New York City

Sinan Antoon did more to enlighten us about what was lost in Baghdad than many other writings, simply because he went into the heart of the matter–what it was like to live in Baghdad before the 1991 war, and the one of 2003 [“Dead Poets Society,” May 26]. The voice of the poet speaks Life, and that is what moves us.

It was particularly relevant to our evening of mourning and protest for the destruction of the cultural heritage of Iraq, at the Poetry Showcase, an exhibition of the 1,750 poetry titles published in the United States in 2002. Esther Allen, chair of the Pen American Center translation committee, remarked that only 108 of them were translations, a reflection of the American lack of interest in other cultures. Marc Van de Mieroop, of Columbia University, spoke of the erasure of Iraq’s 10,000-year-old history, and Elias Khoury, a Lebanese novelist teaching at NYU, presented a history of Iraqi poetry and read a selection that included Badr Shakir As-Sayyab, Abdul Wahab Al-Bayati, Nazik Al-Malaika, Buland Al-Haidari, Saadi Youssef, Lamia Abbas Amara, Sargon Boulus, Fadil Al-Azzawi, Sadiq Al-Sayigh, Yusef Al-Sayigh, Hisham Shafiq, Sinan Antoon and Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Charles Bernstein read from Armand Schwerner’s “Tablets,” a fictional translation of the Sumerian tablets, Bernard Suleyman Radfar, a poet of Jewish Iranian descent, read his work in Aramaic and played the oud, the Persian instrument Arabs have adopted as the closest to the human voice. A video of the event is available at the library of Poet’s House.


Fitzwilliam, NH

Sinan Antoon’s meditation on Baghdad culture was very moving. I assume the translations of the poems he cited were his own, or he would have identified the translators. Readers interested in English translations of poems by Muzaffar al-Nawwab and Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, translated by various hands, can find them in Modern Poetry in Translation’s Iraqi Poetry Today, edited by Saadi Simawe.



Mason, Mich.

Thank you for Adam Shatz’s “Native Informant” [April 28], on Fouad Ajami–a man actually lauded by some for being a spokesperson for the “good Arabs.” Ajami likes to think of himself as a representative of progressive-thinking Arabs, but in reality he represents his own interests. “Whatever Way the Wind Blows” should be the name of his next book.


Amman, Jordan

“Ajami” in Arabic means “foreigner,” a non-Arab. Although he was not true to his native land, he was true to his name. He and his ilk are under constant pressure to prove their loyalty to their new masters by denigrating their own people. I am very happy he is no longer one of us.


Ewing, NJ

I was a student of Fouad Ajami’s at Princeton in 1976 and came away from the experience with mixed impressions. Ajami was brilliant at making the complex history and politics of the Middle East accessible, which I, a naïve 19-year-old African-American woman, particularly appreciated. Ajami talked about the war in his homeland with a lucidity and pathos that was deeply affecting. I was equally moved by his elucidation of Edward Said’s writings about the Palestinians. However, I was alienated and confused by his comments about America, which seemed to imply little concern for or understanding of the relationship between the dynamics of oppression within the United States and the politics of the Middle East. Also, I can’t recall him ever talking about the ambivalent, ambiguous role of American Jews as model minorities and as supporters–and critics–of Israeli policies that helped thwart Palestinian self-determination. My impression persists that Ajami was entranced with American wealth and power in a way that made its elites the focus of his policy analysis. His lack of interest in the connections between liberation movements would leave him with little alternative but to cling to a John Wayne vision of Pax Americana.


Cambridge, Mass.

Adam Shatz exaggerates Ajami’s importance and succumbs to the unbecoming game of ethnic profiling. His view of Ajami appears to stand on two assumptions: that an individual professor can determine US policy and that a person’s ethnicity determines his politics and psychology. The first assumption is simply romantic. The US government employs legions of Middle East “experts” and acts on its understanding (or misunderstanding) of US interests. Many Middle East experts make appearances on TV and may have had lunch with Cheney, Rice and Wolfowitz. It is naïve to imagine that such meetings can explain turns in US policy. Ajami is singled out for an extensive profile because of his Arab origins, which leads to the second assumption.

Shatz describes Ajami’s “treacherous” thinking as directly determined by his ethnicity. Such analysis is the intellectual equivalent of ethnic profiling. Shatz suggests an Arab could not think as Ajami does unless he suffers from a psychological pathology, that an Arab intellectual must completely agree with Edward Said or risk being branded a “native informant.” Ethno-pop psychology is a dangerous game: Using Shatz’s model, one could argue that any Jew who disagrees with Ariel Sharon is also a “native informant” and that all Jews should think alike because they are Jews.



