National Humanities Medal
I work on controversial material," says Beirut-born scholar Fouad Ajami. "Sometimes I wish I were working on the Renaissance or some less loaded subjects. But I have the burning grounds of the Arab-Islamic lands as a canvas, and the controversy comes with that."
In his most recent book, The Foreigner's Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq, Ajami says he sought "to chronicle the difficult encounter between Iraq and its American liberators." Ajami has traveled to Iraq six times since 2003 and was granted an audience with Shia cleric Ali al-Sistani. He has also met with the U.S. military. "My book has a more positive reading of the Iraq war, I believe, than other accounts of it," he says. "I found hope and heartbreak in Iraq, and consider this expedition to be a noble war, despite all its frustrations and setbacks. I hold hope for the Iraqis finding their way out of the violence of this war and deciding that they are doomed to live together."
Ajami arrived in the United States from Beirut as a young man, with the assumption that he would return to Lebanon and enter politics. After earning a PhD in political science at the University of Washington at age twenty-seven, he remained in this country and became a U.S. citizen.
"That day in Trenton, New Jersey, when I was sworn in as a United States citizen, was, for me, as for countless millions given this privilege, the gift of a lifetime," says Ajami.
"For me, there would be no return to my birthplace. I would use the material of the Arab world, its language and culture, to seed my academic work."
Ajami is the Majid Khadduri Professor of Middle East Studies at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies and has been teaching and writing on the modern Middle East and Arab political thought and culture for more than three decades. "I had begun my work teaching and writing on things quite distant from Arab and Islamic subjects-international relations, multinational corporations, all safe and quite abstract," says Ajami.
He says he "backed into" the material of his ancestral culture in the early 1980s when he began writing a book about a Shia cleric who disappeared on a visit to Libya. During that project he received the five-year MacArthur Prize fellowship. "It was a clear bolt out of the sky and when I was informed of it, I thought it was completely astounding, possibly a fond tease," he recalls. Ajami took time off from teaching and finished The Vanished Imam: Musa al-Sadr and the Shia of Lebanon.
Ajami is wistful about his homeland. "I travel everywhere, but not to Lebanon," he says. "That's a journey I have not taken for many, many years now. The Beirut and the Lebanon I knew are irretrievably gone. Perhaps one day I'd like to take all of my family to my ancestral village in southern Lebanon." More than three hundred essays, chapters, and commentaries penned by Ajami have appeared in publications such as the New Republic, the New York Times Book Review, Foreign Policy, and the Wall Street Journal. He has been a contributing editor for U.S. News & World Report since 1989 and is a member of the editorial board of Foreign Affairs magazine.
"My greatest pleasure I derive is when I write essays of intellectual history and appreciation-the great historian Bernard Lewis turning ninety, the craft of V. S. Naipaul, a eulogy of the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz, whom I had the privilege to know," says Ajami. "I picked up Joseph Conrad as a young boy in my teens in Lebanon. I return to him repeatedly. His themes-travel and dislocation and the colonial world-are innately and thoroughly mine. Since English was not his first language either, there might be some affinity there."
By Maggie Riechers