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  • Writer's pictureSyed Akhtar Mahmood

Paris, Beirut and the Dream Palace of the Arabs

Updated: May 1, 2021

When I moved from the US a couple of months ago, I could bring only a handful of books with me. One of these is Fouad Ajami's "The Dream Palace of the Arabs". This is a fascinating narrative spanning the period from the 1920s to the 1990s where Ajami, a recently departed scholar from the Middle East (whose family name ironically means, "the non-Arab"), tells the story of the intellectual and cultural fermentation in the Arab world in that somewhat golden period when the first world war had ended and the Ottomans had left, and the all-consuming geo-politics and militancy had not yet taken hold in this unfortunate land.

It started in cities such as Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus, where poets and writers gave voice to sentiments of all kinds, from memories of historical glories to the mundane details of daily life, from the pathos of unrequited love to bold dreams of revolutions. Scholars spent endless hours in cafes debating their visions of a modern, liberal Arab world. Journalists carried their messages and thoughts to a broader population. Politicians, businessmen and officials, many of whom moved effortlessly between their world of action and that of their intellectual friends, got busy with the task of implementing this vision. The Dream Place of the Arabs started getting built.

And then it started unravelling. The ultra-nationalist army officers who took over power in the 1950s, in Egypt, Iraq and in Syria, may have meant well for their countries, at least initially. But neither their agenda, nor their upbringing, was conducive to liberal intellectual activity. Poets, writers and journalists, who were initially inspired by some of the leaders, started leaving the great cities of Damascas and Baghdad and, to a lesser extent, Cairo. The first exile had started.

The city that welcomed them was the vibrant, liberal, cosmopolitan, Beirut. This beautiful city, on the shores of the Mediterranean, where a suicide bombing that kills dozens of people get hardly noticed in the world of today, was then the oasis that sustained the dreams of the Arabs - where Buland Haidari and Khalil Hawi spun poetry, where Adonis wrote literary criticism and whose libraries and cafes sustained the young Ajami.

But then that started unravelling too. Some stayed on, but got increasingly frustrated till they could take it no longer - Fouad Ajami's book starts with the account of Khalil Hawi's suicide in June 1982, as Israeli soldiers marched onto his beloved country. But many had left. For some of them this was the second exile!

One of the cities that gave them sanctuary, and where many of them still live, is Paris.

Beirut and Paris. Two cities. One day, not too long ago, united in the pursuit of poetry, culture, liberal thinking and the dreams of the Arab world.

Today united again, in tragedy and grief.

How did we come from there to here? How did the dreams give way to a nightmare? One book will not provide you all the answers. But Fouad Ajami's "The Dream Palace of the Arabs" will provide you with a perspective and take you back to a time when people could dream.

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