Reviewing the posthumous memoir of the great Lebanese-born scholar Fouad Ajami, Hussain Abdul-Hussain reflects on the similarities between his own life and Ajami’s—both came from Shiite families, both attended the same high school in Beirut (many years apart), and both found their ways to America—and on Ajami’s intellectual legacy:
During our time in our ancestral homeland, we learned the same lesson: Arab failure was from within. It was not the fault of imperialism, colonialism, or even Zionism. For Ajami, the price of dissent was often vilification, in particular the accusation that he was a self-hating Arab.
[Once], I subscribed to Arab nationalism. The late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said was my hero. He taught a generation of scholars that “orientalism”—the patronizing Western belief in Arab inferiority—was the midwife of imperialism and the ultimate author of Middle Eastern misfortunes. Then something unusual happened. The United States prepared to invade Iraq, promising democratic self-government to its people. Meanwhile, Said and an overwhelming majority of Arab intellectuals portrayed Saddam Hussein as a victim of Yankee aggression.
In general, Said and his fellow travelers had few qualms about “armed resistance” to imperial oppressors. They lionized Palestinian resistance above all, yet had sympathy for the dictator who had forced my family out of Iraq. Thus, I saw the ugly face of Arab nationalism. [For his part], Said accused Ajami of having “unmistakably racist prescriptions.”
But neither Ajami nor I were ever self-hating Arabs. Ajami loved Arab culture—the language, poetry, music, and cuisine. . . . In contrast, Edward Said “chose” his Arab identity at age thirty and then made a career out of teaching others to blame foreigners.