Dream Palace of the Arabs: Politics and the World of Letters

Dream Palace of the Arabs: Politics and the World of Letters

by Fouad Ajami

From Fouad Ajami, an acclaimed author and chronicler of Arab politics, comes a compelling account of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to introduce cultural renewals in their homelands through the forces of modernity and secularism. Ultimately, they came to face disappointment, exile, and, on occasion, death. Brilliantly weaving together the strands of

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From Fouad Ajami, an acclaimed author and chronicler of Arab politics, comes a compelling account of how a generation of Arab intellectuals tried to introduce cultural renewals in their homelands through the forces of modernity and secularism. Ultimately, they came to face disappointment, exile, and, on occasion, death. Brilliantly weaving together the strands of a tumultuous century in Arab political thought, history, and poetry, Ajami takes us from the ruins of Beirut's once glittering metropolis to the land of Egypt, where struggle rages between a modernist impulse and an Islamist insurgency, from Nasser's pan-Arab nationalist ambitions to the emergence of an uneasy Pax Americana in Arab lands, from the triumphalism of the Gulf War to the continuing anguished debate over the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords.

For anyone who seeks to understand the Middle East, here is an insider's unflinching analysis of the collision between intellectual life and political realities in the Arab world today.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the mid-20th century, a visionary generation of Arab writers and intellectuals attempted to blend the best of "Arab heritage" with that of "contemporary Western civilization and culture" to create an enlightened "Arab awakening." In this nuanced, rich and accessible amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary, Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins, explores the origin of this dream and its almost complete destruction by the rise of Islamic extremism in the last 25 years. Drawing on the lives and the work of the most influential Arab writers born after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Ajami traces dramatic examples of how these writers' personal ordeals often spoke to a wider generational themethe shift from creative idealism to disappointment with increasingly rigid political structures. He starts with a very specific example, that of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi, who was so disillusioned with "Arab enlightenment" and so devastated by Israel's June 6, 1982, invasion of Lebanon that he killed himself that very day. Other sections deal with the reactions of other writers to Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy; to the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat; to the 1994 stabbing of novelist Naguib Mahfuz by Islamic extremists; to the importation of Western consumerism rather than Western humanism; and to Israel. Though the "dream palace of the Arabs" is a complex, enormous, sometimes arcane structure, Ajami's cogent distillation of the works and politics of Arab writers offers even the most general reader a cohesive and illuminating cultural history.
Library Journal
The contemporary Arab world can be read through political, historical, and academic analyses and media reports; it can also be comprehended through its literary and intellectual life. The originality of this book lies in its drawing on Arabic literary material of the last 25 years and analyzing it in the general political and intellectual context of Arab culture and Middle Eastern politics. Ajami (Near Eastern studies, Johns Hopkins) specifically pursues a group of intellectuals of his generation who have tried to develop a new, modern, and secular vision of Arab culture and nationalism. Ajami's critical study of contemporary Arabic fiction, poetry, memoirs, and social and political essays is based on a subjective choice of material. But that apt choice is particularly representative of more modern and forward-looking names in Arab literary circles, which often clash with "self-contained, self-completed" visions of their world and of modernity. Many of the author's analyses and conclusions that have a political tone do not necessarily reflect popular, mainstream public opinion in the Arab world. Ali Houissa, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, N.Y.
The Washington Post
An absorbing and sadly moving...account of what political and economic failures on a grand scale have meant in human terms and at an individual level. -- Washington Post Book World

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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6.48(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.23(d)

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When the Iraqi poet Buland Haidari was buried in London in the summer of 1996, the men and women of Arabic letters who bade himfarewell could not miss the poignancy of his fate. Haidari, born in Baghdad in 1926, had been twice exiled: he had fled the autocracy of Iraq to Beirut, and he had fled the anarchy of Beirut and its drawn-out troubles to London. By the time of his death a whole world of political journalism, of Arabic letters, had put down roots in exile. A political inheritance had slipped through the fingers of the generations of Arabs formed on the ideals of secular enlightenment and modernity. The Iraqi poet who had taken to the road and was buried in the ghurba (the lands of strangers) was part of a great unsettling of things, a deep Arab malady. Arabs of Haidari's bent had lost their bearings and their cultural home.

