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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
What constitutes the dream palace of the Arabs? "On their own, in the barracks and in the academies," Fouad Ajami writes, "in the principle cities of the Arab world--Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo--Arabs had built an intellectual edifice of secular nationalism and modernity." What has happened to the dream over the past quarter century is the focus of Ajami's brilliant and controversial inquiry. Born in Lebanon and currently a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University (his work in Middle Eastern politics and culture has garnered Ajami the distinguished MacArthur Fellowship), Dream Palace of the Arabs presents a compressed history of the Middle East and, equally engaging, a highly personal account of the post-World War II Arab world which modern Arabs, like himself, have inherited.
The first of the four essays that constitute the book dwells on a suicide--Lebanese poet Khalil Hawi, who killed himself on the day Israel swept into Lebanon on June 6, 1982. For Ajami, Khalil's life and death came to represent the cultural phenomena that befell the generation of Arabs between the 1950s and mid-1980s. Khalil, a member of the pan-Arab movement that portended the fulfillment of the Arab political dream through violence, saw defeat after defeat of the movements he supported. Ajami contends that such young intellectuals needed a larger identity in order to transcend their local
Honing into the theocratic politics of the 1980s, mostly deftly characterized by the reign of the Ayatollah Khomeini, Ajami focuses on the introduction of prosperity into the region that was then devastated by the great recession of the mid-1980s. But his greatest disappointment is with Egypt, subject of the most gripping essay in the collection. He was, for example, fortunate enough to attend the evening gatherings of the great Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfuz. "In his eighties; frail, with failing eyesight, recovering from a knifing by religious fanatics that nearly cost him his life and paralyzed his writing hand, Mahfuz and his ordeal represented at once the modernity of Egypt and the siege of its secular men and women of letters."
And looking at the Arab intellectual encounter with Israel, subject of the last narrative, Ajami reports with clarity and despair on the unwillingness of many intellectuals and members of the younger generation to put aside the old enmity and embrace peace.
Writing brilliantly with a passionate regard both for language and the complex history of the Arab world, these sparkling narratives are both a gift to the reader of contemporary history and a guide for those striving to understand the fiery political and cultural conflicts in the Middle East during the past 25 years
"An important and illuminating book that furnishes a universe of information about the inner world of Arab self-reflection. . . . A valuable testament to a tragic generation that tried to bridge the Arab past with modern ideals."
--The New York Times
"Fouad Ajami writes with a unique combination of knowledge, understanding, skill, and courage. The result is a superb guide to the intellectual, spiritual, and moral dilemmas of the Arab world today."
--Bernard Lewis, author of Islam and the West
"The Dream Palace of the Arabs is in the truest sense a sympathetic critique of a generation that is caught between a past it knows it can never recover, and a present it cannot bring itself to accept. This is the tragic predicament that Ajami probes with startling insight. The elegant essays making up the book sketch a historical drama that consumes the reader's attention throughout."
--Robert Tucker, author of The Inequality of Nations
"In The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Ajami takes us on a personally guided tour of the Arab mind in the last half of the twentieth century. It is all here: the dreams, the visions, the frustrations, the open wounds suffered when an inner life of poetry smashes up against the external realities of politics.... It is an indispensable book for those who seek to understand the Middle East in our time."
--David Fromkin, author of A Peace to End All Peace
"Ajami's well-crafted tale is an insider's look at Arab angst. Born in Lebanon, Ajami has written a book that is at once a mini history of the Middle East and a personal journey into the post-World War II Arabs such as himself have inherited.... For those seeking a better understanding of the whys and wherefores of modern Arab life, this book is a beautifully written, insightful overview."
"Bold, imaginative and sure to be controversial. . . . A vivid and moving account of Arab thought today against the background of the lost era of progressive pan-Arab nationalism and high hopes. Ajami speaks openly of painful truths that many Arab intellectuals would rather keep within the family."
--The New York Times Book Review
"An insider's book, a group portrait written by one who has known most of those in the picture. . . . The Dream Palace of the Arabs is an absorbing and sadly moving account of what political, economic and social failures on a grand scale have meant in human terms and at an individual level."
--Washington Post Book World