The End of Arab Nationalism

by Fouad Ajami | July 12, 1991

It is now a little more than half a century ago that George Antonius (an Alexandria-born Greek Orthodox writer of Palestinian background) published his manifesto, The Arab Awakening. All the grand themes of Arab nationalism were foreshadowed in Antonius's work: the "secularism" of the Arab nationalist movement, the primacy of the PanArab movement over "smaller" loyalties, the fragmentation of that movement at the hands of the colonial powers, and the presumed centrality of the Palestinian question to the entire Arab world. Antonius wrote with an Anglo-American audience in mind. That too continues to devil the proponent of Arab nationalism: the narrative nationalist history with its gaze fixed on the outside world, petitioning, alternating between a search for foreign patrons and an equally frenzied search for foreign scapegoats and demons.

Today, the children of Antonius are adrift. On the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, the edifice they built is in ruins. In Saddam, the "Arab awakening" hatched a monster. With his cruel bid for an imperium in Iraq's image, the Arabs were to witness what the Arab national movement had wrought.

The defects of the Arab nationalist narrative should have been all too easy to see. The kind of world men and women bumped into when they stepped out of the abstract texts of Arab nationalism — the world of daily experience — was nowhere to be found in the works of the Arab nationalist historiography. Some years ago, when I began to grope my way out of this historiography, I read an influential book of that genre, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age by Albert Hourani. But in truth there had been no liberal age in Arab politics. "Reason is helpless before the fist," the great Russian writer Alexander Herzen had written about Russian liberalism and its fragility. And Reason had proved helpless in the Arab world. The ground under the feet of liberalism cracked over and over again.

 

I.

I was born in the hinterland of Lebanon in 1945. My people broke out of my remote birthplace into the city of Beirut in the late 1940s. But that world stuck to our fingers. My great-grandfather had come from Tabriz in Iran to a remote hamlet in south Lebanon, sometime in the mid-1850s. The years covered the trail that my great-grandfather had traveled. The Persian connection was severed, but was given away in the name by which he became known in his new home: Dahir Ajami, Dahir the Persian. No pamphleteers or authors who celebrated the "Arab awakening" ventured near my stern, impoverished ancestral village on the Lebanese-Israeli border.

To my early work on modern Arab politics I must have brought the truth bequeathed me by the small Shiite world I had been born into. The Shiites were the stepchildren of the Arab world. In its principal cities they were strangers, a people of the countryside. To its (Sunni) orthodox, they were sectarians. Modern Arab nationalism never quite accommodated them. My elders inhabited a world of private concerns: the land my grandfather owned, the price of tobacco paid out by the tobacco monopoly, the money to be made in Liberia and Sierra Leone by my uncles and aunts.

I, on the other hand, came into my own in the public world of Beirut. I was the beneficiary of the struggle of the preceding generation — the passage to Beirut, the money made in faraway places. I grew up in the atmosphere of Muslim West Beirut. Across the line — a cable car ride away, in Christian East Beirut — there was an entirely different sensibility: the Maronite mountain with its ethos of independence, and its sense of being set apart from the Muslim world around it. The Maronites had a strong sense of themselves; they had their formidable clergy, their own schools, traffic with Europe, special ties to France. They possessed a special history — the flight of their ancestors from the (oppressed) plains of Syria in the seventh century to the freedom of Mount Lebanon. Their history was not mine.

I was formed by an amorphous Arab nationalist sensibility. There was the shadow of the Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser that lay over the Muslims of Lebanon. There was the drama of the struggle over Palestine — between Arab and Jew, and the pull of the Palestinian cause. The Egyptian leader who came to dominate our world in West Beirut — really in Muslim Lebanon as a whole — had made the cause of Palestine his rallying cry. The towns and villages of Mandatory Palestine were a veritable extension of my ancestral land in south Lebanon. For my elders a fight had taken place between Arab Filastin (the Arab of Palestine) and al Yahud (the Jews). The Palestinians had lost. That tale was told as men and women spoke of calamities and weather, of the yield of particular harvests.