Haidari started writing his poetry in the 1940s. He belonged to a special breed of poets who took it upon themselves to revolutionize their craft and to modernize the culture of Arabic letters. They were an audacious lot, with boundless faith in the written word and in the connection between literary reform and political change. They were rebels against authority, custom and tradition, and the world of their elders. Although he hailed from landed aristocracy, Haidari himself had known some marginality and hardship. He had known the life of the streets of Baghdad and had befriended drifters and misfits. The wealth of the Haidari clan went back to the age of Suleiman the Magnificent, the first half of the sixteenth century. They had accumulated huge tracts of land; they had, in the fashion of the landed elite of Muslim cities, spawned a number of religious judges and scholars, as well as government bureaucrats. They were of Kurdish extraction, but this was before the age of ethnic nationalism, when the world of the elites was still open and fluid enough to make room for them. And although they had seen an erosion of some of their wealth and power in the course of the nineteenth century, when the Ottoman imperial system sought to centralize its domains and to cut down the power of the landed families in its far-flung provinces, the Haidaris had kept intact enough wealth and power to see them through. They were pillars of the ancien regime, the Iraqi monarchy, which British power secured in that land in 1921.

We don't know with confidence what set Buland Haidari against the world of his family. In one version of the man's life, his uncle, Daud Pasha Haidari, a big man in the old order, had deprived him of his inheritance after the death of young Buland's father; in another, the boy had taken to the streets and to leftist politics. Either way, in his late teens, Buland Haidari put up a stall as a writer of petitions (it was the practice in front of government ministries in Arab cities to have such scribes to draft petitions for unlettered petitioners) in front of the Ministry of Justice, where his uncle, the pasha, served as minister. "Revolt and exile were in me right from the beginning," Haidari would recall shortly before his death. "My alienation grew particularly after I broke with the dominant order in Iraq."

When the old order in his country was overthrown, on a mid-summer day in 1958, amid a frenzy of murderous violence, and the young King Faisal II of Iraq and his family were cut down by a military coup, Buland Haidari and his peers were seized with the delusion that a new world was in the offing. They were done with the power of the landed elites, and of the monarchy, and of the influence of Britain in their society. A poet of Buland Haidari's generation, Abdul al-Wahhab al-Bayati, born in the same year, celebrated the revolution of 1958 as a fulfillment of a generation's dreams:

It didn't take long for the new order of ideologues and officers to drown in its own blood. On the other side of the exaltation and the new politics, these younger Arabs who had welcomed a new dawn were overwhelmed by a terrible politics of betrayal and blood-letting. In no time, Buland Haidari was imprisoned, as his country succumbed to a new season of cruelty.

Haidari then sought a reprieve from the whirlwind of Iraq's politics in Beirut. In that merciful city, he joined other Arab castaways who had played and lost at the game of politics. He was a peaceful man, it was said of him in this place of exile. He had had his fill of violence and certitude, and he loved the forgiving ways of Beirut. He befriended poets and literati of every persuasion: communists, Arab nationalists, believers in the Mediterranean identity of the lands of Syria and Lebanon. He loved Beirut for the new chance it had given him. He ran a bookstore; he edited a scientific magazine; he did freelance work. He was a man with eclectic interests; he wrote books about the connection between art and culture and about the history of mosque architecture. He put together a new life in a country that left well enough alone. He wrote his poetry, and he partook of the received ideas of Arab nationalism of his time. When he spoke of an "Arab nation," this man meant it; when he called for an "Arab renaissance" in culture and letters, he gave voice to the expectation, current in the 1950s and 1960s, that Arabs would dig out of poverty, backwardness, and dependency. A new life required a new literature, a new style of expression, and Haidari was devoted to that Arab literary effort. If anything, his Kurdish background made him more eager to proclaim an Arab sense of belonging. Not for this man, at that time, were the politics of ethnicity. The Arab cultural container was wide and big enough, it was thought, to take in all religious sects and all minorities. It was Arabic poetry that this man wrote. and it was an Arab dawn that he awaited.

