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. On the eve of Nazi upheavals that no one else had yet predicted, Valéry’s Reflections were depicting an impending “history” as bitter fomenter of troubles among nations, a spiteful agitator angling to “intoxicate people, provide them with false memories, exaggerate their reflexes, sustain their old wounds, torment them in their peace, and drive them into deliriums of grandeur or persecution rendering men in turn bitter, magnificent, insufferable, conceited...”1
Inching closer to the “Thirties” of the twenty-first century, and revisiting Valéry while contemplating our own days’ global socio-political, environmental, and public health challenges, I’ve often wondered what Fouad Ajami would have said, written, or taught for our times. An elegant, sensitive, sagacious oracle from Lebanon, Ajami was the child of a polyglot universe, who lived in multiple worlds at once, with always a keen eye turned to the world about him, a dainty ear tuned to its heartbeat. “And if he were here today” I often say to myself, “he would have surely had some prescription for our current ills, some lesson from our past, some promise for our future.” Yet Fouad Ajami is better known in American and Anglophone academe as an interpreter of what he affectionately called “Araby.” Austere, opaque, discreet, the “Arab world” whose draconian creeds of honor, shame, and generosity often ensnared and dismayed outsiders, spilled out of Ajami’s pen with the fluency of a native and the intimacy of a beloved. Yet Ajami remained at heart a gripping raconteur; biographer, not hagiographer; a “hakawaati” and “haqqaawi” in his southern Lebanese brogue; a righteous conscientious cognoscente.
Born to a Shiite family of Persian extraction in the southern Lebanese hilltop hamlet of Arnoun, near the Israeli border and at a stone’s throw from the Crusader castle of Beaufort, Fouad Ajami grew up at the crossroads of cultures, basking in a rich conflation of histories, languages, traditions, and cultural rituals. His childhood was molded in the mysticism and hybrid nature of his surroundings, lulled as it were by the ebbs and flows of the Mediterranean below, yet grounded in the pristine ancient highlands of his Lebanese mountains. It was against this native backdrop, wedding the provincial to the urbane, that Fouad Ajami the scholar opted to interpret the Middle East to his American charges; a Middle East defined by hybridity, fluidity, and diversity as well as rootedness; not a Middle East of “oneness” or a single domineering creed. The image of the Middle East as a cohesive uniform mono-cultural Arab or Muslim space, rent asunder only by dint of Western intrusions and colonialist machinations, was a fashionable, soothing, tempting illusion; one turned into a corpus of professional orthodoxies and articles of faith among practitioners of mainstream Middle East scholarship. Countering this illusion of Arab-Muslim uniformity was blasphemy, “dangerous knowledge” to the curators of orthodoxy, to those holding the field, sketching its outlines, codifying its canon, fossilizing its future… But this was an odious stereotype in Ajami’s telling; an obscene disfigurement run amuck of reality. In the intimate more authentic purview of his research area, the Middle East was a crucible of Muslims and Arabs and others, and Fouad Ajami would remain undaunted in this bent, reading his world as it was, not as doctrinaires and mono-cultural diehard romantics might have wished it to be.
Speaking of the land of his birth, Ajami wrote in 2011 that one needn’t be nostalgic to recall with affection a multicultural Lebanon where eighteen different communities jostled and feuded for power and influence and relevance; where Lebanese beholden to the creed of Arab nationalism met their match in “Lebanese who thought of their country as a piece of Europe at the foot of a splendid mountain [and who lustily] savored the language of France.”2
And so it came to pass that the Middle East that Fouad Ajami saw and sought to transmit to his American charges recalled the libertine Lebanon of his youth, not the bland monolith of the Arab or the Arab nationalist alone. Nor was this Middle East the uniform cohesive preserve of Muslims or Islamists alone, where God took the place of austere climes dealing with men. Neither was Ajami’s a hapless Middle East, victim of Western rapacity and Israeli deceit. Indeed, his greatest sin in the eyes of his detractors, those holding and defacing his field, was that he had the audacity to take his own people to task, to summon them to acknowledge the “other” in their midst, to valorize the non-Muslim among them, and to challenge them to take stock of their own failings, pointing them in the direction of the unthinkable: that Arabs and Muslims are indeed masters of their own fate, proficient at cracking their whips at their own, skilled in the fundaments of their own despotism and brutality and decadence without the benefit of Western perfidy and heresy. And so, in a combustive academic field often mirroring the Middle East itself, riven as it is by partis pris and peopled equally by demagogues, prophets, scholars, and poets, Fouad Ajami sounded a clarion call of reason, suggesting alternative views, brandishing an eloquent voice and a sparkling pen on behalf of repressed narratives, breathing renewal into the conscience of an embattled profession, and bringing redemption to a region devoured by turmoil.
