Friday, November 10, 2006

Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis Receive Awards

President Bush and first lady Laura Bush hosted an Oval Office ceremony on Thursday to honor authors, historians and others with the National Humanities Medal.

I was fortunate enough during my short career as Middle East observer to get to know two of the honorees, Fouad Ajami and Bernard Lewis. Fouad was my houseguest when he first arrived in DC from Princeton back in late '79, early 1980. He was reading the famous Raj trilogy and Freud and a number of other books not directly related to the Middle East. We actually were going to invest in a couple of adjacent condos, but as Jimmy Carter's failed economic policies generated interest rates far into double digits, he peeled off from the purchase. I unfortunately bought into the deal, and after I married, Fouad became my renter as I decamped to my new spouse's more commodious household.

Fouad was one of the most challenging intellects I have ever encountered. At the time, he was making a slow transition from Nasserist pan-Arab socialism to a more balanced and mature understanding of political economics. This is a transition that less accomplished minds have failed to make. Fouad once told me that he was sending his son to the University of Michigan because he believed the Middle West was the only part of America that retained its traditional values [This was in the early '80s!]. I actually fixed Fouad up with an ABC-TV producer who was a former flame of mine after I became engaged to my wife! Fouad had a fund of anecdotes that were absolutely mesmerizing, and I believed them because I accompanied him to many of his presentations in DC and found that he was totally irresistable to tall Northern European drop-dead good-looking women. I hung around just to get the crumbs from his table, so to speak.

But on the flip side, I recall being in an elevator with Fouad as he and I were going to a meeting on K Street and hearing a loud American male in the crowded lift say in contemptuous tones something nasty about letting "foreigners" into the US. It was aimed at Fouad, who shrugged it off with his usual urbane equanimity afterwards, noting that people like that were everywhere in every country. That philosophical calm and deep understanding of the human predicament make, in my view, his being awarded the Medal for the Humanities especially appropriate.

Bernard Lewis had me over to his home in Princeton while his live-in housemate, a beautiful Ottoman princess, was in Arizona as I recall visiting one of her sons who was a student in Tucson. His incredible erudition was worn very lightly and, as the evening progressed and a bottle of Old Armagnac I had brought along diminished, he expatiated on the virtues of the Welsh and the Irish, for both of whom he had a great fondness. He made much of his Welsh blood and association with Irish military virtues during his years in the UK. It was around 4 AM before I bid a fond farewell to this most charming and learned host.

I think it is most interesting that these two recipients of the Humanities Medal come from very variegated backgrounds. Fouad told me much about his Shi'ite roots in South Lebanon from ancestors who migrated there from Iran in the 19th century ["Ajami" is Arabic for "Persian"]. Bernard Lewis is of English ancestry with a mixture of Jewish and Welsh ancestors.

Both of these scholars have a true appreciation of the real and growing threat that Islamic fascists pose to Western Civilization and to the United States. These two distinguished and truly learned men have given America much more than the US has given back, although they both have generous natures and, being fervent Americaphiles, would predictably quibble with that judgment.

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