My family bore the Palestinians no particular animus. Nor did they think that their ordeal was of great concern to us. (The animus would come much later, in the 1970s, when the Palestinians would overrun my mother's beloved town of Khiam and gun down many of her large clan.) My mother had her small world and the stark sensibility of her peasant world. Al Dahr Ghaddar, fate was vengeful; it played with the lives of men, and fate had dealt the Palestinians what it had. For my generation the struggle that had played itself out in Palestine was transformed and made political and grand, part of our burden. We knew precious little of what had actually happened during the fight between Arab and Jew. We could not claim that history. (That awaited the new Zionist histories. There were no reliable accounts, no archives or honest diaries.) We knew that the "traitors" were punished — that King Abdullah of Jordan was murdered, that King Farouk of Egypt was packed off to exile. We thought that the "new men" would annul the weakness and the shame of the past. The "traditional" world was declared dead and buried. Such were the threads out of which the politics of my generation were made.

 

It was out of this material — the promise of Arab nationalism and Nasserism, and then the undoing of that era — that I wrote my first book, from afar, in the United States. Several years later, in the mid-1980s, I embarked on a different enterprise. The Shiite world I knew in Lebanon — the small villages and towns passed over by history and large events, the Shiite slums on the outskirts of Beirut — had risen in rebellion. The Iranian revolution had spilled into Lebanon. It had given a timid population a sense of their own worth. The Shiite tradition of quietism and political withdrawal was being remade. I had struggled to go beyond the world of my kinsmen. Now I had set out on an intellectual return of my own. That was the gift of America to me. I was willing to look into that Shiite past.

I found an instrument: the life of the Iranian-born mullah, Imam Musa al Sadr. I decided to write a biography of him. Sadr had come into the small world of the Shiites of Lebanon in 1959; he "disappeared" in Libya, in 1978, while on a visit to its leader Muammar al Qaddafi. I had seen Musa al Sadr only once in my boyhood. He had come to visit my school in West Beirut in 1963. A Persian-born Shiite cleric was anathema to me at the time, to my claim to "Arabism," my place in the city, my very "modernity." But the tall, striking-looking cleric who was born in Qom to a religious family of high calling had gone on to fame and power. He survived the hostility of young, nervous assimilies like myself. An intensely political man, he had transformed the Shiites of Lebanon. He gave his followers some of his daring. Years before Ayatollah Khomeini emerged as the "armed Imam," the handsome young cleric fashioned out of the symbols of Shiism a new politics of commitment and activism.

A drawn-out battle for West Beirut and for the Shiite ancestral lands in south Lebanon ensued between the Shiites and remnants of the Palestine Liberation Organization. In the mid-1970s the Palestinians had overrun much of the ancestral land of the Shiites. They had established a turf of their own. It was an uneven fight: the Palestinians had the resources extended to them by the Arab state; they had behind them the weight of Arab nationalism and the primacy it gave the issue of Palestine. But the Israeli invasion of 1982 had transformed the political landscape in Beirut and in south Lebanon. It shattered the Palestinian sanctuary and thus served as the midwife of a Shiite bid for power. Emboldened, the Shiites now struck at the Palestinians.

The "war of the camps" between the Palestinians and the Shiites raged in the spring of 1985. My book about Musa al Sadr was released in 1986. The lines were drawn. The book was a work of biography, but only in part. Through the life of Musa al Sadr, I had written of the grievances of the people he had led in Lebanon. On their way out of self-contempt the Shiites had clashed with the Palestinians and with West Beirut's traditional Sunni elites. A city once pampered and precious had fallen to the rabble. The reign of the Palestinian gunmen and the leftist parties that had diminished the world of West Beirut and its notables had been passed off as the reign of "progressive" men. The coming of age of a Shiite underclass was depicted as a dawn of a new age of barbarism. To challenge this was to run afoul of classes and men who had taken their ascendancy over West Beirut as a birthright. That, too, now lay between me and the upholders of the Arab nationalist orthodoxy.

 

I had marked myself in yet another way. A few years earlier, in 1980, I had gone to Israel and was to visit the country many times in the intervening years. I had an academic pretext: I did Middle Eastern work and it made sense for me to go. But a stronger motivation took me there. I was intensely curious about the Israelis and their world. The land of Israel lay just across the border from my ancestral village in south Lebanon. At night, a searchlight from the Israeli town of Metullah could be seen from the high ridge on which my village lay. The searchlight was a subject of childhood fascination. The searchlight was from the land of the Jews, my grandfather said. The oral history transmitted to me by my grandfather — we possessed no written records, no diaries — was of places now on the other side of a great barrier: Safa, Acre, Tiberias. They were places of my grandfather's memory. About these places, and about Metullah, I retained within me an unrelenting sense of curiosity.

