Fouad Ajami's "When Magic Failed" Captures Lebanon at Its Best and Worst

The late historian’s memoir, an unstinting portrait of the unhappy collision of tradition and modernity in Lebanon in the years following World War II, is one of the best of our time.

Fouad Ajami in 2010. Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Fouad Ajami in 2010. Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

Neil Rogachevsky
COLUMN
Aug. 22 2022
About Neil

Neil Rogachevsky teaches at the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and writes a monthly column for Mosaic.

It’s often difficult to predict where a significant work of literature will come from. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was an obscure music critic in Paris when, in 1750 at the age of thirty-eight, he dropped the Discourse on the Arts and Sciences on the world. Other writers and thinkers held in high repute famously toiled away in patent offices, as medical professionals, or in high-stress political careers, stealing away hours here and there to write books that might interest present but especially future readers. Some enduring works—though frankly very few—have even been written by obscure university professors.

I submit to Mosaic readers that When Magic Failed, the posthumously published memoir by the late Middle East scholar and writer Fouad Ajami (1945–2014) is a significant work of literature, one of the few works to have come out of our time that, if there’s any justice, should be read into the future. Since its publication earlier this year, the book has mostly been seen as a simple coming-of-age story, of growing up Shiite in southern Lebanon and Beirut. It is this but also much more: an unstinting portrait of the unhappy collision of tradition and modernity in Lebanon in the years following the Second World War. That collision has looked dramatically differently in different parts of the world. But by showing us what the collision of tradition and modernity looked like from Lebanon, When Magic Failed can even help us navigate a challenge that continues to define our times, and not only in the Arab world.

 

I do not believe it is necessary to spend too much time introducing Mosaic readers to Fouad Ajami. Over the years, this magazine has published some of the best recollections of the man and the meaning of his work. As one of them goes, “A career in political science at Princeton and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) quickly blossomed into a role as one of the most significant observers of the Middle East in an era of increasingly intense and highly controversial American involvement in that region’s affairs.” And as another puts it, Ajami “specialized in explaining to Westerners the complex and traumatic encounter of the Arab peoples with modernity.”

I have little to add in the way of personal reflections. I never met him. He came on to my radar in the aftermath of 9/11, when Ajami, then teaching at Johns Hopkins, was frequently called upon by newspaper columns and high-brow TV hosts like Charlie Rose to explain developments in the Middle East. Some years later, a few close friends of mine studied at SAIS, and regaled me with stories about Ajami’s extraordinary teaching and character—his wit, his extraordinary turns of phrase, the network of ultra-unconventional Middle East writers and thinkers who came through his classroom doors on Massachusetts Avenue.

By the middle of the 2000s, Ajami had already written some important works in Middle East studies. The Arab Predicament, about the varying responses of Arab intellectuals to what they saw as the disaster of the 1967 war, remains one of the best works on the period. (It is an especially good book for Israelis and Israel-watchers to read, since we tend to view the Six-Day War exclusively from the Israeli point of view.).

And yet his students, and others who knew him well, suspected he was holding something back—that there could be a great book in him rather than merely good ones. When Magic Failed is that book. But it also almost never saw the light of day. At the time of his death, from cancer, in 2014, there was a complete manuscript of the book, but it was rough around the edges. His widow Michelle and the Arabic translator and analyst Peter Theroux recognized its importance and brought it through an editing process that is, nonetheless, pure Ajami. Ajami’s friend and favorite editor Leon Wieseltier, famously the longtime literary editor of The New Republic, published an excerpt in his new journal Liberties and then shepherded the book’s publication through Bombardier. Ajami, I suspect, would have been pleased at how this all came together: “I only write my Wall Street Journal op-eds to keep my writerly chops up for Leon Wieseltier!” he was heard to say more than once.

It is unclear to me whether Ajami deliberately decided that he couldn’t publish this work in his lifetime, or whether circumstances or ill health got in the way. But after reading it one could easily see why Ajami might have hesitated. The book speaks the full, complete, and often ugly truth about real people in a concrete time and place. And, as the recent attack on Salman Rushdie reminds us, the risks in writing in this way go beyond the prospect of a sniffy newspaper review.

