The Dream Palace of the Arabs
From the outset, a strong sense of nostalgia and melancholy permeates the pages of Fouad Ajami’s perceptive work The Dream Palace of the Arabs. As Ajami points out, the funeral of exiled Iraqi poet Buland Haidari in London in the summer of 1996 is symptomatic of what Ajami perceives as the ailment of the contemporary Arab world. Having failed to transform their countries into secular, modern national states that could offer their citizens personal liberty, a flourishing culture, and a stable economy coupled with nationalist pride in strong, independent states, too many of the region’s elite citizens have left their homes in exchange for an alienating future in Western society.
Immediately drawing in the reader to the lost world of his own past, Fouad Ajami evokes a haunting picture of his birthplace, “at the foot of a Crusader castle, the Beaufort, in a small village in the south of Lebanon,” in 1945. His family of Shia Muslims had come to Lebanon from Persia, the contemporary Iran; indeed, the name Ajami means “the Persian” in Arabic.
When Ajami grew up in a secular Lebanon, his narrative tells, the Arabic world experienced a period of great optimism. Literary life flourished, and Arabic poetry saw a period of great activity and creative renaissance. Young Arabs of his generation looked to such leaders as Egypt’s ruler Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose overthrow of the monarchy seemed like a new beginning for many. Yet within decades, this new start had failed, and political repression and a backsliding into theocratic, fundamentalist policies was evident.
Interweaving personal narrative, literary criticism, and an informed study of the recent history of Arabic lands from Algeria to the Persian Gulf, The Dream Palace of the Arabs chronicles in rich detail the tale of a dream that failed. From the vantage point of the late 1990’s, Ajami tells of how high hopes have been dashed in the harsh political, economic, and military environment of the area. While Ajami’s generation inherited the dream of a modernist revolution from the thinkers of the period between the world wars, their aspirations did not come to fruition. Throughout its narrative, The Dream Palace of the Arabs reveals how many of their hopes had been based on dreams and projections.
After shaking off their Turkish masters and freeing their countries from Ottoman rule after World War I, many Arabic nations in the Middle East became European colonies or protectorates. With the departure of the Europeans during the period of decolonialization after World War II, possibilities for the new nations seemed endless. Yet even as the Arabic world readied itself for a new era of freedom from foreign rule, Ajami reveals, there were signs that the new order would not be without its problems. It is no historical accident that so many of the poets and intellectuals featured in The Dream Palace of the Arabs were exiles from the countries where they had been born.
Buland Haidari, “Adonis” (the pen name of Ali Ahmed Said), and Nizar Qabbani had left the repressive regimes of Syria and Iraq for a first exile in then-liberal, cosmopolitan Lebanon. Yet even in Lebanon, there was death for those who sought to defy the old order of the clans and landowners. While dreaming of a radically new pan-Arabic society, Anton Saadah had been betrayed by a Syrian colonel to the authorities of the Lebanese government. Captured, the radical writer was sentenced to death and, “in the early hours of dawn, on the eighth day of August 1949 . . . was taken to a firing range by the sea, where he was shot.” Even against this backdrop, Ajami asserts, intellectual life in Lebanon still flourished in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Poets such as Khalil Hawi had a rich following, and young people dreamed of a better future. Modernization and nationalism still appeared to be the path of the future for the Arab lands.
Ultimately, Ajami demonstrates in the first two chapters of his book, all these dreams were “a supreme delusion” and failed...
(The entire section is 1664 words.)