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The Dream Palace of the Arabs
A Generation's Odyssey

By Fouad Ajami
Pantheon. 344 pp. $26

  Chapter One
_

Prologue: The Inheritance

When the Iraqi poet Buland Haidari was buried in London in the summer of 1996, the men and women of Arabic letters who bade him farewell 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:

The sun rises in my city
The bells ring out for the heroes.
Awake, my beloved,
We are free.

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.

We know Antonius for the single work, The Arab Awakening. He published the book in 1938, and died shortly thereafter, in 1942, a broken and bitter man, stricken by cancer at age fifty. He had written it thanks to the financial patronage of one Charles R. Crane a Chicago industrialist and financier, a crank and an anti-Semite, who always seemed in search of exotic causes in distant lands. Born in 1858 to a family that had profited from the boom of Chicago. Crane had grown bored with the family business: pipes and fittings, iron castings and elevators. He had taken to the foreign world and to foreign travel, fancying himself an expert on Russia and Slavic cultures. He addressed himself to the cause of China, developing a reputation as a worldly man who knew foreign lands. When he came to the attention of President William Howard Taft, Taft designated him as emissary to China in 1909 in the hope that a man of industry and commerce might open that market to American capital. The Chicago Record-Herald had hailed him on July 16, 1909, as a man who had "assimilated two foreign languages and could speak them like a native. He is said to read twelve languages and to speak with fluency six or eight. Among those he reads is Persian." It was all make-believe; he had traveled and that was enough to do the trick.

The Chinese embassy had fallen through a day before Crane was set to sail from San Francisco. State Department professionals had aborted the appointment. Crane's money and energy later brought him to the attention of Woodrow Wilson; he went to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, an uninvited guest. An amateurish expedition in June of that year took him and one Henry C. King to Syria and Palestine, Lebanon and southern Turkey to study the opinions of those dwelling in the former Ottoman domains. The King-Crane Commission was a traveling circus, but the Arabs pinned great hopes on it. The commissioners visited thirty-six towns: delegations from some 1,500 towns and villages appeared before them. They came to Beirut in July, where a delegation of Beiruti women appeared before them. Anbara Salam was among those petitioning the commission for the independence of their land. Lebanon, from French trusteeship. Crane had picked up the bug of the "Near Eastern question." On one of his trips he had met Antonius; he offered him a fellowship with the Institute for Current World Affairs (ICWA), an institute he had established in 1925. With Crane's patronage, George and Katy Antonius were set up in Jerusalem in a lovely old house, in the Shaykh Jarrah Quarter on Mount Scopus, at a junction that led to the Mount of Olives. That house--a place full of books, beautiful carpets, and musical recordings--was the setting in which the gregarious Katy Antonius emerged as the preeminent hostess of the social and cultural life of Jerusalem in the 1930s and 1940s.

It was not easy for Antonius to write his book. The man who wrote that stirring story of Arab revival, and who presented the Arab case against the accords that divided Arab lands between the British and the French after the First World War, was more fragile and of a darker mood than his narrative suggested. He kept the doubts, the anxiety, out of his book, but it was evident in his papers. In the letters he sent to Crane and to the staff of the institute, which I found in Hanover, New Hampshire, in the files of the Israel State Archives in Jerusalem, and in the Public Record Office in London, I could see the private Antonius. In a note in 1931, he wrote of his own sense of inadequacy:

For the task which I have set myself, which is to draw a narrative picture of aspects of this awakening, I have not even the qualification of being a Moslem. My only claims are two. One is that the circumstance of a Western education superimposed upon my Arab descent has given me, by comparison, a natural readiness to see something of the two sides of questions affecting the relations of the East with the West. The other is that, as I say, my official duties have, over a period of sixteen years, placed me here and there in a position of vantage to see for myself and sometimes, in a small way to act.

Antonius had given the struggle over Palestine between Arab and Jew all his loyalty. He had assigned the issue of Palestine pride of place in his narrative of the political history of the Arabs. He had poured into the Palestine question his sense of disappointment with the British mandatory government he had served, which denied him the promotions and the acceptance he craved. But no sooner had he written his book than his life began to come apart. He had staked a great deal on the book, but it found modest success in England and the United States. He had to do a lot of traveling for Crane and the institute, travels that took him from his base in Jerusalem to Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Cairo, with occasional trips to the Arabian Peninsula. Life on the road took its toll on both his marriage and on his health. And the larger fire of the Arab lands held increasing disappointments and frustrations for him.

