Fouad Ajami, an American academic and public intellectual deemed by many the poet laureate of Middle East Studies, who for four decades unpacked the complexities of his native Near East, rarefying it to the untrained, bewildered ears of American public and academic audiences, passed away on Sunday. He was 68. The cause of his death, which took those who have followed his career by surprise, was cancer according to a statement released by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where Professor Ajami was a Senior Fellow.
Born to a Shi’ite family of Persian extraction in the southern Lebanese hilltop hamlet of Arnoun, near the Israeli border and a stone’s throw from the Crusader castle of Beaufort, Fouad Ajami grew up at the crossroads of cultures, basking in a rich conflation of histories, languages, traditions and cultural rituals. His childhood was molded in the mysticism and hybrid nature of his surroundings, lulled as it were by the ebb and flow of the Mediterranean below, and grounded in the pristine ancient highlands of the Lebanese mountains.
It was against this native backdrop, wedding the provincial to the urbane, that Fouad Ajami the scholar opted to interpret the Middle East to his American audiences; a Middle East defined by hybridity, fluidity and diversity, rather than the “oneness” of a single domineering creed.
The Middle East as a cohesive, uniform mono-cultural Arab or Muslim world, rent asunder only by dint of Western intrusions and machinations, was a fashionable, soothing and tempting illusion – one turned into professional orthodoxy and an article of faith – among the practitioners of mainstream Middle East scholarship.
And so it happened that Ajami’s intimate more authentic purview of his research area, as a crucible of Muslims and Arabs and others as well, was deemed “dangerous knowledge” to those holding the field, sketching its outlines and defining its canon.
But Ajami would remain undaunted, reading his world as it was, not as doctrinaires and romantics wished it to be.
One needn’t be nostalgic, he wrote recently, to recall with affection a multicultural Lebanon where 18 different communities jostled and feuded for power and influence and relevance; where Lebanese beholden to the creed of Arab nationalism met their match in “Lebanese who thought of their country as a piece of Europe at the foot of a splendid mountain [and who] savored the language of France.”
And so it came to pass that the Middle East Fouad Ajami sought to transmit to his American charges recalled the Lebanon of his youth. His was not the monolith of the Arab or the Arab nationalist alone. Nor was it the uniform cohesive preserve of Muslims or Islamists alone. His Middle East was not the hapless victim of Western rapacity and Israeli deceit.
INDEED, AJAMI’S greatest sin in the eyes of many in his field was that he took his own people to task, summoned them to acknowledge the non-Arabs in their midst and valorize the non-Muslims among them, challenged them to take stock of their own failings and pointed them in the direction of the unthinkable in Middle East Studies quarters: that Arabs and Muslims are indeed masters of their own fate, proficient at cracking their whips at their own and skilled in the fundaments of their own despotism and brutality and decadence, without the benefit of Western perfidy and scheming.
And so, in a combustive academic field often mirroring the Middle East itself, riven as it is by partis pris and peopled equally by demagogues and scholars, Ajami sounded a clarion call of reason, suggesting alternative views, brandishing an eloquent voice and a sparkling pen on behalf of repressed narratives, breathing renewal into the conscience of an embattled profession, and bringing redemption to a region devoured by turmoil.
Though he might not have always been prescient – he was after all a historian, not an oracle – he was always thoughtful, perspicacious and sober. His analysis was nimble, his reasoning nuanced and his prose always deliciously enchanting.
I have an email from Professor Ajami dating back to September 22, 2011, and which I shall save and treasure for many years to come. I had written him during that time with an invitation to join the editorial board of The Levantine Review (a new Open Access academic journal that I was launching at Boston College). I did not know Ajami, and my request was a shot in the dark then, the pursuit of a cheeky junior academic punching above his weight.
I did not expect him to answer my email, let alone accept the invitation of a nobody – and still less to accept it in this, his trademark simplicity, eloquence and grace. I am including excerpts of his response below as a memento, and as a sample of a man who will always be one of a kind to those whose lives and works he has touched.
An eminent, unpretentious and supremely decent scholar, Ajami wrote with great authority and greater literary charm. He negotiated with dignity, depth and class the treacherous waters of a toxic field often roiling with acrimony and spite. He was an awe-inspiring teacher who never allowed himself to lose touch with his humanity and humanism, who married erudition to wit, generosity and humility, and who never, ever forgot how to remain quintessentially scholarly and exquisitely human. Back on September 22, 2011, in his reply to this neophyte’s request to join the board of a nascent publication, Ajami wrote me the following: “Dear Franck I shall be a very easy date. A Levant review is very dear to my heart. It would be a pleasure to join your blessed and new endeavor [...] I am definitely excited by your new destination. With best, Fouad.”
This condenses Ajami at his most natural and unvarnished, rendering his loss as crushing as it was unexpected.
He was a man of a rare breed, irreplaceable. Our profession and field have been deprived of their lodestar this week – a gem of a scholar, teacher, mentor, friend and father who exuded wisdom, culture, elegance and generosity.
To borrow words from his own lyrical lexicon, Ajami was an old soul, among us on loan. And though he may have made our world a little brighter, he hailed from a different time and space. But for the hilltops of the Lebanon mingling with stars, the lights are a little dimmer over Beaufort and Arnoun tonight. Fouad Ajami; they don’t make them like that anymore.
The author is associate professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is founding editor in chief of The Levantine Review and author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington Books, 2010 and 2011.)