The publication of Crosswinds: The Way of Saudi Arabia has been a long time coming. Fouad Ajami’s intimate portrait of Saudi society and politics, drawing on his visits to the kingdom in the 1990s and early 2000s, was finished in 2010. The manuscript was submitted to Hoover Institution Press that year, and in the coming months it would be edited and typeset.
Joseph Conrad said this about his work: “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel--it is, before all, to make you see.” The same should be said of Fouad Ajami who through his life and writing helped many, like myself, hear, feel and see the rich beauty and diversity of the Middle East.
Fouad Ajami had an odd fondness for Saudi Arabia. He was an Americanized, secular Shiite with European sensibilities who, truth be told, had pretty much burned out on the ugliness of the modern Arab world. He once smiled knowingly at the comment of the late, great Middle Eastern historian Charles Issawi: “Thank God it’s Friday: I can stop reading Arabic, Persian, and Turkish and go home and read Jane Austen.”
In his 1931 collection of essays, Reflections on the World Today, French polymath historiographer and public intellectual Paul Valéry wrote with ominous premonition of a world yet to come, more so than he might have done the world he was frequenting, contemplating, and gazing at in early 1930s France.
Aspects of Fouad Ajami’s method are inimitable, or nearly so, inseparable from the distinctive personality of this one remarkable thinker. His reflections on the politics of the Middle East always depended on his empathetic understanding of the cultures, the complex histories, the literary achievements, and the ever-present currents of faith. Add to this his specifically Lebanese perspective, indisputably rooted in the region but also always with an eye to the sea, to the West, and to a very different political-cultural world.