Ajami: Wise Beyond His Years

This piece refers to Bret Stephens’ touching obituary of Fouad Ajami, “Fouad Ajami: Great American.” It can and should be read at http://online.wsj.com/articles/fouad-ajami-great-american-1403564092


For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a short list of people I hope to talk to and exchange ideas with. Fouad Ajami was at the top of it.


I am shocked as I am saddened by Ajami’s untimely death from cancer at age 68. Selfishly, I will continue to dream of exchanges that will never be had on the future of orientalism. 


I am young, but I have been lucky enough to have the privilege of meeting some this short list. I’ve been impressed, disappointed and surprised. But everything I have read, especially obituaries and reflections by the fiercest of Mr. Ajami’s critics—confirms my suspicion that I would not have been disappointed had my dream been realized.


He will always have a singular influence on how I see the world and approach issues. He exemplified deep thought, thorough research, crisp writing, and the importance of self-reflection and introspection. He saw in the Arab world what it has failed and continues to fail to see in itself. This is its chronic inability to admit fault and explore it, to open uncomfortable old scars.


Make no mistake, Mr. Ajami was no monolithic, dogmatic critic of Arab political culture. Bret Stephens’ obituary of Mr. Ajami rightly points to Ajami’s ardent advocacy for the Palestinian cause, best evidenced by his articulate debate on the Palestinian issue with a young Benyamin Netanyahu. The debate is excellent and well-worth watching, by the way. Fouad Ajami saw both sides of the issue with wisdom few can claim in 90 years, let alone a mere 68. Philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that humans would understand the trends of history only if they lived for 200 years. It’s a shame the German philosopher never lived to see the exception in Mr. Ajami. 


As Stephens notes, Mr. Ajami was not immune to harsh, oft unfair critique from peers. Scholar Edward Saïd found Mr. Ajami and his beliefs “unmistakably racist,” but Saïd was worlds away from the truth. Mr. Ajami “believed in people,” as Stephens reflects. Where others saw a lost cause, he saw largely untapped potential.


We therefore owe Mr. Ajami our sincerest of thanks for reminding us to continue believing in people, even in the darkest of moments. 

* * *

It’s quite interesting to be an “outsider” studying Arabic and the Middle East at large. Let’s be honest. I was not born there. But regardless of my background, I’ve had an overwhelmingly positive experience. For this I will forever be grateful.


But from time to time, I encounter negativity. A few months ago, I was pejoratively labeled an “orientalist” by someone who, ironically enough, was decidedly less connected to the region. Yet I am not intimidated in the least. When I encounter such baseless hate, I think of Fouad Ajami, who was oft called an “outsider” by his most intolerant of peers. I remind myself of the Arabic meaning of his surname, also “outsider” or “foreigner.”


In thinking of Mr. Ajami’s body of work and ideas on this sad day, I have never been prouder to be “foreign” to the region I love to study. 


Fouad Ajami was the man who showed us that there is indeed a bright future to be fostered, idealized, and worked towards. Now it’s our turn to figure out how to unlock this potential, to honor his memory, and to show the world how right he truly was.


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