cover image The Dream Palace of the Arabs

The Dream Palace of the Arabs

Adam Phillips, Fouad Ajami. Pantheon Books, $4.99 (192pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40150-3

In the mid-20th century, a visionary generation of Arab writers and intellectuals attempted to blend the best of ""Arab heritage"" with that of ""contemporary Western civilization and culture"" to create an enlightened ""Arab awakening."" In this nuanced, rich and accessible amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary, Ajami, professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins, explores the origin of this dream and its almost complete destruction by the rise of Islamic extremism in the last 25 years. Drawing on the lives and the work of the most influential Arab writers born after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Ajami traces dramatic examples of how these writers' personal ordeals often spoke to a wider generational theme--the shift from creative idealism to disappointment with increasingly rigid political structures. He starts with a very specific example, that of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi, who was so disillusioned with ""Arab enlightenment"" and so devastated by Israel's June 6, 1982, invasion of Lebanon that he killed himself that very day. Other sections deal with the reactions of other writers to Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy; to the 1981 assassination of Anwar al-Sadat; to the 1994 stabbing of novelist Naguib Mahfuz by Islamic extremists; to the importation of Western consumerism rather than Western humanism; and to Israel. Though the ""dream palace of the Arabs"" is a complex, enormous, sometimes arcane structure, Ajami's cogent distillation of the works and politics of Arab writers offers even the most general reader a cohesive and illuminating cultural history. (Feb.)