 

When Magic Failed begins in the foothills of southern Lebanon, in the village of Arnoun, surrounded by steep cliffs of granite rock and the ruined crusader castle of Beaufort and lying just 8 kilometers from the border of the new state of Israel. In the 1950s, the winds of change had already begun to reach this difficult and unforgiving land, but it was still in many ways, as Peter Theroux writes in his introduction, a feudal or even medieval world. Ajami tells the story of his family and his village with great humanity but without any romance. We meet characters of stout and even great virtues. He writes beautifully of his mother’s piety and courage to carry on after two divorces. Ali Ajami, Fouad’s father, had preferred to take up with another woman while seeking his fortune in Saudi Arabia. See his account of her humble piety:

The Almighty gave rope, overlooked things, postponed the moment of reckoning and the moment of judgment. But my mother insisted that He was there and that He would intervene: after all, it was said in God’s book that whoever has done an “atom’s worth of good” shall see it and be rewarded by it, and whoever has done an atom’s worth of evil shall see it as well.

He speaks of the stolidity and grace of his grandfather, a descendant of Persian immigrants who had become a doyen of the Shiite village, determined to preserve the connection to the land and the old ways even amidst the upheavals of the modern world that he saw but did not quite understand. The aspirations of some of his aunts and cousins to be something different in a new world is likewise given its due.

Yet we do not have the mythologizing here, which we find in so many books about the Middle East and other places, about a pristine society shattered by the greed of foreigners. The flip side of the determination that piety is shown to offer is hypocrisy to cover over the most barbaric crimes. In the work’s prologue, we are introduced to Dalal, a young woman of the young Fouad’s acquaintance, who was the victim of an honor killing carried out by her own mother. She had been living, it was thought, a freewheeling lifestyle in Beirut, a city where, despite its cosmopolitan reputation, “even the trees had eyes.” Ajami recalls the funeral: “the day belonged to her mother, the tower of strength, the victim and the killer, sure in her grief that she did what she did for the sake of her other daughters, of her sons, of her home.” This terrible vignette cleanses us, from the outset, of the yearning to romanticize this lost world. It is a world that knew great violence and cruelty. The land where family and honor were the rule was also a land that allowed polygamy for the strong men, who essentially held the rest of society at their mercy. One could not be a simple “good citizen” in such a place, Ajami tells us. You had to be either a wolf or a lamb.

Was cosmopolitan, modern Beirut a way out? Here, too, Ajami gives an ambiguous answer. After leaving Arnoun, we see young Fouad taken first by his mother to a mostly Armenian slum in Beirut, and then, after his father managed to attain riches through undisclosed business activities in Saudi Arabia. The young Fouad lived in Beirut through his later school days until his resolution, made at the age of seventeen in 1962, to get out—ultimately to America, where he would study, attain his PhD, and pursue his remarkable career. In Ajami’s remarkable tour of the Beirut of this time, we get a glimpse of the various new tastes, ideologies, and ways of life that seemed to beckon a new generation. The possibilities seemed endless. Young men were unleashed to make their fortunes any way they could.

If they could not make it in Beirut, they could now go to the ends of the earth: one of the most moving stories in a book full of them is the story of Fouad’s favorite uncle, a young man of intelligence and promise, who embarks on a ruined life in the diamond trade of Sierra Leone. As a teenager, Fouad was wild-eyed with the promise that the city seemed to hold. He was for a time captured by Nasser’s pan-Arabism. We meet Communists, teachers who sought to make the Palestinian cause front and center of Lebanese politics, and many men and women who embraced the most flagrant nouveau-riche materialism as a way of life. We see how the mission civilisatrice of France, which had been the colonial power in Lebanon, had molded tastes, furnished new literary and material objects for the imagination, and introduced a wide dollop of new pretense, but had by no means created a functional modern state.

