Unfulfilled Promise For a Generation of Arabs

THE DREAM PALACE OF THE ARABS

Fouad Ajami

Pantheon

344 pp., $26

'The Dream Palace of the Arabs" borrows its enigmatic title from the writings of English author T.E. Lawrence. "I meant ... to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream palace of their national thoughts," he wrote in "Seven Pillars of Wisdom."

This dream palace the Arabs built was the "intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity," which reached its high-water mark in the 1950s and '60s. For the generation of Arabs who inherited the ideals of that era, the next quarter century was to see a relentless decline and dashing of hopes.

From the devastating defeat of the Six Day War with Israel in 1967, to the sectarian strife in Lebanon, to the rise of theocratic politics, Fouad Ajami traces the history of a people through the debate of its intellectuals.

"Dream Palace" is a clear-eyed look at the lost hopes of the Arabs by an insider. It opens the door to the thought processes of a society whose motivations have been little understood and often feared.

And Ajami is an eloquent narrator. Raised in Lebanon and now teaching at Johns Hopkins University, he has aired his insightful scholarship in two earlier volumes, "The Arab Predicament" and "The Vanished Imam."

Through the lives of prominent writers and poets from Beirut, Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus, Ajami draws out the broad themes of the past two generations of Arab experience.

His first subject, Khalil Hawi, is a Lebanese poet who rose from poor obscurity in a Greek Orthodox family to become a professor at the American University in Beirut. His most famous poem, "The Bridge," embodied both his highest hopes for the region and his distress at what ailed it. But as sectarian violence and clan rivalries tore the country apart, Hawi lost faith in the power of words.

He saw the fragile promise of an Arab awakening run aground and Beirut, the capital of Arabic letters, burn as the Arab world looked on. Hawi's anger gradually alienated him from public life. Then in 1982, on the day that Israel invaded southern Lebanon, he committed suicide.

Arab society had proved unready to relinquish old fidelities. Hawi and his peers, "hacking away at the literary and political symbols of their elders," had labored under "a supreme delusion about the ease with which cultures could be undone and remade."

The Syrian poet Ali Ahmad Said, known as Adonis, saw a different dilemma. The attempted marriage between Western-style modernity and the dominant traditions of the Middle East "produced a monstrous and arid world." What resulted was a choice between heritage - unquestioned adherence to past custom - and a "hired" form of modernity. Both false options, he argued.

Lure of the past and foreign

Arab thought was caught between the lure of the past and the lure of the foreign. But Adonis believed the new had to emerge out of the past with "no contrived breakthroughs."

This "hired" modernity had come in on the tide of oil wealth. The new money in the Gulf and Saudi Arabia only deepened the fault line between Arabs. It shifted the center of Arab political life toward the desert Arabs. And, when economic growth faltered in the mid-1980s, theocratic politics blew in, fed by the growing urbanized underclasses. The principal casualty in this new battle was Arab nationalism and the secular tradition it had been built on.

Even Egypt, with its long history of political stability and resilience, felt the Islamic sway. After the assassination of Anwar Sadat, Islam's deepening current took a more subtle turn, cramping education, silencing debate, and stirring anti-Coptic sentiment. One small indication of this shift is the meager 375 books produced a year by Egypt's population of 60 million. Israel publishes 4,000.

The final chapter, "The Orphaned Peace," turns to the issue of Israel and the campaign in Arab intellectual circles against normalization of relations, despite the political reality. These thinkers have become the keepers of the legacy of pan-Arabism.

Cultural hegemony feared

Benjamin Netanyahu's victory over the left was oddly reassuring to intellectuals. It offered old familiar hostilities. In peace, Arabs feared Israel's cultural domination.

"Dream Palace" is a courageous book that explores the complex roots of Arab angst and offers a hard assessment. "Arab society had run through most of its myths, and what remained ... was a new world of cruelty, waste, and confusion," Ajami says. The disillusionment is palpable. He concludes: "It is time for the imagination to steal away ... and look at the Arab reality."

* Susan Llewelyn Leach is a Monitor staff editor.

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