Though he might not have always been prescient—he was after all as much historian and human as he was sage—he was always thoughtful, sober, sensitive, deliberate, and illuminating. His analysis was always nimble, his reasoning always nuanced, and his prose always magic. Fouad Ajami was often referred to as the “poet laureate” of Middle East Studies. To me he was simply a magician; a modern-day Jonathan Swift seducing us into a new kind of Gulliver’s Travels; an archaeologist of cultures; a deliberate cool-headed “captain of several ships,” cutting through turbulent waters with acuity and confidence.
I have an email from Professor Ajami dating back to September 22, 2011, one I have saved and framed and kept hanging on a wall in my office. I had written him a decade ago with an invitation to join the editorial board of The Levantine Review (back then a new audacious Open Access academic journal that I was launching at Boston College.) I did not know Fouad Ajami personally; to me he was the intimidating professor with the lofty intellect; a guru of my field, to be read and admired from a distance; spoken about, not spoken to. And so, my request that he lend his support (and name) to a newcomer, an unknown, was a shot in the dark; the quixotic pursuit of a junior academic punching above his weight. I had not expected professor Ajami to answer my email then, let alone did I expect him to accept the invitation of a novice. Yet not only did he respond, swiftly; he did so with his trademark simplicity, generosity, and a kind of personal and literary charm that I can only attribute to the Lebanon of his birth. I include excerpts of his response herewith as a memento; a sampling of the character of a teacher and a scholar who was above all a humanist in the true sense of the term; a man who will always be one of a kind to those whose lives and works he touched. Elegant, unpretentious, decent, Ajami negotiated with dignity, depth, and class the treacherous waters of a toxic field often roiling with acrimony and spite. He was an inspiring teacher who never allowed himself to lose touch with his humanity and humanism, who married erudition to wit, generosity and humility to intellectual perfection, and who never, ever forgot how to remain quintessentially scholarly and genuinely humane. Back on September 22, 2011, in his reply to this neophyte’s request to join the board of a nascent publication, and while he was probably already battling the aggressive ravages of the disease that, by 2014, would take him from us, Fouad (as he’d asked me to call him) wrote the following; terse, telegraphic, but magic: “Dear Franck, I shall be a very easy date. A Levant review is very dear to my heart. It would be a pleasure to join your blessed and new endeavor […] I am definitely excited by your new destination. With best, Fouad.”
This condenses Fouad Ajami at his most natural and unvarnished; a Levantine man from the land of my birth, who condensed what another expatriate, Franco-Lebanese novelist Amin Maalouf, termed “moral elegance”; a man and a scholar of a rare breed, unequaled; a gem of a teacher, public intellectual, mentor, friend, and father-figure who exuded wisdom, culture, elegance, and generosity; the spawn of places and times—again in Maalouf’s words—“inhabited by courteous, generous men, always impeccably groomed, always sharply attired, always meeting others with reverence, always looking askance at all that is prejudice along differences of race, language, creed, and opinion, always taking stock of the world about them with the passion, the wonderment, and the curiosity of children.”4 This was Fouad Ajami! Like the Phoenician sage in Paul Valéry’s Eupalinos, he was a man who stood for and by his precepts, neglecting nothing in his craft, leaving nothing to chance, bringing thought, scrutiny, detail, and attention to all the visible and hidden facets of his work.5 Fastidious to a fault, he was a historian and an interpreter of our world who, not unlike the inspired poet communing with the word, could make stones from the past quiver and speak to our present times and our days yet to come.6 And so I say to myself, if he were here today, Fouad’s intuition, erudition, and enlightened pen, as ever, will have lent much needed clarity, insights, restraint, and comfort to “reflections on our world today”—just as he had done to an area of knowledge that, without his incandescent wisdom, will have remained a grim twilight.
Franck Salameh is Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Chair of the Department of Eastern, Slavic, and German Studies at Boston College. He is author most recently of The Other Middle East (Yale, 2017) and a memoir of Lebanese Jewry, Fragments of Lives Arrested (Palgrave, 2019).