Growing Up as a Shi’ite Muslim in Lebanon: Fouad Ajami's Fascinating Autobiography

Ajami arrived in the U.S. an Arab nationalist, but over the decades adopted a conservative ideology - he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq

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Fouad Ajami
Credit: Artwork by Anastasia Shub
Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich

In late 1978, a young Lebanese-American college professor generated a storm in the academic-journalism community that focused on the Middle East, when he published in the Foreign Affairs journal an article entitled “The End of Pan-Arabism.” In the article, Fouad Ajami charged that the ideology that had ruled the Arab world since the 1930s had run dry after half a century of hegemony. The article drew outrage, mainly from Arab intellectuals and academics. Three years later, Ajami offered up his arguments in fuller form in his book “The Arab Predicament,” which became a highly influential bestseller and established his status as a leading academic and intellectual.

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Several years later, the thesis that he put forward was considered required reading for scholars and intellectuals. After teaching at Princeton, he became the head of the Middle East Studies program at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, was wooed by numerous other universities, and ended his academic career as a senior researcher at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University. He would become a familiar and influential figure in the United States due to his frequent appearances as commentator on Middle Eastern affairs on television, as well as opinion columns that appeared in the American press.

A shift in political path

In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush.

The passage from Princeton and Johns Hopkins to the conservative Hoover Institute also signaled a shift in Ajami’s political path. He had arrived in the U.S. as an Arab nationalist, but over the ensuing decades adopted a conservative ideology. In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President George W. Bush. The high esteem in which he was held by the Bush administration was no coincidence: Ajami supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, because he believed that establishing democracy in Iraq would very probably lead to broader change throughout the region that would bring democracy and reform to the Arab world.

In his latter years, the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad became the focus of Ajami’s attention. He travelled to Anatolia, where he met with Syrian exiles and rebels, and then published “The Syrian Rebellion,” one of the first and most important books to address the subject. Ajami’s solidarity with and support for the Syrian rebels reflected his hopes that an authentic rebellion against a dictatorship would imbue the Arab Spring of the mid-2010s with added momentum and significance.

Ajami’s character and literary and academic oeuvre stand in contradistinction to those of Edward Said, whom many consider the most important Arab intellectual, and who was also working in the West. There was no great love between the two men, since Ajami refused to abide by the patronizing attitude that Said tried to foist on him, as he has done to other Arab intellectuals. Besides that, Ajami, who began as an enthusiastic supporter of the Palestinian issue, grew to become a sharp critic of it. In part, this transition stemmed from his anger at the damage caused by the Palestinians to the Shi’ites of southern Lebanon, but on a broader scale, it also reflected him distancing himself from pan-Arab nationalism, and his criticism of the Palestinian leadership. Ajami died at the age of 68 eight years ago, a victim of cancer.

Ajami was a Lebanese Shi’ite who was born in the small village of Arnoun, at the foot of the Crusader-era Beaufort Castle. As a youngster, he moved to Beirut, where he completed his high-school education and from where he set out in 1963 to the United States, with the intention of never returning; he had given up in despair at any chance to live and prosper in Lebanon. He remained deeply connected to Lebanon, primarily to the Shi’ite community and southern Lebanon. Asked by a friend what it meant to be a Shi’ite, Ajami responded, “On a certain level it means nothing, and on another level – everything.”

Ajami’s character and literary and academic oeuvre stand in contradistinction to those of Edward Said, whom many consider the most important Arab intellectual, and who was also working in the West.

He dedicated several of his books and many of his articles to Lebanon and the Shi’ite community. In his book “The Vanished Imam,” he described the life and death of Musa al-Sadr, the leader who stirred up the Shi’ites of southern Lebanon and was then murdered in Libya by Muammar Gadhafi’s operatives, apparently at the behest of Yasser Arafat. The book tells the story of the ethnic group that began as the third-largest group in the Republic of Lebanon (established in 1943), but which was discriminated against in the early decades of the state’s existence by the Christians, the Sunnis and the Druze when it came to the distribution of political power. In another book, “Beirut: City of Regrets,” he wrote the text that accompanied photographs showing the city when it was a flourishing cultural and political center on the eve of its decline, which began with the outbreak of civil war in 1975.

“When Magic Failed” is an autobiography, recounting Ajami’s youth and childhood in the village of Arnoun and in Beirut. He wrote the book over a span of 40 years, completing it before his death. His widow has now published it.

The book takes place in two circles. In the first is the story of Ajami’s extended family, and it focuses on three individuals – his mother, his father, and his paternal grandfather – and the relationships between them, with impressive frankness. The story is a hard one to read.