When the ground began to burn in Beirut and the dream of an "Arab awakening" came face to face with the facts of religious and communal hatred, Haidari joined those who fled that city to Paris, London, and North America, to any place that would have them. He paid Beirut a tribute of farewell, an adopted son's sorrow, dedicating a poetic collection to it: "To those in whom Beirut remained, although they left, and to those whom Beirut deserted, although they stayed."

Arabs were on the move. There were Arabic magazines, newspapers, and publishing houses; there were restaurants that took their old names and recipes to distant places. There were writers and journalists and storytellers who took the memory of simpler times and places and worked over these memories in new, alien settings. The inheritance--the secular political idea and the dream of progress and modernity--had worn thin. The compact of the generations, that subtle pact between one generation and its successor about what to retain, discard, or amend, had been torn up. In the privacy of their own language, when Westerners, Israelis, "enemies," and "Orientalists" were not listening in, Arabs spoke with candor, and in code. They did not need much detail; they could speak in shorthand of what had befallen their world. The trajectory of their modern history was known to them. An Arab of Buland Haidari's age and awareness would have been through great political and cultural ruptures. He would have seen the coming of a cultural and political tide in the 1950s--growing literacy, the political confidence of mass nationalism, the greater emancipation of women, a new literature and poetry that remade a popular and revered art form--and its ebb. They would have lived through the Suez War in 1956--the peak of Arab nationalist delirium--and the shattering of that confidence a decade later in the Six Day War of 1967. By the mid-1980s, the men and women of Haidari's generation no longer recognized themselves in the young men and women of the Arab world. In the simplified interpretation we have of that civilization, the young had taken to theocratic politics; they had broken with the secular politics of their elders. They had done that, but there was more at stake in that great cultural and political drama. Home and memory, the ways of an inheritance, the confidence in unexamined political and social truths, had been lost. Consider this simple passage written in the mid-1980s by a man of the Arab elite, of Buland Haidari's time and certainties. Palestinian-Jordanian diplomat and author Hazem Nusseibah was speaking of the Arab nationalists of his time: "They believed in the blending of what was best in the newly discovered Arab heritage and in contemporary Western civilization and culture, and they foresaw no serious problem which might impair the process of amalgamation." No Arab in the 1990s could speak in such terms. The borders between things and people Arab and the civilization of the West had become permeable--today I can pick up a paper my father used to read in the early 1950s in Beirut a block or two from my apartment on the Upper West Side of New York city--but the encounter has become one or great unease, rage, and violence. A great unsettling of things had been unleashed on Arab lands, and they had not been ready for it. What Arabs had said about themselves, the history they had written, and the truths they had transmitted to their progeny had led down a blind alley.

Haidari could speak in that familiar shorthand about Arab history. He knew that his readers would understand him. The Arabs were amid an "ocean of terror," he wrote. Terror had nearly overwhelmed intellectual life. There was, he said, the terror of those who anoint themselves as interpreters of God's law, of heaven's command on earth: the religious fundamentalists. There was the terror of political regimes monopolizing the symbols of nationalism and loyalty. There was the terror of tribalism, ethnic warfare, and national chauvinism. "Anyone who violates this political trinity is destined to be killed or to be charged with heresy and apostasy." Daily, he added, there were reports of the murders of men and women of letters all over that "Arab homeland." The knife and the violence spared no one, not even a figure as old and celebrated as the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfuz, who was attacked by young fanatics in Cairo in 1994. Haidari wrote in despair that there was little that thinkers and writers could do amid this "ocean of terror." To survive, they had to hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil.

