Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Kites and Boomboxes: Fouad Ajami and the Tour of California

In 2010 I sat down with my professor Fouad Ajami and tried to explain my master's thesis on Iran's Green Movement--why the very first of the revolutions the culminated in the Arab Spring failed.  Why that one ended with a whimper rather than a bang.

Professor Ajami found my theory novel, and he admired my approach, which was math-based.  He admitted being unable to understand the charts I'd created, but thought there was a value in such efforts and granted me my degree.

The next day I headed to California to watch the last three stages of the race, and to ride as much of them as possible.  I ended up chatting with Bernie Eisel and interrupting Kiel Reijnen's TT warmup.
Bernie and Paps

I even hung out with the Liquigas girls, who, I assure you, were selling more than hot air.
Something happened to me out there in Cali.  Something snapped in my brain that had been calcifying for the two years I'd been working and going to school full time.  The California sun shone in cloudless skies and soft ocean breezes carried the scent of orange trees, Eurotrash and Herbalife.

I'd been buried in work and Iran so long, Google thought I was Iranian and its adverts suggested I needed an "Iranian Nose Job."  I'd ridden my bike so rarely, that when the onset of freedom came, it was overwhelming.

There is a joy in winning bike races.  There is even joy in taking a sprint line in a goon ride or dropping a superfred.  But true joy happens when you find yourself suddenly free--free to step out from years of labor and sweat and, possibly, mistakes.

That's when you go all Mexican soccer coach.

I wanted to immerse myself in cycling--riding, racing, watching, training, talking, writing--and, overnight, I suddenly did.

Professor Ajami, the man who granted me my freedom from graduate school and the freedom to ride my bike, died this weekend.  The usual remembrances went out from his colleagues, including Anderson Cooper and Paul Wolfowitz. I am sure I did not cross his mind in his last days--an unremarkable student with an unusual thesis written in unimaginative prose.

His mind was probably on boomboxes and kites.  We attributed Cheney's later statement that American forces would be welcomed as liberators, to Ajami,  But the truth is that Ajami never would have used that phrase--"as liberators." It was too abstract a notion.  The concrete kites and boomboxes--that was Ajami.

He spent the last decade of his life struggling to understand the lack of kites and boomboxes.  Why, instead, there were IEDs and Abu Ghraib.  The two classes I had with him were really only about this question.  Among our guests were, for the most part, others equally obsessed with rectifying their colossal Iraqi misjudgment: American military generals, Don Rumsfeld, and Liz Cheney (the only time I ever heard Ajami speak with raised voice was when I asked if I could repeat some of Cheney's remarks in a publication).

At the time, I recognized that Professor Ajami might be responsible, in part, for the deaths of hundreds of thousands. Still, I couldn't help but like him.  I also pitied the weight of his responsibility.  He bore the guilt with increasingly eloquent and increasingly hollow justifications for what he had done.  

He was always full of humor, but he seemed to lack joy, and what we are really after in this life is joy, not mere eloquence or accuracy or even humor.  We are after reasons to fly kites and to raise boomboxes.  We are after reasons to get away from it all and ride our bikes.

Ajami is now certainly away from it all; I hope his own judge grants him freedom, as he once granted me my freedom.  On the shores of afterlife, welcomed with kites and boomboxes, as a liberator.  And a few Liquigas girls dressed, as he once put it, "in a fashion that would make Britney Spears blush."

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