My first crossing to Israel in 1980 was by land from Jordan, over the Allenby Bridge. It would have been too brave, too forthright to fly into Israel. I covered up my first passage by pretending that I had come to the West Bank. Northern Israel had been a stone's throw from my ancestral village and the neighboring villages of my kinsmen. Smugglers would slip there and come back with tales of Israel. In the open, barren country, by the border, that land of the Jews could be seen and the chatter of its people heard across the barbed wire. Over the years, though, it had become a forbidden land. Venturing there (even with an American passport) still had the feel of something illicit about it.

I knew a good many of the country's academics and journalists. I had met them in America, and they were eager to tutor me about their country. Gradually the country opened to me. I didn't know Hebrew; there was only so much of Israeli life that was accessible to me. But the culture of its universities, the intensity of its intellectual debates would soon strip me of the nervousness with which I had initially approached the place. The Palestinian story was not mine. I could thus see Israel on its own terms. I was free to take in the world that the Zionist project had brought forth. Above all, I think I had wanted to understand and interpret Arab society without the great alibi that Israel had become for every Arab failing under the sun. In a curious way, my exposure to Israel was essential to my coming to terms with Arab political life and its material.

 

II.

There was something odd as the 1980s drew to a close: the dominant historiography written by the Arab nationalists and their "foreign friends" was emptied of any truth. Reality stared it in the face. The carnage and the waste had wreaked havoc on the Arab world. From West Beirut and from the American University of Beirut, which was home to an active Palestinian contingent of academics and publicists, the literati and the scribes had taken to the road — to Paris and London, to Washington, D.C. It was getting harder to conceal and to apologize. But the dominant historiography knew no other way. It could not bear to look outside itself. It had its text, its masters, its beneficiaries. The exiles who fled the terrors of Beirut walked into liberal, open societies. Away from the hell, they fell back on the old truths.

You would have thought that the great troubles — the carnage in Beirut and in the Syrian city of Hama, the bankruptcy of the Palestinian movement, the defection of the Egyptian state from the anti-Israeli assignment given it by Arab nationalists — would have shaken the confidence of the Pan-Arabists. But they pushed on. Vanity — and a good deal of their politics is vanity and wounded pride — was too deep. An Arab historian with American citizenship was lifted out of Beirut in the summer of 1982 by the U.S. Embassy; he arrived on America's shores to rail against American imperialism and to offer up the old pieties. Christian Arabs who in private expressed deep fears of the "Muslim tide" stepped out into the public domain to speak of the "progressive" role of the Islamic movement, to praise its "anti-imperialist character." The failings of that world could not be acknowledged or named. They were written off as the sins of the Orientalists and the failings of American policy. The rage against America was the other side of the dependence and of the failure. It was hard for the Arab nationalists to acknowledge the simple facts of postcolonial life: that men beget the history they deserve, that Arab life is what the Arabs have made of it.

Then, in the summer of 1990, there arrived Arab nationalism's moment of truth: Saddam's storming of Kuwait. There were deadly ideas and delusions in the Arab world. The Iraqi despot plucked them at will, turned them into weapons of his own. He did not emerge out of a void. The culture's sins of omission and commission had converged to make him into the predator he became. He was a son, and a favored son at that. Secularism, Arab unity, the promise of a new center of Arab power, the atavistic spirit of the folk, and the prerogatives of the dominant Sunni stratum — all these were Saddam's to manipulate. The Iraqi despot offered himself to the imagination of the thwarted: a strongman who could hold off the challenge of the "fire-worshiping Persians" to the east and who, in time, would stand up to the "Zionist entity" by the Mediterranean. In a culture of words, he seemed like a man of his deeds. His admirers — Arabs and some foreign enthusiasts as well — dwelled on his record as a "nation builder": the emancipation of women, the urbanization of the country, the drop in infant mortality. On the banks of the Tigris, the admirers said, a powerful Arab state was being built, an alternative to the feeble Egyptian state that had slipped into the American orbit.

 

That Saddam was a murderer at home was of little concern to the Arab intelligentsia who saw him as an answer for the ills and weaknesses of his world. By the time he swept into Kuwait, Saddam Hussein had behind him two decades of cruel deeds. But the cruelty of the man never troubled the pamphleteers and ideologues. The end — some dream of national power — justified the means.

