Dream Palace of the Arabs : A Generation’s Odyssey is a fascinating, sad look at a lost generation of Arab intellectuals. The author, Fouad Ajami, explores Pan-Arabism and Arab Nationalism through the lense of Arabic arts and letters.
It starts off, naturally enough, with the 1982 suicide of Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi—an event that stands for Ajami as a metphor for the fate of the pro-modernization political-intellectual movement. It then moves on to an exploration of a generational divide—between Arab secular nationalists and the now dominant Islamists—through the art of Adonis, Sadiq al-Azm, Abdelrahman Munif, and Nizar Qabbani. With that as background, the author then provides a more detailed look at Egypt in the aftershock of Sadat’s assassination; the novelist Naguib Mahfuz plays a central role in this chapter. Finally, the Arab reaction to Israel is revealingly illustrated through the writings and statements of a number of men (and one woman) of Arabic letters.
Ajami, a nominally Eastern Orthodox Arab raised in Beirut and now teaching in America, is extremely well-suited for the task. He is himself a member of this generation and with exquisite pain and tenderness, yet also with brutal honesty, revealing the seemingly missed potential of this lost generation’s dreams. At times, particularly in the beginning (which addresses the fall of Lebanon), this is an emotionally difficult book; the grand ideas and the author’s affection for old Lebanon are downright depressing reading when you know where it’s all heading. In the later chapters, particularly those dealing with the secular vs. Islamist divide during the Gulf War and with Israel and the various “peace processes”, the mood is less tense—although perhaps this is because I personally feel less of a sense of loss over the rest of the Arab world than I do over Lebanon’s demise.
I’ve read quite a few articles and a number of books over the years that each attempted to shed light on the politics and modern history of the Arab world. I’ve found Dream Palace uniquely revealing, though, as it is in large part the story as told by Arabs, to Arabs. Of course, this is largely the narrative belonging to the secularists born shortly after World War II, and their voices seem to hold very little sway in today’s world. Still, to try to understand the culture and environment that produced Al Qaeda without listening to those doomed voices of the latter twentieth century would be like trying to fully understand the America of the late sixties and early seventies without knowing anything of World War II and the early Cold War. That analogy only goes so far, certainly, but there is a similarity there in that both worlds produced generations of radical rejectionism; full comprehension demands that serious inquirers first go back to grasp what it was that was rejected. Add to that the power and importance in the Arab world of language and poetry, and it is easy to see that the author’s approach is an extremely useful and informative one. For all these reasons, this book holds a place on my Warblogger’s Bookshelf.
By now, you should be able to tell that this book is not for everyone. If the examination of Arab poetry and the exploration of foreign intellectual movements make up your idea of torture in a foreign land, stay away. On the other hand, if, like me, you are fascinated by Arab culture and want to better understand the political failures underlying today’s Middle East, then this will be an excellent and rewarding read for you.