In a note in August 1938 from Alexandria, to the director of the ICWA, Walter Rogers, he wrote of the difficulty of finding new material and of writing freely on issues that mattered. He sensed growing obstacles to speaking openly, constraints on freedom of expression.

There is always room for an infinite variety of writing on an infinite selection of topics, so long as one is careful to avoid going to the root of things. But such work is outside the sphere of my predilections.... What I mean is that national partisanship is becoming so acute and party differences so embittered that independent comment is no longer accepted on its merits but welcomed or frowned upon if it upholds or denies the wishes and contentions of a particular party. Ever since I came back to Egypt last winter I have been moving from one field of contemporary study to another, but only to find, sooner or later, that each of them impinged on some aspect or another of high politics which it would be wiser not to touch upon at present if one intends to move about freely in Egypt and continue to have access to people and enjoy their confidence. You may be surprised to hear that that applies also to questions of purely cultural character. But it does. Not only is the cultural factor at the root of Arabic-speaking nationalism; it also plays an important part in the Moslem religious revival. And both those forces are so much more self-assertive than they were one or two years ago that people are as ready to take offense or quarrel about cultural programmes as they are on purely political issues. As a result I have felt disoriented and at times seriously discouraged.

The outbreak of the Second World War had made it almost impossible for Antonius to go on with his itinerant life--travel restrictions, censorship. For a man who lived on motion and on the reports he filed for the institute that subsidized him, this was a great loss. And in February 1939, his patron, Charles Crane, died, which deprived him of a powerful backer. He pleaded with the officers and trustees of the institute for time and understanding. In a note he wrote in April 1940 from Cairo, he spoke of the "drying up of the normal sources of knowledge" and of the difficulty of sending regular mail and reports. Although he offered his services to the American consular missions in Beirut and Cairo, it was decided that a fellow of a research institute who did no reporting from the field was expendable. An American in the Levant, who was associated with the Byzantine Institute, reported in a letter in May 1941 that he had seen Antonius, who "seemed very much at sea in regard to his work" and was excruciatingly aware of his patrons' dissatisfaction with the "scanty work" he had been doing. From Beirut, another American wrote to the Institute of Current World Affairs on July 22, 1941, that "Antonius seemed apathetic ... found him living well and comfortable at the home of the wife of a former president of Lebanon as I recall."

A week later the Institute of Current World Affairs terminated Antonius's contract, notifying him of its action in a letter in care of the American Consul-General in Beirut. Antonius tried to stay the decision. From Beirut he cabled the ICWA's director: "Fully understand trustees dissatisfaction. Am profoundly dissatisfied myself but suggest that they await my letter before unilaterally terminating agreement for causes outside my control. Anyhow overdue installments cannot be affected retrospectively by notice to terminate. Delay places me in very embarrassing indebtedness."

Four days later, there was another letter, in the same vein:

Beirut, November 25, 1941 Dear Mr. Rogers:

Far from being satisfied, I am depressed and demoralized by my present impotency. In the first place there is not enough to keep me sufficiently occupied and to provide my mental energy and needs with the outlet of expression; and even such studies as I can carry out are often necessarily incomplete in the sense that they do not satisfy my ideas of thoroughness. In the second place, I find it irksome and extremely disagreeable to have to depend on Institute funds for my maintenance, at a time when I am precluded from making an adequate return.... I have offered my services in turn to the French, the British and the American authorities in my area, and I offered them without restriction as to locality or scope save for two stipulations, namely (1) that the work entrusted to me should be in my area, to enable me to continue to watch current affairs for Institute purposes, and (2) that it should be constructive work in the public service and not merely propaganda.

It was time for Antonius to return to Jerusalem and his wife and daughter. His battle with cancer was nearing its end. He wrote from Jerusalem to Charles Crane's son, John, on February 12, 1942:

To John Crane

Karm al-Mufti Jerusalem, February 12, 1942

Dear John:

I left Beirut a week ago bound for Cairo, and have had to stop a few days here, having been laid up with a recurrence of my intestinal trouble. I had a long spell in hospital in Beirut at the beginning of the summer, and shall probably have to have another spell there on my return from Egypt. I was in hospital at the American University during the whole of the British campaign in Syria.... Shortly after my persecution by the Vichy French and the Italian Commission began. At first they wanted to expel me, and later to put me in a concentration camp. It was only my illness in hospital and the intervention of the American Consul-General that saved me from the worst effects of the persecution.

Yours ever, George (Antonius)

There was to be no passage to Cairo. Antonius died in Jerusalem on May 21, 1942. John Crane reported the author's death to the ICWA's director three days later.

