drawn as the dreams of a whole generation and region had come crashing to the ground on the hot sands of Sinai. The earlier humiliation of 1948 had left little impact, because it was so widely understood to be only temporary. But the shock waves of the Arab defeat 20 years later would resonate across the Arab world for decades. Luigi Pirandello’s character in search of an author, Gamal Abdel Nasser, had promised deliverance but brought nothing but sorrow. The brilliant Egyptian writer Tawfik El Hakim would go on to write The Return of the Consciousness after Nasser’s death, but the utter bitterness of the moment was captured by Nizar Qabbani in his masterful poem Marginal Notes on the Book of Defeat: “The summary of the problem, can be summarized in a phrase, We have worn the Crust of civilization, but the spirit remained Jahiliyya.”
It would be a downhill spiral from that point onward. The Lebanese civil war, the Hama massacre, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, and worse—were all waiting around the corner. If Nizar Qabbani had screamed at his fellow Arabs, “I pronounce dead to you the thought that had led to the defeat,” Ajami with the careful hand of an excavator exposed the moral bankruptcy of that thought and of the entire political class of the Arab world.
Unlike some Arab immigrants, Ajami was truly at home in America. He fit into his adopted country and fell deeply in love with it. He was grateful for the opportunity it had given him, and he believed in its virtues and in the good its power could deliver. His detractors claimed that in coming to America he had abandoned his roots and identity and never looked back; others argued he was as insecure man, torn between East and West, always attempting to belong. Their criticism said more about their own fears and insecurities than his. Ajami was anything but insecure. Had belonging been his quest, he could have quite easily bowed to the accepted wisdom of academia that passes in New York’s Leftist circles for originality and telling truth to power and made it his home, his bright star shining among their intellectual shallowness. Those who assumed that becoming American meant completely forgetting where one came from, knew little of America and even less of Ajami. Like the Jewish American, the Polish American, and the Irish American immigrant, Ajami had found liberation and a chance in the new world, but he never forgot where he came from and the misery of those he had left behind. He had parted ways with the old ways and hatreds of the region, never allowing them to haunt him in his new home or to consume him with their darkness, but he retained his love for the region.
I met Ajami for the first time in October 2010. As a student at Georgetown distressed with the state of Middle East studies in American universities, I had emailed him asking for his advice on my quest for a doctorate. We met a week later, and for the next three hours a bond was created. I like to think that he saw a younger, though less brilliant, version of himself in the student sitting in front of him, that he saw a similarity between my ideological transformation because of Sept. 11 from an Arab nationalist to a conservative, and his. For the next four years, Ajami became my teacher, mentor, and editor of two books, which he invited me to write.
Ajami was remarkable because he became a full American and loved this country as anyone could love it, but that never lessened his passion for what he had left behind. He knew well the region’s ills, the pains it gave those who cherished it, and God knows it gave him nothing but pain. But he always believed the peoples of the region deserved better, and he was unabashed in championing their cause and their yearning for freedom. For those who languished in the horror that was Saddam’s prisons, for those who perished under the brutality that is Bashar al-Assad, there was no greater champion than Ajami.
No place in the Arab world escaped Ajami’s examining eye and critical scholarship, but perhaps the place he felt most passionate about after his homeland was the land of the Nile. It was on Egypt that Ajami wrote his superb Foreign Affairs article in 1995, where he brilliantly described its late dictator as “a civil servant with the rank of President” and which remains the best examination of the country’s predicament and as true today as it was then. In The Sorrows of Egypt, Ajami had lamented that “At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment. The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its accomplishments.” He described himself in that article 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.”
The country’s pains were his. In an email in September 2013 he had written me: “To paraphrase Yuosef Qaid—what is happening in the land of Egypt? What has become of the Egypt we knew? What will stop Egypt’s drift toward unreason and catastrophe? It is really frightening to observe and listen and to read Egypt. I spent years as you know studying that country. It nearly killed me in 1995 with a digestive problem and yet I still loved the place but now this Egypt I cannot recognize.”
Ajami was not fooled by the newest promise of salvation offered by the latest army general. The last lines in my book Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt were written by Ajami: “Today, after the revolution and its hopes and disappointments, Egypt finds itself in a world it knows all too well—faith in the deliverance offered it by one man. The hope is now invested in a military commander, Abdul Fattah el-Sissi. It is dictatorship by demand, as it were. The country has been here before. For two decades, 1954-1970, Gamal Abdul Nasser gave Egypt its moment of enthusiasm and then led it to defeat and heartbreak. It would take a leap of faith, and luck beyond what history offers, to believe that this faith in a redeemer will yield a better harvest than the one before it.”
Ajami’s last book, The Struggle for Mastery in the Fertile Crescent, was published this week. In the last pages of his book he returned to a theme so dear to his heart, the fate of the Arab world’s Shia. The last sentence in the book is: “It would be a singular tale of loss and sorrow if Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, and the newly empowered warlords in Iraq, were to sully Shiism with their dark deeds, taking away from it the sense of mercy that was always its guiding light.”
The novelist Abdul Rahman Munif ends his depressing novel East of the Mediterranean with those lines: “I want to follow Ragab’s method itself: To push things to their end, then perhaps something would happen.” Ajami did not wait for something to happen. He stood against the miserable fate of the peoples inhibiting the Arab world. He stood against the loss and sorrow that would befall his people. He stood tall, and at times he stood alone.
The world will mourn the death of a brilliant scholar. Obituaries will attempt to capture the gifted man, but they will fall short. For me, I will remember the magnificent scholar who took a young man under his wing and mentored him for four years. I will remember the kindness, the encouragement, the generosity he showed me.
Farewell, my Mo’allem. Farewell my friend. Farwell to the complex and extraordinary Fouad, the American, the Shia, the Lebanese, and though he wouldn’t have liked it, the Arab as well.
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By ignoring the honor-shame dynamic in Arab political culture, is the West keeping itself from making headway toward peace?