George Packer’s blog mentioned Fouad Ajami’s Dream Palace of the Arabs. I got it out of the library. It fills in a lot of gaps in 20th century Middle Eastern history. Even though it was written 8 years ago, it lends insight into the world as it is today. It is good to read about stuff that has settled a little.
The author tells personal stories from all over the Middle East to paint a picture of an Arab intellectual class that had a glimpse of a united Arab world, Muslim and Christian, businessman, writer, sheik, imam, and farmer. I’ve just finished the first chapter. In it, a poor Lebanese Christian struggles to get to the American University of Beirut (AUB), has a glimpse of a prosperous Lebanon in a larger Arab world, only to see the rest of the world come to use Lebanon as a proxy battlefield and the Lebanese themselves, free of outside influence, get their sectarian violence on. This man was Khalil Hawi. He became a famous poet and was a veteran of various political movements. During the Lebanese civil war, some young militiamen stopped him at a checkpoint. (Yes, militias had checkpoints then too.) He was an original member of their party but, sick of mobs with guns, he refused to cooperate and they were going to do him in before his buddies from the old days interceded.
Ajami talks a lot about Anton Sadaah (known to Wikipedia as Saadeh), a Lebanese gadabout who started the Greater Syria Party and was executed after leading a revolt.
Looking at these old pictures of him and his cronies, I can start to imagine the incubation of this alternative Arab world. It is a revelation how important the American University of Beirut was to this Arab class.
This is Steve Kerr, the most accurate three point shooter in NBA history. His grandfather was a missionary who rescued Armenian children after the genocide and later taught at the AUB. In the epilogue of the first chapter I learned that his father, Malcom Kerr, was the president of the AUB until he was assassinated in 1984 shortly after the American Embassy was bombed and the Marine barracks there was blown up. The book surprised me in how many different western and Christian organizations went to Lebanon and set up outposts, training students, giving them scholarships to go study in Cambridge and New York, Milwaukee and Cairo. These western universities helped form the core of this Arab Intellectual Class. It also amazes me the speed with which this Arab intellectual class of poets, journalists, scholars and secular politicians was swept away into either death or exile and replaced with Islamic theocrats. The author uses Steve Kerr’s NBA career to illustrate the end of our missionary ideals.
Packer accuses Ajami of liking the current outcome of the Iraq war because he is really a Shiite partisan. That does not come through in this book.