The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey
By Fouad Ajami
Pantheon, 1998, 368 pp.
This richly textured, informative, and discursive yet coherent book examines the fit -- or misfit -- between ideas and politics in the Arab world of recent years. The "odyssey" is the ideological journey of those Arab poets, novelists, and scholars who have championed nationalism, modernity, and secularism. Dazzled but then disappointed by dreams such as Nasserist pan-Arabism, imprisoned by harsh regimes and facing either conformity or exile (London and Paris have become Arab intellectual capitals), and now buffeted by religious fundamentalism, these intellectuals, with a few exceptions, are still at sea when it comes to adjusting aspirations to power realities. Such is Ajami's major theme. He uses the lives and ideas of major Arab thinkers to illuminate the ideological underpinnings of Arab politics (Khalil Hawi, who committed suicide in June 1982 just as Israeli troops were entering Beirut, Nizar Qabbani, Adonis, Naguib Mahfouz, Hisham Sharabi, Abdelrahman Munif, and many others). The book ranges widely, moving from class distinctions in Arab society to the different worlds of the Fertile Crescent and the Arabian peninsula, the mindset of Shiite Arabs, and Egypt's distinctiveness. Portraits of the American presence (from the American University of Beirut to officialdom) are also presented. Ironic and insightful, this work is vintage Ajami.