Source: Bustan: The Middle East Book Review, 5 (2014), pp. 207-209
During the last few months, the world of Middle Eastern Studies lost two prominent experts on the region. It is difficult to imagine two individuals more different from one another than Fouad Ajami and Patrick Seale, but they had also much in common. Both were born in Lebanon and their intimate knowledge of the region and their attachment to its peoples derived from that original bond, whose impact remained powerful as their careers took off in the U.S. and Europe.
Fouad Ajami hailed from the small Shiʿi village of Arnoun situated under the Beaufort Crusader castle in South Lebanon. He studied in Beirut, then moved to the u.s. where he completed his university studies, received a Ph.D. and started an academic career that took him from Princeton University to the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University, and then to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. In 1978, at the age of 33, he acquired his reputation with the essay, “The End of Pan Arabism,” which was published in Foreign Affairs. Boldly and eloquently, he argued that the doctrine that had governed Arab politics since the end of WWI had run its course. This was a preview of the fully developed argument in The Arab Predicament (1981). The book angered many in the Arab world and in the academic and intellectual Arab diaspora who may have known that he was right but refused to see it in print. Nevertheless, it was a critical and commercial success, as were his other books such as The Vanished Imam (1986), The Dream Palace of The Arabs (1998) and The Syrian Rebellion (2012).
The Vanished Imam is of special interest. It is the story of Lebanon’s Shiʿa told through the prism of Musa al-Sadr, the religious leader who galvanized his downtrodden community and disappeared in Libya. He was probably killed by Muammar Qaddafi who was doing Yasser Arafat’s bidding. The Imam led the Shiʿi resistance to the Palestinian takeover of South Lebanon in the 1970s. This was not just another academic book. It was Ajami’s way of telling the story and arguing the case of his native community. While he became a u.s. citizen and saw himself over the years more and more as an American, part of him remained planted in South Lebanon.
As an American, Ajami grew conservative over the years. Gone was the fascination of the young teenager who traveled from Lebanon to Damascus to see and hear the legendary Abdel Nasser haranguing an adulating crowd. Gone was also the young Arab American academic who debated the young Benjamin Netanyahu on U.S. television. The older, mature Ajami remained emotionally committed to “his people” and to his original homeland but he now took a hard, sober, realistic view of the region’s harsh politics and interpreted it ably and eloquently to the American public and foreign policy elite. He strongly believed that the Arab world deserved to become democratic and if it took a U.S. invasion to rid it of a brutal tyrant in Iraq, so be it. In the same vein, he was enthused by the initial phase of the Arab Spring only to be disappointed by its subsequent course. His way of dealing with the disappointments was to write his excellent book and numerous articles on the Syrian rebellion. He was fully absorbed by the subject, read voraciously about Syria and traveled twice to the Turkish Syrian border to see it for himself. Sadly, as it turned out, it was his last project.
Patrick Seale was born in Beirut to an Anglican missionary, Reverend Morris Segal Seale, who was a converted Palestinian Jew. It was not an issue Seale liked to discuss but it must have had an impact on his view of the world. In any event, Seale was given an excellent knowledge of Arabic and familiarity with the politics of the Levant, which he honed as a journalist and as a doctoral student in Oxford. His interest was focused not on Lebanon but on Syria. His doctoral dissertation on Syrian politics from 1945 to 1958 was published as a book, The Struggle for Syria (1965). It became a classic, a rare combination of excellent history and good prose. Seale showed in a masterly fashion how Syria’s domestic politics were closely intertwined with the ambitions and actions of more powerful regional and international actors, and how Syria became (as it would again in 2011) the arena in which these rivalries were played out.
Seale became a journalist, a literary agent and an art dealer. He published several other books dealing with a variety of subjects but his reputation rested mainly on his Syrian book. It was followed by Hafiz al-Asad’s biography (Asad of Syria, 1988), which was another excellent book and an indispensable key to understanding the Syrian ruler and his regime. But unlike the first Syria book it had a flaw, it was too sympathtic to Asad. There was a price to be paid for the access. Seale remained well known for his media commentary on Middle Eastern affairs, particularly on Syria. It is less well known that he also played a role in the effort to promote Syrian-Israeli peace. A sharp critic of Israel, he still agreed, in 1999, to shuttle between Ehud Barak and Hafiz al-Asad in an effort to restart the peace negotiations between the two countries. The mission failed, and, as is well known, when the negotiations resumed in December 1999 it led to yet another failure.