The Spine

Ajami's Gift


He had hoped for better and faster outcomes. But really nothing that has
occurred in Iraq was a surprise to Fouad Ajami, and that is because he
knows the country like he knows himself. So he is honest about his
loyalties and up-front about those who have brought nothing but misery to
this colonially delineated and almost perfectly rectangular state. The
Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq is not
one of those potted histories that have flooded the market in the last two
years, evoking all kinds of violent images and little insight. The first
thing to say, then, that this a book of immense learning, from the texts,
of course, and also from his eight long visits to post-2003 Iraq where he
lived, not in the protected palaces of the old tyrant, but in the real and
gritty streets. There is some bravery to Ajami's research. Still, what
distinguishes it from the deluge of others's words is the fact that he is
completely at home with his subject.

Nothing I've read -- and, not to boast, I've read a lot -- has given us so
textured a picture of the Kurds of Iraq, their mystery and the promising
reality they have made for themselves. Ajami knows the Sunni merchants and
the Sunni mullahs and also the Sunni madmen, different from each other but
all yoked to the stubborn memory of minority Sunni rule. He is a Shi'a
himself -- not practicing and, I reveal no secrets, probably not believing
either -- who conveys the historic agonies of the Shi'a as the despised of
Islam who, though perhaps still despised, will be sat upon or spat upon no
longer. This is a shock in the world of Islam, and it is a shock you will
fully and finally grasp after reading The Foreigner's Gift.

While this is truly a book about Iraq and Iraqis, it is also about America,
its innocence, its idealism, its muddled realism. Maybe the Iraqis will in
the end refuse the foreigner's gift. But then the angry and nasty critics
of the war will have to revise their view of nothing less than human nature
itself. The foreigner's gift presumes that most people want to live
free. In deepest truth, the critics don't really give a damn. But the
verdict will be wrought by the messy demography of Iraq.

The American who is the central player in this unfolding drama is General
David Petraeus. There has not been anything written about him so
definitive and convincing. Gone are the days when our top military can be
lampooned as buffoons. Petraeus's seriousness and subtlety come through in
this portrait of a soldier who calibrates his means in concord with his
purposes and ideals.

The Free Press has just put out a trade paperback of The Foreigner's
Gift. It is more germane now than when it first came out.

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