Thwarted dreams

Print edition : October 10, 1998

The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey by Fouad Ajami; Pantheon Books, New York, 1998; pages 343; $26.00.

WHEN it comes to the Arabs, it is fashionable to deride them. The Arab becomes synonymous with the Islamic, which in turn is read today as extremist and anti-modern. The logical fallacy of the undivided middle is freely indulged in, a broad brush is used indiscriminately, tools of intellectual scrutiny are put aside, contemporary history is ignored, the joys and pains of the people of a whole region are forgotten and media stereotypes, subconsciously reinforced by prejudices of one kind or the other, are imbibed as gospel truths. For all these reasons, and some others, The Dream Palace of the Arabs is a timely corrective, a reminder that other views and wider perceptions are also part of the Arab scene.

The book is partly an elegy for a bygone era and partly a critical survey of contemporary Arab history, but with a difference. It interprets the known events through the introspection and insights of poets, novelists and sociologists. Minority voices are sought and heeded - Christians, Copts, Kurds, Shias, Alewis, and many among the majority Sunnis who developed the courage to articulate dissenting perceptions; altogether, a whole world of unorthodox ideas, little known to the outside world. It could be read as an obituary of classical Arab nationalism - sad, evocative and compelling. Few people could have done this better than Fouad Ajami, the doyen of Arab-American scholars, holder of the Majid Khadduri Chair of Middle Eastern Studies in the Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, a Lebanese of Tabrizi descent (hence the surname Ajami), a Shia, a product of the intellectual oasis called Beirut, which was so comprehensively and conclusively destroyed in the Lebanese civil war.

Fouad Ajami writes about living history, witnessed and experienced, its interstices filled with value judgments on three decades of evolution in the eastern Arab world in which "a political inheritance had slipped through the fingers of the generations of Arabs formed on the ideals of secular enlightenment and modernity". How this happened is traced through the personal tragedy of the Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi, the poems of the Syrian poets Nizar Qabbani (who died early this year) and Ali Ahmed Said 'Adonis', the writings of Naguib Mahfouz, Tahseen Basheer, Faraj Foda, Nasr Abu Zeid and others in Egypt, the exiled Saudi novelist Abdelrehman Munif, and the poetess Souad Al-Sabah of Kuwait. He delineates how an amorphous Arab nationalist sensibility, lying "side by side with ancestral prohibitions and phobias", failed to reconcile itself with the imperatives of territorial nationalism, intolerance and sectarian conflict, the mutual distrust between new wealth and the "republic of letters", the disaster of 1967, the civil war in Lebanon and the emergence of the Shia factor, Kuwait and Pax Americana and, of course, Palestine. Ajami looks back on this failure with regret and nostalgia. He does not raise the fundamental question about Arab assumptions concerning Arab nationalism, nor does he address the critical distinction between being (a nation) and becoming one; he does, however, concede that Arab nationalism "looked past anything it did not wish to see" (page 131).

The story, and its exigesis, must begin earlier. It was in 1928 that a young Lebanese woman, Nazira Zayn al-Din, wrote about the four veils of Arab society - of cloth, of ignorance, of hypocrisy, of stagnation. However, this statement of the problem by a section of the elite did not bring forth a concerted effort at its redress, by the elite or by the society at large. Ignorance, stagnation and hypocrisy thus reinforce one another in a cyclical thrust; they discovered a convenient cloak for it in tradition. The Arab movements of renaissance, of reform, and eventually of revolution therefore, failed to produce the desired changes in mass consciousness without which this heavy veil of tradition could not be torn asunder. The Arab intellectuals' dialogue with modernity made little and halting headway. Only some joined Adonis in asserting that "our opposition to the West should not mean it is total and generic rejection". He was eventually driven to the judgment that "our contemporary modernity is a mirage" and that "something in the Arab world has died". He proceeded to a self-imposed exile in 1986.

Understand me, my homeland, understand me I cannot defend you Except with my wings

Politics, of course, did not give a helping hand. The centrality of the Arab states of West Asia in the global strategic scenario necessitated the reinforcement of the status quo or, as expressed in the Truman Doctrine of 1947, "the preservation of order in the Middle East".

The march of events, and an Arab's despondency over them, is exemplified in the words of a Kuwaiti academic: "I cheered in 1956, I cried in 1967 after the Six Day War. I cheered again in 1973 when I was told that a new world beckoned the Arabs. Now in the summer of 1982, after a decade which began with such promises closes with a bitter taste, I am too shocked for words, for tears or even for anger" (page 123). It was this frustration, this resignation, which induced the enthusiastic public response to the Palestinian Intifada of 1987, reflected so forcefully by Nazar Qabbani in his poem "Children of the Stones". The Intifada was the catalyst which, through a complex process that extended into Israel's domestic politics, led to the unthinkable: the exercise of Israel's Palestinian Option. Ajami's assessment on this is to be noted: "Israel's desire to be done with military rule over the Palestinians; Arafat's recognition that his past led him down a blind alley; and the politics of that plastic moment in Arab life which followed the great crisis in the Gulf, when the pieties of Arab politics gave way."

