Fouad Ajami – Reconsidered

The immediate aftermath of the passing of men and women prompts a summation of their contributions and achievements. Inevitably, as time passes, more nuanced evaluations set in. These are not always negative, but the best are well-rounded; as often what is missed is the best guide to what was accomplished.

The year since the passing of Fouad Ajami has not dimmed appreciation for his honesty, humanity and scholarship. He was a decent, learned and passionate man. For all the criticism he leveled at Arab culture, he refrained from becoming for the Arabs what Nietzsche was for the Europeans or Berdyczewski for the Jews; a man, in the words of the former, who “philosophizes with a hammer”. At heart, Ajami was a conservative, with little desire for the modernist approach to creation by deconstruction. But the power of negation is important (as Nietzsche’s comment reminds us), and in fact is central to progress. The Western modernists understood this, whether in arts or sciences. The best of them made negation a secondary component of creation, but did not shrink from its inevitability. But Ajami was not a modernizer, even if he wanted modernity for the Arabs. It is a paradox of our time, and his life, that many Arabs vilified Ajami, who wrote and spoke Arabic perfectly, and was culturally closer to the Arab heart, than his contemporary, Edward Said, who gave voice to Arab rage while remaining enigmatically closer to Western thought. In Ajami’s writing one can discern sadness, dangerously close to sentimentality, for the loss of the Arabs, of the once-mighty laid low. It is a measure of his fealty to Arab culture that he chose to practice its most common form, the art of elegiac eulogy.

Eulogy is a suspect art, especially when practiced outside the narrowest focus on men and women. As soon as one begins to write eulogies for cultures and ideas there is the temptation to traffic in nostalgia, which remains the Arabs’ opiate. At the heart of any eulogy is either pedagogy or exhortation; the former is nearly useless unless unnecessary, while the latter is dangerous when rarely heeded. In reading and re-reading Ajami, one stumbles on the eulogies, which sometimes take place of a simpler “good riddance”. Nowhere is this more visible than for his inexplicable love for Egypt.

The day Mubarak resigned, American media broadcast images of happy Egyptians roaming the streets cheering “Ahom, Ahom, Ahom, El Masreen Ahom” (Here come the Egyptians). Ajami beamed with happiness at these images, when others might have considered the declaration with some alarm. He had hung out with the likes of Naguib Mahfouz, Louis Awad, Milad Hanna, and Tahseen Bashir, absorbing Bashir’s refrain that “Egypt is a country while the Arabs are tribes with flags”. Ajami had nostalgia for an Egypt he imagined and loved, and rarely examined the myth created by such men. In valuing an integral, unique and eternal Egypt, Ajami was doing some transference for the “Arab Nation”. Ajami’s admiration for Egypt always seemed part-and-parcel of his desire to reform the Arab culture and improve the lot of the Arabs. There is little evidence that he considered the alternatives; that the Arab culture, such as it is, is beyond repair, and the “Arab Nation” is a farce written by second-rate pedagogues. He would not have approved of Salama Moussa’s desire to write colloquial Egyptian in Latin letters, nor of relegating Classical Arabic to dusty classrooms and favoring a multitude of tongues, as Latin had evolved in Europe.

In the end we still come away with respect and admiration for Ajami, but note that he was a mighty man who could lift a mighty hammer, but land it with the gentlest of blows. He believed that he can save the people by reforming their culture. Others might come away with a less sentimental conclusion; that it is best to save the people and damn everything else.

— Maged Atiya


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s