Monday, October 22, 2007

On Fouad Ajami, Again. I was reading in Fouad Ajami's The Foreigner's Gift today. First, what a silly title. Secondly, he out did himself this time. Thirdly, he is so devoid of insights and original ideas, that he resorts to relying on the Middle East expertise of the literary editor of the New Republic. Fourthly, did you see how touching was his tributes to Ahmad Chalabi and his family in the acknowledgment? Fifthly, there is the latest Fouad Ajami's take on the Middle East: let me tell you about the Middle East, but everything I tell you runs counter to every available evidence from the region. But the reason for this contradiction is that Arabs are liars "in coffee houses"--he always has to add a reference to coffee houses in order to sound authentic with a feel for the flavor of the culture. Sixth, this is the best book to read about the psychology of the man: he has a most deep need to be accepted as an American, and this needs colors his judgment on everything he writes. His references to the "bravery" of US troops is more demagogic than the rhetoric of US politicians. Even Abu Ghraib is a sign of US greatness (he talks about the "nobility of the effort" there (p. xxviii). Seventh, he has no insights: as Hanna Batatu used to say about The Arab Predicament, there are no original insights there. I do sometimes assign that book in classes because he translates into English debates in Arabic. But even his translations are problematic: as one Israeli reviewer once said, he makes crude rhetoricians sound poetic with his flowery language. Eight, he offers thanks to this or that foundation for their funding of his "research". What is Ajami's research? Does he call his Pentagon's sponsored trips to Iraq, and his tete-a-tete with Maliki or with US generals "research"? What age is this? Ninth. Can he stop it with this same repetitious flowery language that he uses about "the fate was sealed" or "the tale of Araby" and on and on? This may have been cute the first time around in 1978, but it is quite annoying now. Tenth, is it not ovbious: how specific he is when he criticizes US enemies in the region, but gets very vague in his references to "the kingdoms" when he talks about US friends. As the late Muhsin Mahdi once told me, this is a media phenomenon with no connection to academia. I remember how offended Mahdi was when Harvard University extended an invitation to him to join its faculty (he declined, no less). Personally, I was not surprised at all. I live at a time when the dead body of Raphael Patai may one day holds a chair in Arab and Islamic Studies Harvard or Princeton or both. Finally, his view of the Arab people is so sectarian: like Elie Kedourie, he sees in the Arab his/her sect, first and foremost.