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'Fresh Air' Remembers Writer And Middle East Scholar Fouad Ajami


This is FRESH AIR. Fouad Ajami, who wrote extensively on Middle East and Arab history and made many appearances on TV news shows, died of cancer yesterday at the age of 68. Ajami was also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Fouad Ajami was controversial for some of his views, including his support of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. He advised some of the members of the Bush administration. He criticized Arab dictators, but also criticized people across the Arab world for their divisiveness. This month, he criticized Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who he called a dictator, for failing to unify the country. Ajami grew up in Lebanon. I spoke with him in 1988, 13 years after the start of Lebanon's civil war, which was still ongoing at the time. He just published an essay in a book describing how political catastrophe came to Beirut and how the city became a land of cruelty and hatred, a place of kidnappings and car bombings. I asked if he thought of this essay as a eulogy for the city where he grew up.


FOUAD AJAMI: I think you have the right word for it. It is in part a eulogy of the city. Here's a city that meant a great deal to - not only to the Lebanese obviously, this is their great capital city - but it also meant a great deal to the Arab world. This was a place where the Arab world met Europe, if you will. This was a place where East and West met. I mean, this is a kind of a slogan that people have about Beirut. It's a cliche, but it's very real. This is the city where I myself grew up in.

There was something there, if there is such a thing as Arab and Muslim liberalism and such a thing as the Levant, if you will, in the Arab world, this kind of meeting of East and West, this meeting of Christianity and Islam, to the extent that that world existed, it really existed in Beirut. That world is gone. So whether Beirut committed suicide, or whether Beirut was the victim of homicide, that is whether others pushed Beirut over the brinks - Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Iranians, whatever - whether it's a case of homicide or of suicide, a city, and a way of life, you know, have really belonged to the past. And it was time, I felt, to write of Beirut and write of Lebanon, not a political story, but a kind of eulogy that you ask about.

GROSS: Now you moved to Beirut from the countryside of Lebanon when you were around 3 or 4 years old.

AJAMI: Right.

GROSS: Why did your family want to move to Beirut?

AJAMI: Well, you see, I think in many ways the politics of Lebanon - the life of Lebanon became the life of an extended city-state. I mean, Beirut - this was the magnet. The county side of Lebanon was being emptied of any economic life. Lebanon was really a poor country. The land was a very poor land. And you saw in Lebanon what you saw in many third-world societies, the city became the great magnet. The city became a place where people could sustain a dream. And in the case of my family, they were tobacco growers. They were really impoverished gentry. A man who came to Lebanon once said about that many of the Lebanese came from royal ancestry and personal destitution. That they were all very proud of their ancestry, but it was also a very poor land.

So my family came to Beirut in the mid to late '40s. Other people were making the journey. People from the Biqa Valley, close to Syria in the East, were making the journey. People from the northern part of the country were making a journey. And at some point in time, I think maybe even more than half of the people of Lebanon lived in the capital city. Again, not so much a uniquely Lebanese phenomenon, but a widely third-world phenomenon.

GROSS: You were talking before about how there was at least the image when you were growing up in Beirut of the different Muslim groups and the different Christian groups, all communicating with each other...


GROSS: ...On some level.


GROSS: Now, whether that was just image or whether there really was that level of communication...

AJAMI: Right.

GROSS: ...It's all fallen apart.

AJAMI: Yes, it was...

GROSS: That communication no longer exists. What are the origins of that breakdown, do you think?

AJAMI: Well, you know, I think it was what I call a necessary fiction, a necessary lie. We needed this. We needed to tell - the Lebanese needed to tell one another, and to tell themselves, that actually Muslim and Christian could exist. And they really took two ways of looking at the Lebanese dilemma and the death of Lebanon, the collapse of Lebanon, and the anarchy of Lebanon of the last 12 to 13 years. You could say, well, why did Lebanon collapse? And maybe there is another way of putting it. A prior way of putting it, how did Lebanon come together? You see, maybe the ingredients were never there. The ingredients were never there for one country. This Republic of Lebanon was put together by the French in the aftermath of World War I. They added to Mount Lebanon, which had two communities, the Maronites and the Druze.

They added to the city of Beirut, which was essentially a Muslim Sunni city. And they added to it the Biqa Valley, which they sliced off from Syria, which was a predominately Muslim Shia, and the southern part of the country. So it was always a hodgepodge, and the country was drawn, you know, like many, many countries in Afro-Asia, the country was drawn by the colonial masters. It was drawn by the colonial masters. The dominant community in Lebanon, the Catholic Maronites, who were friends of the French, prevailed on the French in the aftermath of World War I. When the entire map for the Middle East was drawn and redrawn, they prevailed on the French to create this, what they call the (French spoken) the larger Lebanon, the bigger Lebanon, not just Mount Lebanon in the mountain, but the current borders the Lebanese state. So from the very beginning, from the very beginning, the country bore the seeds of its destruction.

There was something there that was very fragile. The communities were of vastly different temperaments and different cultures of various levels of development. So when the map of the modern Arab world was drawn after World War I, this - the entity of Lebanon, the modern entity of Lebanon was from the very beginning a quilt, an impossible quilt of communities. This war broke out in Lebanon in 1975. It's now more than 13 years old. Now, if you were 5 or 6 years old when the war broke out, you have only known war as a way of life. Lebanon has redefined the normal. Men know only war, and they are now - that's the way of life that's open to them.

GROSS: Fouad Ajami, recorded in 1988. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 68. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.