Modern ways had indeed dissolved some of the bonds of the old traditional world. But most of the new ways and ideas were hollow or worse. Nasser’s “pan-Arabism” was simply meant to advance the aims of Nasser and his coterie. Politics were patrimonial and corrupt. The life of luxury could intersect with crime: the most materially successfully member of Fouad’s young family—who wore silk suits and drove around Beirut in a sports car—one day simply disappeared, presumed murdered by a member of the Jordanian royal family. “The life of my family—the larger circle of my kinsmen—seemed to make less and less sense,” Ajami writes of the time in Beirut. “The further we tried to get away from the land and the past, the more unsettled we seemed to get.” But, by the end of the memoir, we are prepared for what ultimately happened: Lebanon and its minorities were thrust back into a more abstract and often more violent politics of kin, now made more severe than the old by changing demographics and hardened by new ideologies and the various revulsions they inspired.

As the late political scientist Albert O. Hirschman liked to say, individuals or groups facing declining political circumstances often faced the choice between “exit, voice, and loyalty.” (The model obviously does not apply to those in the situations of deepest distress who cannot leave). People can pack up and leave, they can try to stay to voice criticism if possible, or else they can remain loyal, either because they like the status quo or wish to work within the system. Ajami chose exit.

It turns out there was one dream that had not failed: America. Through movies and books, the young Fouad got a glimpse of America and its freedom. Enrolling in an American school at the end of his high-school years, he encountered practically minded American teachers who respected their students, neither beating them physically nor browbeating them ideologically. Fouad was assigned Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities and fell in love with Ingliz. (He would ultimately became one of the most lyrical writers of English prose in our time.) Amidst the louder and, in this world, brighter alternatives—the flailing effort to recreate Paris, corrupt local politics, or venal pan-Arabic ones—Fouad Ajami somehow saw the promise of America. But that meant leaving Lebanon behind. As the work concludes, Ajami tells us he would only return to Lebanon for a few brief visits over the rest of his life. He would make sure his mother was provided for. And he would throw himself into an American life, always grateful to the country for the reasons many immigrants have been grateful to it: America welcomed him and gave the opportunity to use and develop his great talents. But he also understood what distinguished America at the level of ideas. America had been the one “modern idea” that he spied as a young man in Lebanon that did not let him down. America was a land where ethnicity and tribe could be respected but not determinative and crushing. It was a land that nurtured a kind of ambition which was not simply the oppression by “the great” of the less-than-great. While Ajami does not deal with his time in America in this book, in this way it is a great America tale.

 

In 2003, the left-wing literary critic Adam Shatz published an attack against Fouad Ajami in The Nation. Written at the time of Ajami’s greatest influence, Shatz’s article expressed the full catalogue of grudges that had accumulated among more conventional Middle East experts against Ajami over his career in the United States. Ajami, according to Shatz, was a kind of court Arab of the White House, someone who had abandoned a literary vocation to worship power in New York or Washington by telling politicians what they wanted to hear about the Arab world or Iraq. Worse, Ajami, Shatz implied, was in the pay of the “Zionist lobby.” He based this attack on Ajami’s acceptance of a few speaking gigs, and his frequent favorable pronouncements about Israel, which had, Shatz reported, caused problems for Ajami’s family back in Lebanon. In other words, to the conventional Middle East academics and writers whom Shatz was channeling, Ajami was a tragic case of the American dream gone off the rails—a promising writer and scholar who betrayed his own and the truth for the sake of wealth and power.

When Magic Fails should put this canard to rest once and for all. One could much more truly say that Ajami chose a life which rejected the “flattery of wealth and power” in favor of the truth. And even as he left Lebanon out of a sense out of its profound failings, this remarkable memoir demonstrates its author’s loyalty to where he came from in the most profound possible way. For if successful reforms one day come to the Arab world, it will be through greater recognition of the difficult truths Ajami humanely unveils for the Arab world and for the rest of us.

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More about: Fouad Ajami, History & Ideas, Lebanon, Middle East