Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation's Odyssey (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 334 pp., $26.
In 1936, Columbia University offered George Antonius a visiting appointment. Antonius, then putting the finishing touches on his soon-to-be-famous book, The Arab Awakening, had crossed the United States the previous spring, lecturing at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Brookings Institution, Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago, and Stanford. In Washington, he had an audience with President Roosevelt. His listeners were captivated: he was articulate, charming, persuasive on behalf of Arab independence and Arab Palestine. Had Antonius established himself the following year atop Morningside Heights, he might have had a profound influence upon the way America came to perceive the Middle East. But he allowed Columbia's offer to languish. America was too far away, too insignificant in the equation of power in the Middle East to attract the ambitious author.
Early in The Dream Palace of the Arabs, Fouad Ajami--who lives on Morningside Heights--writes of sifting through Antonius' papers and visiting his grave in Jerusalem. Here Ajami sets the tone that pervades his new book. Antonius erred. The cause he championed--Arab nationalism, sometimes centered upon the claim to Palestine--later betrayed its children, spawning oppression and poverty, scattering the best Arab minds to the refuge of the West. But Antonius is not judged, for to believe is to be vulnerable. Arab intellectuals believed in the cause, sanctified it, embellished it, even as it robbed them of their freedoms, exiled them, imprisoned them. Only over the last decade or so have the daydreams of nationalism been disrupted. It is a rude awakening, a violent shaking. It has found a masterly narrator in Fouad Ajami.