In the way that writers always speak to an audience specific in time, place, and knowledge, Haidari did not have to elaborate on the meaning of tribal wars and chauvinism. By then the large pan-Arab truth that a century of nationalism had preached had cracked. Haidari was a Kurd, as no doubt a good percentage of his readers were aware; they knew what had happened in the hill country of Kurdistan only a few years earlier. In the summer of 1988, between August 25 and 27, to be exact, the Iraqi regime used chemical weapons against its own Kurdish citizens and thousands perished. The regime had hatched a monstrous "resettlement" scheme, creating a vast free-fire zone and razing hundreds of hamlets and towns to the ground. The relationship between the Kurds and the Iraqi state that had arisen in the aftermath or the First World War and the diplomatic settlement that followed that war had never been easy. Intermittent rebellions had erupted in Kurdish lands, but this kind of state violence, and its scale and audacity, were new. Prohibitions and limits had been transgressed, it seemed, in many realms of Arab life, and what had happened in the hills of Kurdistan in the summer of 1988 was of a piece with this eerie change in Arab life.

The violence in the Kurdish hills--a subtext to Haidari's words--was hardly unique. Haidari's readers possessed other memories, other pieces of knowledge, stark evidence that their world had come apart. They had seen the communal wars of Lebanon and the sectarian battles in Syria. No consoling tale offered by nationalist apologists or by "foreign friends" eager to hide the warts could have hid those terrible tales. A ruinous war passed off by its promoters as a "racial" war between Arab and Persian had been fought for eight long years between Iran and Iraq. The identity of millions of Shia Arabs had become a burden during those years. And in the summer of 1996, when Haidari, the innovative poet who worked at the altar of Arab cultural renovation, was buried on foreign soil, his readers--they had been reading him, in his final years, in a London-based Arabic weekly, al-Majalla--could grasp the loaded meaning of where he was buried.

Haidari's generation IS not mine. Born in 1945, in Lebanon, I and Arabs of my age were their heirs. The edifice of Arab nationalism, a secular inheritance into which politicized men and women of the generation that preceded mine had poured their hopes and dreams--and evasions--was in place when I came into my own. Mine was an obedient generation: On one side, there were our elders, the Haidaris and others I have come to chronicle in writing this work; on the other, younger men and women who have come to greater grief amid the breakdown of the Arab world in recent years. Nowadays when outsiders come calling on Arab lands, it is easy for them to say that a theocratic wind carried that world. They would not recognize, those outsiders eager to judge, what hopes and what labor went into that inheritance. Arriving after a terrible storm, those who come to the Arab world today can scarcely know what stood there or what was true when that world was intact and whole. A fire brigade that rushes in to put out a fire cannot describe what was there before the fire wreaked its vengeance. Places where I once lived--places now doubly removed from me across time and distance, places of my childhood in Lebanon--became political material for journalists who covered the pandemonium of that country. In the wars of Lebanon in the 1980s, the Commodore Hotel in West Beirut came to great fame as a haunt for foreign reporters. Dispatches were filed from the Commodore. Fixers, militia leaders, diplomats, and spies worked out of the Commodore. There was a parrot by the bar that imitated the whistle of the incoming shellfire, there was Fat Tommy, the cat that slept wedged between the Reuters and the Associated Press news tickers, and there were the resourceful staff, who welcomed foreign reporters checking in with a suave question: "Sniper side or car bomb side?" The stories of the Commodore were the stories of a people setting their country on fire, but doing it in style. Before its fame, the Commodore was just a place near my aunt's house, a short walk from my secondary school, where I often went at midday for my lunch break. On sunny, warm days, from my aunt's balcony, I could take in the sun-bathers and swimmers at the Commodore pool. What we knew of the Commodore was what a cousin of mine who pretended to be in the know about such things claimed: It was where stewardesses from foreign airlines hung around.