New York City

I don’t know what piece Avi Matalon was reading. It couldn’t have been mine. Nowhere do I argue that Ajami has shaped, much less “determined,” US foreign policy. What I do argue is that he has played an unusually prominent role in shaping American perceptions of the Middle East, through his prolific writings and ubiquitous television appearances; that he has influenced the thinking of key officials in the Bush Administration (a fact that Dick Cheney and Paul Wolfowitz, among others, readily concede in speeches and interviews) and that his ethnicity has made him highly attractive to the US government in its efforts to promote policies that are deeply unpopular in the region. Nowhere do I charge Ajami with treason, or suggest that his intellectual trajectory was “directly determined by his ethnicity.” Rather, I offer a complex and, I believe, deeply sad account of Ajami’s long journey from pan-Arabism to neoconservatism. I relate his evolution to a number of causes, both political (a growing sense of alienation from the Arab nationalist camp; bitter conflict between Palestinians and Shiites in southern Lebanon, Ajami’s native land) and personal (the anxieties of being an émigré in America; the seductions of acceptance by those in power).

To Arab nationalists Ajami’s career may be a clear-cut story of treachery, but that is not the story I tell. Far from suggesting that “an Arab intellectual must completely agree with Edward Said,” whatever that means, I honor his contribution to the debate, praising his first book, The Arab Predicament, as “one of the most probing and subtle books ever written in English on the region,” and faulting the book’s Arab nationalist critics for their “ideological rigidity.” However, the Ajami of today, unlike Jewish critics of Sharon, is not a dissident but rather a loyal spokesman for US and Israeli bellicosity, an outlook that finds virtually no echo even among the staunchest Arab critics of repressive dictatorships in the region. As for Matalon’s last charge, that Jewish dissidents could be considered “native informants” if one adopted my criteria, he might have a point if Noam Chomsky and Uri Avnery were advising the Arab League to wage a “humanitarian war” to liberate Palestine, serving as high-paid consultants to Egyptian state television and vacationing in the south of France with George Habash.



New York City

I will not address Diane Rafferty’s comments on performances in her March 3 “One Step Removed,” on the New York City Ballet, the School of American Ballet (SAB) and my book on Balanchine technique, as there will always be a variety of opinion on matters of artistic taste and judgment. There are, however, some errors of fact. Balanchine did not expect, much less require, his company dancers to take regular school classes in addition to his; he did expect us to do what we needed in order to dance well, but each dancer had to decide what that was (class, practice, swimming, Pilates, working out, etc.). I was one of the few company dancers who regularly took class at SAB; anecdotes from that experience are in my book. The Russians at SAB taught the old, pre-Vaganova Russian School; Vaganova did not emerge as an important teacher until after their time as students. I taught at SAB under Balanchine’s direct supervision from the early 1960s almost until he died. In the early years I more often taught younger girls and boys, in the later years generally the most advanced girls; I also taught company class through those years. Despite the statement attributed to him in Muriel Stuart’s book, he no longer wanted SAB to teach based precisely on that book and its drawings.

And there are some misunderstandings of technical details I might have cleared up had Rafferty discussed them with me. The text of my book precisely describes fifth position; apparent overcrossing in some photographs is a matter of camera angle. The technique is taught differently in some respects to very advanced dancers; the book is explicit on this. The use of the heel in jumps–taking off and landing–is the most important example. The book explains in detail that heel contact with the floor is valuable when taking off. It likewise explains that it is never good to fall down on the heel when landing. Even after reviewing specific details, she might well disagree, but it would be a disagreement with what I actually wrote and teach.

Finally, we need to understand Mr. B’s use of “unalterable.” Turnout, extension, pointe work, turning, jumping–they’ll always be central to classical ballet. But the details of what Balanchine wanted in class from very advanced students and professional dancers steadily evolved over the years I worked for him. Rafferty cites Suzanne Farrell’s unprecedented facility off-balance. One wouldn’t try to incorporate that in beginning or intermediate classes, but Mr. B did in his teaching and helped me incorporate it in mine.



New York City

There are no “errors of fact” or “misunderstandings of technical details” in my article, except one, which Suki Schorer neglects: Corps member Alina Dronova, whom I praise, studied, after leaving her home country of Ukraine, at LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, the school that was the inspiration for the movie and television show Fame–a fact generously pointed out to me by Michelle Mathesius, chair of the school’s dance department. Dronova went on to serve as an apprentice at City Ballet, studying at the School of American Ballet, at which Schorer is a teacher. As we went to press, I had only the information from the New York City press office that Dronova had “just arrived from Ukraine.” I apologize for the misleading statement.