His mother was divorced twice. She came from a large and well-respected family in the town of Khiam, and after her first divorce agreed to marry a member of a relatively wealthy family in Arnoun, which was a small and impoverished village. Her second divorce was from Ajami’s father, a tough man with narrow horizons who, like many other men in the Shi’ite community, decided after several years of marriage to divorce his wife, marry a younger woman and create a new family. Ajami and his brother, Riad, were raised alternately in their mother’s and their father’s homes.

At one point, his father decided to move to Beirut, where he founded an elementary school that he directed for several years, without much success. He then moved on his own to Saudi Arabia, where he eventually managed to make a great deal of money, and when he ultimately returned to Beirut, Ajami senior moved the family from a drab town on the outskirts of Beirut to west Beirut, where he sent his children to excellent schools.

The ‘tobacco monopoly’

Prof. Fouad Ajami.

The second circle of the book describes the harsh reality of life in the village, where most residents earned a meager living from growing tobacco. The Shi’ite society of southern Lebanon that Ajami describes is not very different from the rural society one may find in other parts of the Middle East, where the primary components are land and family. The rural population was subject to the authority of local strongmen, as well as feudal-type dignitaries, who relied on the votes of members of their ethnic community to be elected to parliament and play a role in national politics.

The rural society conceived of the government as an alien, distant body that was best avoided, since the purpose of its existence was exploitation and expulsion. In the specific case of the fellahin of southern Lebanon, Ajami cited the “tobacco monopoly,” the government authority to which they were obligated to sell their crops. The Litani River, which flows at the foot of the village of Arnoun, accompanies the text of the book as an illustration of the intentional neglect of a demographic sector that was considered backward and passive by Beirut’s central government. The waters of the Litani flowed (and still flow) into the Mediterranean Sea instead of being used for the good of the local farming population that thirsted for water.

Life in southern Lebanon was also shaped by Shi’ite religion. The Shia recognize an institution known as a mut’ah, a temporary marriage, which has an effect on the general attitude toward the institution of marriage, with frequent divorces and open sex lives being typical. A key element of Shia heritage is adherence to it as a religion that emphasizes a sense of victimhood deriving from the banishment of the family of Ali – the father-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed – from the caliphate, and the killing of Hussein and Hassan, the prophet’s grandsons. On the festival of Ashura, celebrated on the tenth day of the first month in the Muslim calendar, Shi’ites mourn the killing of Hussain and Hassan and the thrusting of the Shi’ites to the margins of the Islamic world by the Sunnis. The holiday ritual features mourning processions in which the marchers beat themselves with chains and inflict knife wounds on themselves. Ajami describes how his own brother took part in this.

Besides Beirut, the other option available to residents of southern Lebanon who wished to improve their fate was to travel far from home and head off to South Africa or west Africa, or like his Ajami’s father, make do with going half-way and seeking a new life in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Some came back home with the riches they’d earned, some supported their families by sending their earnings back home and some were unsuccessful and vanished.

Shi’ite society of southern Lebanon that Ajami describes is not very different from the rural society one may find in other parts of the Middle East

As mentioned earlier, at first the Ajami family settled in a poor quarter of Beirut where the majority of residents were Armenians and Shi’ites from the south. Later on, following his father’s success in Saudi Arabia, they moved to a spacious home in the western part of the city, and the children were sent to outstanding schools. In his book, Ajami does not speak much about himself or about the personal changes he underwent in those years, but he uses a Beirut point of view to describe – with extreme criticism – the national politics of Lebanon and the main political movements that shaped its life in the 1950s: Nasserism, the Baath party and Antoun Saadeh’s pan-Syrian movement. The political system bequeathed by the French to independent Lebanon was based on recognition of the importance of ethnicity to the life of a state with multiple ethnic groups, and it held together for about 30 years, until the outbreak of the civil war in 1975. Nevertheless, it was an excessively corrupt political system, and Ajami, with his sharp pen, excels at describing its deficiencies.

Fouad Ajami left us with a fascinating and instructive, albeit partial, autobiography. The era that he describes preceded the rise of the two Lebanese political movements – Amal and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, as we know, fully controls southern Lebanon and the Shi’ite population in Beirut and in eastern Lebanon. The Israeli reader sees southern Lebanon first and foremost through this viewpoint. For them, names such as Arnoun, Khiam and Nabatieh bring to mind battles and military targets. The Israeli reader will benefit from a fascinating text that describes life as it was lived in these villages and towns in earlier centuries and decades.

Fouad Ajami, When Magic Failed: A Memoir of a Lebanese Childhood, Caught Between East and West. Bombardier Books, 2022, 240 pages

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