I was born at the foot of a Crusader castle, the Beaufort, in a small village in the south of Lebanon, near the Israeli-Lebanese border. In the early 1980s, Beaufort was always in the news: An Israeli-Palestinian war was fought over Beaufort and its location. The Palestinians overran the castle and the village below; the Israelis came to move them and their guns from the heights and the castle. I knew Beaufort for its wonder; I possessed of it a more intimate history. I had a child's knowledge of it. It stood on the ridge near my village, near my grandfather's land and vineyard, a castle long ruined but majestic and solitary, hanging at the edge of a rocky precipice, above the bristling rapids of the Litani River, which flowed some fifteen hundred feet below. From the ruined walls of Beaufort--like dragon's teeth these walls seemed from a distance--you could see the snow-covered peaks of Mount Hermon and into Galilee in northern Israeli--in my childhood a forbidden land across a frontier of barbed wire. From the parapets of Beaufort, the chroniclers say, the signalers could send their messages to the slopes of Mount Hermon, to the Castle of Toron, to Sidon by the coast, some thirty kilometers away. The Crusader Kingdom had built a chain of fortresses on the likeliest invasion route from Damascus, a long route, a hundred or so kilometers as the crow flies, and Beaufort was one of these great castles. I had a proprietary claim to Beaufort as a schoolboy, When I read of the Templars, a fierce order of monks and warriors repairing the fortress and building a Gothic hall in its central courtyard, I viewed that history with a certain possessiveness. I loved the tale of one Reginald of Sidon, an "Orientalized Frank," who once held sway in Beaufort and endured a year-long siege by Muslim forces. Wounded and taken prisoner, outside the castle walls Reginald urged the defenders not to give way. Tied to a tree, he exhorted his men inside while they shot arrows at him to put an end to his ordeal. A different kind of history came to Beaufort in our time--more history than the village at its foot had ever bargained for. My grandfather, a big man in this small place, died before the troubles and the outsiders intruded into his world.

My village was a stern place, a rocky hamlet that grew stunted tobacco plants. The writers who celebrated the Arab awakening in letters and politics never ventured there. My family, landed people, tobacco growers, belonged to the minority Shia sect of Islam, but the cultural tide had brought us to Beirut in the late 1940s, when I was four years of age. My family had made an earlier passage to Beirut, in the mid-1930s; my uncles and aunts had needed more schooling, but their confidence had given way in Beirut, and they had retreated to the familiarity of their world in the southern hinterland of the country. The second passage, more urgent, had worked. Growing up, I came into the politics and culture of Beirut of the 1950s. These politics and the culture belonged to me in a way they did not to my elders.

I was eleven when the Suez War erupted in 1956. I was some months short of my thirteenth year when the civil war flared up in Lebanon in 1958 and the U.S. marines hit the beaches of Beirut. We came into politics early: It was the city, the time, and the passion of nationalism. I braved the fury of my elders once, not so long after that hot summer of 1958, and went to Damascus, aboard a bus with my friends, to attend a rally for the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser. We caught a glimpse of the hero-leader of Arab nationalism as he made an appearance on the balcony of a guest-palace. It was a time of innocence. Around the corner, it was believed, lay a great Arab project, and this leader from Egypt would bring it about.

I knew little of religion. My family were Shia Muslims, that I knew: It was a piece of self-knowledge that our divided homeland, some sixteen or seventeen religious communities, transmitted to us all. But the religious rituals were an entirely different matter. A mosque, a Shia mosque, had been built in the Armenian-Shia neighborhood of northeastern Beirut, where my father had bought land and built a house. An enterprising mullah had taken the initiative in building the mosque. There had been no money to spare for the mosque: the cleric had traveled far for the new money. He had gone to West Africa, where there were Shia traders from the villages of south Lebanon, and they had given what they could. He had gone to Iran and gotten some help from the Shah, Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, the only Shia sovereign in the lands of Islam. A plaque at the entrance acknowledged the help of the Shah of Shahs. The mosque was built in installments, whenever new money came in. It was the mosque of a people suddenly released from the land and the countryside, a people without money and without deep roots in the city. None of my peers, I recall, observed religious ritual or went to the mosque for Friday prayers. We were not a religious breed. Our lodestar was the secular political and cultural world.

I bobbed back and forth--we were good at such things, the children of the Levant--between the world of my elders and kinsmen and the culture of the city. Our modernity was like that: it lay side by side with ancestral prohibitions and phobias. It looked away from the past and hoped to be released from the grip of its ways. The world of my elders was a world of private concerns: the land my grandfather owned; the price of tobacco paid out each year by the tobacco monopoly; the money to be made by my uncles and aunts in Liberia and Sierra Leone, by my father in Saudi Arabia. My concerns were public; my world was easier: it was the gift of that older generation to me. Where my mother was born and raised, a stone's throw from Palestine, she had not paid the drama that unfolded there between Arab and Jew much attention. She had her world and the stark sensibility of her world. Al-dahr ghaddar, Fate is vengeful. Fate had played with the lives of men and women, and it had dealt the Palestinians what it had. This sensibility could not be mine or my generation's as a whole.

