Friday, October 3, 2003

Exile and the empire - Edward Said, Fouad Ajami and the immigrants' song

The death of Edward Said, like that of any influential figure, unleashed a flurry of activity. Much was made in particular of the author's approach to the concept of exile, so that, paraphrasing the title of Said's memoir, he felt out of place in a wilderness of parallel worlds: the United States, the Middle East and Europe.

I was never the kindest of commentators to Said, largely because he never seemed to put together what he had exuberantly taken apart. However, in Said's defense, being the product of privileged Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism can be an enthralling, but also a cruel destiny. The admixture of cultures and sensibilities is never easy to manage, let alone rationalize. That is why as one tries to better understand Said's legacy, it is difficult not to also mention his enduring nemesis: Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami.

There was much of the Greek tragedy in the inevitability, but also the consummate symmetry of the Said-Ajami rivalry. On the one side was the left-leaning Palestinian, on the other the increasingly conservative Lebanese Shiite. Where Said regarded Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon as a dark time for the Palestinian national movement, Ajami saw it as a defining moment for Shi'ite affirmation, since it allowed the community to rid itself of the Palestinians, and also to challenge the Maronite-Sunni axis that had until then largely managed power relations in Lebanon.

You could take the contrast further and argue that the antagonism was a foreseeable by-product of the two men's contending attitudes toward Arab nationalism. Maybe Said, as a Palestinian Christian, was always more likely to sympathize with a secular ideology that affirmed the independence of a broad Arab nation. Maybe Ajami, the Shiite, was necessarily predisposed to regard Arab nationalism as little more than a contraption to secure Sunni domination.

More interesting than the two men's overt political differences, however, was how their relationship came to be fed by startlingly different approaches to America and its power. That's because the rivalry between Said and Ajami was, deep down, a conflict over how to integrate into the United States.

It was inevitable that Said would come to view the US with an increasingly critical eye. He, simply, saw the foul destiny of the Palestinians as a consequence of American support for Israel. More fundamentally, by the late 1970s Said had developed a worldview that left little room for gray zones, since he had come to regard the West-East relationship as one between dominator and dominated. In developing this dichotomy, Said was too moved by moral outrage to ever truly reconcile his disapproval of the most powerful dominator, the United States, with a recognition that it could also, in some way, represent transcendent benevolence.

Ajami well understood Said's dilemma, for he sharply rejected its logic. As he perhaps saw it, Said was alienating himself from his environment, and the reason for this was his inability to keep a foot in one world. By being multifaceted, Said had become merely contradictory. Ajami, in contrast, hailed from the desolate world of southern Lebanon, where one didn't look backwards when departing, and where single-mindedness and the obliteration of nostalgia was an emigrant's only true weapon.

By his own admission, Said succumbed to the dangers of partial integration, since he never quite felt at home anywhere. As his more devoted disciples today lament, his tragedy was that he died before the Palestinians could achieve statehood. Yet how very odd to hear such a phrase, which collapses two distinct worlds—the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the Occupied Territories—into a single, essentially Palestinian narrative, while leaving entirely unsaid what Said represented for America.

Ajami had no such difficulties. To his credit—since hardness is a virtue—he has insisted that he is exclusively American and only "originally" Arab. In so doing, he implies that embracing America means saying "yes." Said, in turn, believed it meant saying "no."

This impossible dialogue has led to two great gaps in both Said's and Ajami's works. Said always displayed a prickly unwillingness to delve into the American psyche, perhaps fearing it would erode his indignation with the U.S. Ajami, in turn, has increasingly banished the Palestinians from his writings, so that they have become the elephant in his living room—increasingly obvious for remaining unmentioned.

So, which of the two men better integrated into America? Said always played the outsider, but only in America could his paradoxes have been so well honed, his opposites so well exploited. Ajami, in contrast, decisively cut the umbilical cord with the old country and in recent years has moved steadily toward the center of political power. Yet his not looking backwards means always having to stare ahead. Few play that game well. The temptation to catch a glimpse of one's past can be unyielding.

As they grappled with America, and with each other, Said and Ajami surely came to understand that, aside from their political differences, they were two sides of the same immigrant experience. Neither found the magical formula of America because it was there staring at them, and it said that no single formula exists. Ajami and Said may not have liked each other, but the death of one American cannot have been met with indifference by the other, because the success of one was partly that of the other.