The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey

Article excerpt

MODERN HISTORY AND POLITICS

The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey by Fouad Ajami. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998. xx + 312 pages. Notes to p. 322. Acknowledgments to p. 324. Index to p. 344. $26.

Reviewed by Charles E. Butterworth

This rich, provocative book poignantly reveals Fouad Ajami's inability to make cultural and political sense of a political, intellectual, and literary world he disparages even as he seems to admire its many layers. Still, Ajami's style, as befitting one who must be likened to V.S. Naipaul in tone and content, is most attractive. The dream palace of the title hearkens back to a passage in T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and Ajami seeks to account for what has become of this "intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity" since 1970 or so.

Somewhat autobiographical, especially in the first two chapters, the book betrays Ajami's bitterness both toward his elders and his own generation. At the same time, it offers a most unusual, thickly woven social history of prominent Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanian, and Egyptian Arab writers. For the most part, Ajami refers to the writings and general history of their lives to illustrate their sorrow at the transformation of their world, all the while attempting to identify the agents of that change. In chapter 2, for example, he probes the life of Khalil Hawi-reaching back to Beirut of the 19th century and describing its evolution through the middle and late 20th century-to provide a rich social history of the city and of how it shaped Lebanon. The reader comes to know Hawi, his family, and his struggle intimately, as well as the literary and even the para-military endeavors of Christians (e.g., Anton Saadah) to gain recognition there. The tale, replete with little by-ways and sketches of writers as academics, nonetheless celebrates petty injustice while ignoring massive outrage. It was not, after all, slights fueled by false social values that prompted Hawi to kill himself on June 6, 1982, but the Israeli invasion. In the face of such horror, how can it be said that "he protested too much" (p. 73 with pp. 87-89)?

Chapter 3 provides a sweeping political history of the Middle East from that infamous day on to Desert Storm 1991, as reflected in the writings and actions of Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, and Abdelrahman Munif-these given perspective by mini-dissertations on language, tribal custom, and religious doctrine. Seizing upon the tension these writers (above all, Adonis) discerned between the demands of tradition and modernity, Ajami probes for their response to it in their biography, not their writings. …