Nationalism remade that world in a hurry and renamed things. Our village and the town of my mother's large clan, so close to Galilee and to the Jewish settlements there, had had their own traffic with the Jews across the Lebanon-Palestine frontier. Smugglers would slip across the border and return with tales of the Yahud (the Jews) and their settlements. (The smugglers did their best to stay at their work after 1948 and the war that gave birth to Israel, but the work grew more hazardous and difficult.) In the open, barren country near the border, that land could be seen and the chatter of its people heard across the barbed wire. At night, a searchlight from the Jewish settlement of Metullah could be seen from the high ridge on which my village lay. The searchlight was from the town of the Jews, my grandfather said. The oral history transmitted to me by my grandfather--we possessed no written records, no diaries was of places now on the other side of a great barrier: Acre, Safad, Tiberias, the marshes and swamps of Huleh Lake, so thick with vegetation that riders had to lie flat on the necks of their horses for more than an hour at a time. There had been older tales in our villages of the Jewish settlements, of the women who worked the fields side by side with the men, the sorts of tales peasants and riders brought of unfamiliar things they had seen on their wanderings. By the time I had come to some political awareness in the late 1950s, the die was cast, and there was in place a simple enmity. The burden of Palestine would write so much of the politics of the years to come, a great' consuming issue.

I was formed by an amorphous Arab nationalist sensibility. The shadow of the Egyptian Gamal Abdul Nasser lay over the Muslims of Lebanon. I partook of the politics of Muslim West Beirut. In that summer of 1958 when the Iraqi monarchy was overthrown and the American forces rushed in to Lebanon, dispatched there by Eisenhower to check Arab radicalism, I had not grieved for the Iraqi monarch. In the way of an impressionable boy, I partook of that enthusiasm for a new dawn. Across the line, a cable car ride away, in Christian East Beirut, there was an entirely different sensibility: the Maronite community, with its ethos of independence and its sense of being set apart from the Muslim Arab world around it. The Maronites had a strong sense of themselves; they had their formidable clergy, their own schools, traffic with Europe, special ties to France. They possessed a special history: the flight of their ancestors from the oppressed plains of Syria to the freedom of Mount Lebanon. I could not share the history of the Maronites; it could not have spoken to me.

In my family we possessed a special mark. My great-grandfather had come from Tabriz in Iran to our ancestral village sometime in the mid-1850s. The years had covered the trail my great-grandfather had traveled. The Persian connection was given away in the name by which he was known in his new home: Dahir Ajami, or Dahir the Persian. None of his descendants bothered to look into that Persian past. The generation preceding mine had its hands full mastering the ways of the city, or making their way in West Africa and remitting money for the extended family. My own generation could not have been bothered with ancestral tales. What culture we needed was there: the politics of nationalism, the call of Arab modernity, the American pop culture that was flooding our world in the 1950s.