It should have taken no great literacy in strategic matters to guess that Saddam's bid for mastery over the Gulf would end in defeat and ruin, that its outcome would be a replay of the Six-Day War of 1967, that the Arabs who took a ride with the Iraqi dictator were in for another great betrayal. A society that lived through that ordeal of 1967 should have been immune to another pied piper: the Egyptian rockets that didn't fire, the air force that was destroyed on the ground, the promised rendezvous in Tel Aviv that had turned into a monumental Arab defeat, the barefoot Egyptian soldiers lost in the Sinai desert. And above all the Maximum Leader at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, offering that incredible explanation of the defeat: Israel had attacked from the west when he had expected the attack to come from the east and the north. But a quarter century later, in a culture susceptible to legend and to the promise of the strongman, there was another peddler of delusions. The false gifts of the dictators: for these gifts there were ample takers.

It would be tempting to see the "Guns of August 1990" as a great rupture in Arab politics. Instead of the old evasions, there would be an honest reckoning with things as they really are. Men would give political matters their right names. In the fantasy of a world chastened by the ordeal it has just gone through, the written word would descend into the lives of men. It would name things with some clarity and precision. It would acknowledge the bankruptcy of Arab nationalism. The Arab exiles would tell the truth as to why they left the old world behind; their writings would incorporate the fact of their exile and its meaning.

In the fantasy Arabs would leave behind the scape-goating and the search for alibis that have marked so much of what they have written and said over the last three to four decades. The verdict of the struggle between Israeli and Palestinian would be accepted. No love need be extended the Jewish state — just live and let live. The Arab political mind would simply wander away from Israel. The dominant Arab historiography — closed, sure of itself, bearing the dead weight that demagogues and scribes have burdened it with — would pass from the scene. That terrifying power of Takhwin (the power to declare other men traitors) that the enforcers have allocated to themselves would be broken. The hooded men who knock at the door at dawn, in Nablus and Ramallah, would no longer be "children of the stones" meting out justice, but cruel players in the Night of the Long Knives.

It will not be easy. On pain of extinction, cultures often stubbornly refuse to look into themselves. They retreat into the nooks and crannies of their received history, offer up the standard evasions, fall back on the consolations they know. The war in the Gulf was a battle between a local despot and a foreign savior. In the scheme of such things, it was quick and decisive. Men did not really have to change to be rescued; the rescue came from afar. This leaves open all sorts of possible escapes. Those who fell for Kuwait's conqueror could claim that they were misunderstood, that they were only patriots responding to the coming to the Arab world of yet another Western army. Or they could plead distress and "mitigating circumstances": we were oppressed, we had only wanted to be heard, there was no place for us in the "new world order" the foreigner came to uphold. In other words, Saddam could be thwarted (almost) but the sensibility and the moral outlook from which he fed could survive.

 

Still, there are some hopeful signs of a break with that long trail of delusions. "The dream of the intifada has become a nightmare," a Palestinian activist, Adnan Damiri, recently wrote in Al-Fajr, the PLO-sponsored daily paper on the West Bank. Poems had been written in praise of "the stone" and the children of the stones. The stone building a bright new world and disposing of the old weaknesses. The dark side of the intifada — the revolution devouring its own children, the reign of terror and virtue against "collaborators" that has taken a toll of some 400 lives — was brushed aside. Palestinian society has been here before. The Arab Rebellion of 1936-39 was consumed by its own fury. Then, too, an initial euphoria gave way to indiscriminate terror and recriminations and the hunt for collaborators. After the stones were thrown the world stood still: worse yet for the Palestinians, their condition — their economic and educational standards — had deteriorated over the course of the intifada. The work of the "founding fathers" of the Palestinian movement — the exiled leadership of the PLO in Tunis, the intellectuals who front for the PLO — has led to ruin. Out of the exhibitionism and the bravado and the delusions of their leaders the Palestinians had come out empty-handed.