From Chicago

Sunday May 24, 1942 John Crane to Walter

In case it does not see print, I wanted to tell you that I got word this morning that George Antonius died last Thursday in Jerusalem. No details accompanied the message.... Incidentally I do not see anyone to whom we might send condolences. I have of course no idea how Dr. Nimr feels about him these days.

A cable came from Katy Antonius on May 27: "George died here suddenly on twenty-first. Please inform press." A year later Katy wrote to John Crane. It was a candid note: it had an estranged wife's pain and the grief of a nationalist writing of a public life. It was written on an aerogram of the period. When I picked it up in Hanover, I had a feeling I was being served history up close: intimate, plaintive, pained.

Karm al-Mufti Jerusalem, June 13, 1943

Katy Antonius to John Crane.

I still feel very sore about the way the Institute wrote to George those last months before his death.... You know he had a flat in Beyrouth for the past two years and came here and to Cairo. You see, George died and left absolutely nothing to his child--except for that insurance. My father provides me, that is true. Still after George working here for 16 years, and then with you for II years.... it seems sad to think the little he had just paid his bills. She returned to the book. She felt deeply about it.

Here and in Egypt not a single copy are [sic] available which is shocking--there has been a great demand.... I have been approached several times here and in Cairo for an Arabic translation of the book. I do not think of it as a financial proposition. But I am desperately keen on its being read and I feel that it's the best and clearest thing ever written about the Arab cause and God knows "we" need some help and some clearing. George's death is felt more and more. His loss cannot be replaced. I feel we're like a drifting ship at present. If nothing else he was at least a rudder.

Antonius was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion in the Greek Orthodox cemetery, the oldest of that city's Christian cemeteries. The Israeli writer (and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem) Meron Benvenisti, who knows his city like the palm of his hand and who, in one of his many books, chronicled Jerusalem through its cemeteries, had happened onto Antonius's burial site in his researches. Benvenisti had told me of his own visit to that gravesite: a son of the Zionist enterprise paying homage to a chronicler of the Arab awakening. On a day when I had wearied of reading his archives (he was diligent, he kept records of all his activities and his correspondence), I sought his grave. The groundskeeper took me straight to the location--it was under a tall pine tree in the shadow of the abbey of the Dormition: a solitary grave with rough-hewn stone. Nearby there were large vaults where members of reading Jerusalem families were buried together. Antonius had lived and died and was buried a loner. On the headstone someone had placed a red flower, several days old. I had the distinct feeling that the groundskeeper had led many others there before me. On the headstone, in Arabic and English, were Antonius's name and the dates of his birth and death. In Arabic alone, there was an ode that had served as an epigraph for The Arab Awakening, an ode that a nineteenth-century Lebanese literary figure, Ibrahim al-Yaziji, had written: "Arise, ye Arabs and awake." It was a Friday, the groundskeeper was alone, and the cemetery was deserted. He allowed himself a note of irony as he left me at the grave: The Arabs had not yet risen, he said, and the hopes of Antonius remain unfulfilled.

Home comes and speaks in prose and exile in poetry, it has been said. Today in the Arab world--I left for America a day or two short of my eighteenth birthday, in 1963--I am a stranger, but no distance could wash me clean of that inheritance. In 1980, in an earlier book, The Arab Predicament, I was younger and approached my material more eager to judge. In my haste and my dissatisfaction with what the modern experience in the Arab world had brought forth, I did not appreciate what had gone into the edifice that Arabs had built. I grew more curious about that history in the intervening years and came to realize how little one really knows of the things that are all around us. In a New York library, I came across a faded, worn-out book about the small corner of Lebanon where I was born; it had been written by a prolific religious scholar from our hinterland who knew and traveled into the larger worlds of Iran and Iraq. In that book, private and public history came together, and the scant knowledge we have of matters we presume to know came into sharp focus for me. I read that before my great-grandfather made his way to our ancestral village, he broke his journey, as it were, in a larger town not far from our village. There he married the widow of a religious scholar and fathered children. He came to Arnoun, our ancestral village, only after the death of his first wife and in Arnoun he wed the woman who was to be my grandfather's mother.

Two narratives were available to me. I could have written of my private, family inheritance, but Arabs are reared to tread carefully on private family matters. We are taught not to air family matters that we glimpse. And besides, the public inheritance was more important, having been played upon for the last two decades. Its concerns have been tugging at me, and it is of these concerns that I thought I should write.

   
© Copyright 1998 Fouad Ajami

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