We can come into a cultural inheritance without fully understanding it. I took for granted the modernity of Beirut, which I took to mean the high heels my aunts wore, the Western (French and American) schools we attended, the Egyptian fiction my younger aunts read behind the backs of their older siblings, the glitter of Beirut. There were madani (city) ways, and my uncles and aunts, newcomers to the city, yearned to make these ways theirs. I could not have known that the modernity I took for granted had been earned the hard way, secured by a generation that had fought for every little gain. It was only in 1928--only a few years before my family's first passage to the city--that a younger Muslim woman of Beirut, Nazira Zayn al-Din, had written a devastating book, learned, heavy, and brave, on veiling and unveiling that had staked out the right of women to shed the veil yet remain within the faith. Nazira's background is familiar to me. She was the daughter of a judge, a child of the upper bourgeoisie of Beirut. I can summon up her and her world with ease. In my mind I can see her in the garden of a large house this was Beirut before the high-rise buildings and the urban sprawl) behind a wrought-iron gate in the midst of a family gathering at dusk, being indulged and listened to by an attentive father. She had made an offering of her book, al-Sufur wa al-Hijab (Unveiling and the Veil) to her father, head of the appeals court. Said Zayn al-Din, presented it to him as a "reflection of the light of his knowledge and his belief in freedom. She had not given an inch to the religious obscurantists. There were four veils in the land, she had written: a veil of cloth, a veil of ignorance, a veil of hypocrisy, and a veil of stagnation. She asked for no favors: she was born free and wanted for her land and for the women in her land the freedom of "civilized nations." Muslim men had begun to give up the fez; Muslim women had an equal right, she asserted, to shed their veils. That liberty I saw in the Beirut of my time, the liberty my aunts had taken to, had been a relatively recent innovation and had not been easy to secure. It was in that time, the time when Nazira wrote her controversial book, that another daring Muslim woman, Saniyya a Habboub, tool; the cable car to Bliss Street, to the campus of the American University of Beirut--the same cable car I took all over the city almost daily--and entered the university through its main gate. There, inside the sanctuary of the university, she took off her veil and set out on her university studies.

In the 1950s, when I began to learn the social and political facts of Beirut, the Salam family was probably the preeminent family in Muslim West Beirut. They were philanthropists and educators, and they were active in the political arena. In the early years of this century, Salim Ali Salam had been mayor of Beirut, one of its leading merchants and public citizens. He had served in the Ottoman parliament and taken part in all the great issues that had played out in our land: the final years of Ottoman rule, the First World War, the dream of Arab self-rule that followed the war, the era of French ascendancy in Syria and Lebanon. In the 1950s, his son Saeb towered over the city's politics. He was always a minister or a prime minister or a member of parliament. To me, the Salams seemed safe in their power, secure in their city ways, but in a memoir by Saeb Salam's older sister, Anbara, I learned that the Salams had fought to push the cultural frontiers for their family and their city. Anbara herself had gone behind the veil as a girl of ten. It had taken a great struggle for her to shed her veil some years later. When Anbara's and Saeb's mother went for her dental check-ups, the dentist worked on her teeth while she remained veiled. Only her mouth was uncovered for the dental work. In the memoir, Anbara tells of a sea voyage in her early youth, in 1912, to Egypt. On that passage she was bedazzled by the modernity, the large stores and the lights of Egypt. The trip was her first exposure to electricity, which came to Beirut two years later. In the Beirut of my days, we were confident that we were years ahead of the Egyptians, that we were more hip and Westernized, bur that knowledge was defective. It was our hubris, the things we took for granted, that gave us that defective knowledge. To be seen and appreciated, an inheritance has to be looked ar with a cold eye and with patience.

Ten years after Nazira Zayn al-Din had written her book, there appeared another book by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening. This was to be the manifesto of the Arab national movement. The man who wrote it was true to the spirit of that age: He was a Greek Orthodox, a son of a trading family from Dayr al-Qamar, one of the principal market towns in Mount Lebanon. Born in 1891, he was raised there, then taken to Alexandria and its polyglot world at age eleven. He was educated at Cambridge, where he took a degree in engineering at King's College. He savored the streets and the life of Alexandria (Alex to the smart set) with E. M. Forster when Forster spent three years in Alexandria in the First World War as a volunteer for the Red Cross. A work by Forster (published in 1922), Alexandria: A History and a Guide, acknowledged a debt to "Mr. George Antonius for his assistance with those interesting but little known buildings, the Alexandria mosques." After working for the British government, Antonius moved to Jerusalem, where he acquired Palestinian citizenship and rose to the post of inspector in the Palestine Department of Education. He married Katy Nimr, the socialite daughter of one of the great personages of Egypt, a wealthy pro-British publisher named Faris Pasha Nimr. A self-made man who had risen from poverty and calamity in the hill country of southeastern Lebanon, Nimr studied in the schools of the foreign missions, the Syrian Protestant College (later renamed the American University of Beirut), and had then opted for Egypt in 1885, when the life of Beirut--the Ottoman overseers of the place, the evangelical missionaries who ran the Syrian Protestant College--had closed in on him.

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