Arab society had indulged the Palestinians for some four decades. Cynicism toward the cause of the Palestinians and its standard-bearers there was aplenty. But at the end of the day there came the indulgence. This was the logic of the tribal feud between Arab and Jew. Clearly this now belongs to the past. The daring with which the Lebanese (and the Syrians behind them) went about dismantling what remains of the Palestinian sanctuary in Lebanon is as good an indication as any of the new state of things in the Arab world. No one came to the rescue of the Palestinians. The Egyptian intellectual class (traditionally a pillar of support for the Palestinians) was virtually silent. No Kuwaitis or Saudis threatened to cut off funds and aid from those storming Palestinian positions. The lands of the Gulf and the Peninsula had wearied of the affairs of the Palestinians, and of the slogans and pamphlets of Arab nationalism. To the world of the "desert men" has come a new sense of confidence in the path they have chosen, a great sense of vindication that they have been spared the turmoil and the ruin of the "city Arabs" to their north. The deference to those who had produced and quoted the texts of Arab nationalism and spun its symbols has vanished from the lands of the Gulf.

 

III

I went to Kuwait three months after its liberation, a country betrayed by the very deities it had sought to propitiate. Kuwaitis had paid homage to Arab nationalism; they had made much of the cause of the Palestinians. To see the country again for the first time after its calamity was to come face to face with the bitterness of that betrayal. The old headquarters of the PLO — what was once the center of a state within a state — is gutted. The graffiti on the walls damn Yasir Arafat and Saddam Hussein as "traitors." The building that housed the Palestinian Federation of Women is boarded up. The Hawaii district, the Palestinian quarter in Kuwait City, seems like a marked place. Among Kuwaitis of every stripe, the bonds with the Palestinians have been shattered. In place of the old Pan-Arabism there is an attachment to American power and to an American presence. American missionaries had once built a hospital in Kuwait City. The building is run down and decayed. There had been plans to bulldoze it. "This will stay now," a Kuwaiti friend guiding me through the city said. "It might yet be restored."

There remain the last citadels of Arab nationalism — exile communities of intellectuals in France and the United States, and to a lesser extent in Britain. Like fortresses at the end of the road that are yet to receive the dispatches that all is lost and the battle is over, these fortresses fight on. The old, tattered flags are unfurled. All the orthodoxies of the "Arab awakening" are still upheld. The children of Nablus are celebrated by the exiles, those of Basra left to the tender mercies of the monster at the helm of the Iraqi state. From distant lands the Arab world can be all that the exiles wish it to be. From these distant shores you could flail at the Americans and the French and the British and the Zionists. A story could be told of a world that was whole and pretty and "progressive," and was then done in by cruel powers. All that the Arabs did to themselves is edited out of the narrative.

 

But the story that matters unfolds down river, as it were: in the Arab lands themselves. And there even those who yesterday partook of the old legends — spread them, paid homage to them — are beginning to acknowledge the great disorder the old ways had wrought. My favorite example is Souad Al Sabah, a member of the ruling family of Kuwait. A few years earlier she had been something of a cheerleader for Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war. She had written a well-known poem, which at the time turned no heads, in praise of the "Iraqi sword." Back then the "Iraqi sword" was hacking away at Persians and Kurds and others who fell beyond the lines of the clan and folk. After Saddam's barbarism against her birthplace, she wrote a poignant new poem, "Who Killed Kuwait?" It is a long poem; I'll offer only a sample (a rough translation) of it:

 

Who killed Kuwait?

The Killer did not descend from the sky

or emerge from a world of dreams

Didn't we all take part in the chorus of the Regime?

 

Didn't we all applaud the master of the Regime?

Didn't we all make pretty the mistakes of the rulers

With the sweetest of words, with the most deceitful of words 

Didn't we all march like sheep in the caravan of the rulers?

 

He who killed Kuwait is our own flesh and blood

He is the embodiment of all our ways.

We made him in accord with our own measurements.

No one can say "no." We all participated in the crime

We all took part in the making of the devil

We all applauded the tyrants and tyranny

We can't complain about our idols.

Was not the making of idols our profession?

 

In the Arab world "after the storm," these new words of Souad al Sabah would stick and be taken to heart. Were Arabs to turn a corner and still meet the past again, the terrible ordeal of Kuwait and its lessons would have been for naught. When the moral calamity of writing a poem in praise of the "Iraqi sword" is fully assimilated we shall have a better Arab world. In that world the dissident would cease to be a demon. "You go not till I set you up a glass, where you may see the inmost part of you," Hamlet says to his mother. From Baghdad there came out, in the summer of 1990, the most peculiar bearer of a glass. He did not quite know what he was doing, but he held up a glass to the Arabs all the same. It would be no fault of the bearer of the glass if the Arabs refused to look and to see.

This article originally appeared in the August 12, 1991 issue of the magazine.

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