Arab rulers endorsed the Oslo accord, Arab intellectuals disowned it, and Nazar Qabbani, in a widely-read poem published in 1995, dubbed it "the peace of the cowards" which landed Arabs "on a dung heap". Ajami comments on the role of the intellectuals: "The intellectual class has only itself to blame. It had not looked reality in the face; it had not sought to describe the political world as it was. Its pronouncements had never incorporated the cold logic power. Its world was a cocoon that a cruel decade had torn asunder" (page 283). A few years later and by January 1997, a crack in the intellectual consensus revealed itself and some among them (including Lotfi al Kholi of Egypt and Hazem Saghieh of Lebanon) argued that it was time to break out of the stagnant ways of the past, be a realist, and seek accommodation between the Palestinian and Israeli nationalisms. Ajami's endorsement of this is linked to the wider question of Arab modernity: "For modernity to have a chance, the Arab political imagination will have to go beyond that old enmity." He admits that while some of the intellectuals agree, most do not, or wish to defer it for some time; yet another group considers that conflict to be "a matter of their own fidelity to the truths of their own world."

In 1995 and in the midst of a political-literary controversy, Nazar Qabbani said that he "cannot write of Egypt with neutrality or love her with neutrality". This would also be true of Ajami's chapter on Egypt: "We must not exaggerate the strength of the theocratic challenge from the magnitude of the middle class' defection", and yet, there is "a discernible retreat on the part of the regime from secular politics and culture". The fear of vigilante action has curtailed the freedom of expression, minority groups are on the defensive and have been frightened in the bosom of the state, and the accumulated democratic space is shrinking. "A country of 60 million now produces a mere 375 books a year," compared to Israel's 4,000. In foreign policy, "both the Mediterranean temptation to Egypt being a piece of Europe and the pan-Arab illusion have run aground" (page 247). Egypt's primacy in Arab politics is a thing of the past since other Arabs have gone their own separate ways. He quotes the writer Hussein Ahmad Amin to highlight the disillusionment with Egypt's recent past:

"We tried liberalism and military dictatorship, a multi-party system and one-party system, capitalism, socialism and alliance with the East followed by an alliance with the West, Egyptian nationalism and pan-Arabism.... Our writers and journalists have turned their coats a thousand times; we sang the praises of our rulers, then we condemned them, we built statues of the rulers and then tore them down, we named streets after them then changed these names, we fought Israel, then made peace with it, we resisted American things, then succumbed to it; we signed a friendship treaty with the Russians, then tore it up. What have we not tried yet? What remains to us other than plunging deep into a past that we have adorned, from which we have deleted all that was painful and problematic and retained what was bright and worthwhile?" (page 229-230).

The trauma induced by these national options that have failed extends beyond Egypt in view of the latter's undisputed centrality in the cultural life of Arabs. There is consequently a sense of disquiet in Ajami's prognosis of Egypt: "A country's myth can console and knit together men and women of different needs, carry them through different times, explain sorrow and defeat, locate them in the world. But the myth can also hide the country from itself, hide it from scrutiny. There is a myth of Egypt - the gentle soil, the steady river, the patient folk at peace with itself and without its world. Much history has gone into that idea of Egypt,the hydraulic society of great stability. But blood has been spilled of late and patience worn thin" (page 251). For this reason, feels Ajami, "the Nilometer gauges on the banks of the river will have to be read and watched with care."

Fouad Ajami's odyssey, tracing the rupturing of the secular tradition, concludes by urging the Arab world to see the reality and "to behold its own view of the kind of world the Arabs want for themselves". The conclusion is cautious and devoid of the certitude reflected in his earlier work, The Arab Predicament (1980), in which he had forcefully asserted that "men cannot indefinitely live on frenzy or be kept in trance."

With its intensity tending to go well beyond verbal and literary controversies, the debate in Arab lands is far from over and the forceful advent of Islamism has altered, perhaps irrevocably, the terms of the argument. On this new phenomenon, Ajami's observation is insightful: "We spent too much time speaking of 'Islam', and not enough of the sentiments and furies that gave political Islam its modern relevance." Violence and the use of violence to counter it have narrowed the very avenues through which a reasoned response could be attempted. In such an environment, would an exercise in re-evaluating societal concepts be possible? It would certainly be desirable to explore Mohammed Arkoun's suggestion to open a new phase in which "critical thought - anchored in modernity but criticising modernity itself and contributing to its enrichment through recourse to the Islamic example, should accompany or even for once precede political action, economic decisions, and great social movements".

To a wider audience, questions about the Arab secular tradition remained unanswered. Why did it remain confined to the intellectual elite only? Why was not an institutional underpinning sought, put in place and nurtured? How can the ruptured tradition be repaired? The answers would seem to lie in the civil society, in the strengthening of its structures, in the rectification of the imbalance in the state-societal relations. Freedom, said Jehad al-Khazan (now editor of the prestigious pan-Arab daily Al Hayat) in 1980, "is a plant alien to our part of the world." This perception persists with many in West Asia. They seek a greater measure of liberty, of tolerance, of diversity of opinion - in short, some of the essential ingredients of a secular ethos. In the final analysis, therefore, the struggle for liberal values is also a struggle for rights - comprehensively defined and studiously pursued. The human spirit will plunge into it as a matter of necessity, with or without the vision of a Dream Palace. The political landscape nevertheless may make a greater measure of grit and perseverance unavoidable.

Another eminent name in the Arab "diaspora", Hisham Sharabi, had foreseen the need for it in his work on Neopatriarchy: "To fight the pessimism of the intellect, one must hold fast to the optimism of the will."

M. H. Ansari is India's Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

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