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What Surprised Us?

This is a collection of notes on things that we found particularly surprising or that stood out. I've broken these rather arbitrarily into several topics. Also, this is the area where I freely editorialize.

To begin with, I was surprised that the very notion of taking such a trip would be controversial. When I returned, many people, even in ultra-liberal Berkeley, assumed that I had been duped by the powerful Arab propaganda machine. (If there is such a machine, it's thoroughly broken. The Saudis have a very effective public relations campaign underway in America, but it seems to focus on Saudi interests rather than improving the image of Islam, the Middle East, or the Palestinians.)

When we returned, I gave a talk at the Berkeley City Commons club, just summarizing our trip and describing what we heard and saw. One club member later said that he disagreed with me, and that he "agreed with the British general who said 'the Arabs always are either under your heel or at your throat.'" Besides the obvious racism, this statement also shows a profound pessimism for the possibility of any kind of negotiated settlement in the region, and a belief that armed conflict is permanent and inevitable. I don't share this belief.

One can take the attitude that the Arab world is our implacable enemy, or one can believe that they can be brought into a peaceful relationship. Either way, it seems to me that it behooves us to better understand them.

Before going into separate topics, I'd like to say that we were all surprised at the friendliness and generosity of everyone we met. We encountered very little anti-American sentiment, and were often welcomed with genuine warmth.

Perceived U.S. Ignorance and
Disrespect of Islam

A pervasive theme in our meetings was the perception that Americans know little or nothing about the Middle East or about Islam. We had already heard that only 16% of Americans hold passports. (I've also heard 18%.) This means that 84% of Americans have not traveled outside of North America or plan to do so. (A recent survey by National Geographic of Americans age 18-24 showed that 11% of them couldn't even locate the United States on a globe!)

Syrians, Jordanians, and Egyptians follow American politics closely. Many of them commented on the Californian gubernatorial recall campaign, for instance. They know more about us than we know about them.

Perspectives on Intercultural Dialogue

We had expected to have conversations about cultural and political issues. We found that our expectations were not met. However, when we abandoned those expectations, we learned a lot.

The people we met seemed very anxious to be heard, and were hugely pleased just at our presence. More than half of the groups that we visited were explicitly engaged in "inter-civilization", "inter-cultural", or "inter-faith" dialogue. Our visit took on a symbolic quality. People were especially impressed that we had paid our own way -- that we were not some kind of sponsored delegation.

Meetings were often ceremonial in nature. After greetings, we were usually treated to a speech that we came to call the "Islam doesn't suck" talk, where the speaker would tell us of the peaceful nature of the faith. This theme was already familiar to us, of course, although we certainly heard some interesting new details. The second set-piece that we heard repeatedly was about the Palestine issue and the American role in the peace process.

The meetings were often a series of short speeches, and at some meetings we didn't get to speak much at all. The few meetings that did involve frank interaction were especially informative, of course.

Centrality of the Palestine Issue

We were surprised at how often we heard about Palestine. We expected to hear more about Iraq, but the topic rarely came up.

All of the people we talked to accepted the continued existence of Israel, although some were grudging about it. (One man mused that he supposed that Israelis born in Israel had a right to be there, so it is fitting to guarantee the security of Israel for their sake.) The Madrid accord was seen as a viable formula for peace. We heard much about the Green Line but surprisingly little about Jerusalem.

We heard repeatedly that Israel is seen as the superpower of the region. We heard, for instance, that the Jordanian military wanted to change the color of the border guard's uniforms but cleared it with Israeli military authorities first. We did hear some grumbling that the U.S. worries about Weapons of Mass Destruction but doesn't seek to disarm the one Middle Eastern power that is known to have them.

Everyone we talked to was concerned about the American role in the peace process. America is seen as the only entity that can arbitrate between the parties. (One Palestinian man said that "we have to get rid of Sharon, get rid of Arafat, and someone has to step in between and stop this mess.") America is not now seen as a fair arbiter. We heard lots of admiration and even love for Jimmy Carter (and for both Rabin and Sadat). We heard lots of respect for Clinton. We heard nothing but loathing and regret over Bush. (The President of Al Al-Bayt University said that he was trying to be optimistic, but "every time Bush opens his mouth, I despair.")

We heard a wide range of opinions about the suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict. Some denounced them, although pointing out the desperation that helps to incubate such behavior. At Al Azhar University we heard one woman strongly denounce the western press for calling them "suicide bombers" rather than "martyrs". (We were especially dismayed to hear this repugnant viewpoint from a group of educated English-speaking faculty dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue.)


A theme that we heard constantly was religious diversity. Christians and Muslims seemed to get along quite well. This was particularly evident in our meetings with Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church, with members of the YMCA at the Young Muslim Association round-table, and our visit to Maalula in Syria. This amicability applies, of course, to Christians with historical roots in the area; the recent arrival of Protestant evangelicals was seen as destabilizing.

More disturbing was the absence of Jews. We were assured, notably by the Syrian Patriarch, that the Jews did not leave Syria because of persecution. But then why did they leave? Certainly the opportunity to return to the Jewish homeland would have exerted considerable pull, but I don't feel that this can be the whole story. And of course we know, and Egyptians admit, that Jews in Egypt were indeed persecuted in the late sixties, instigated by Nasser to deflect attention from his own failures.

Certainly the Koran holds the Jews, generally, in high esteem. (There is one oft-quoted section that describes a Muslim massacre of Jews, but this was a killing of tribes that had supported Mecca against the Muslim community at Medina, and another Jewish tribe that had remained neutral was not harmed.) But anti-Jewish sentiments are on the rise because of the Palestinian conflict. It is hard for me to determine how far back this bigotry extends, because it's hard to find disinterested sources. However, it's interesting to note that anti-Jewish propaganda, like the loathsome Protocols of the Elders of Zion, are all recent imports. If anti-Judaism had deep roots, one would expect to see more indigenous vilifications.


Five times a day, in the Arab world, everyone hears the call to prayer. Not everyone responds, but nonetheless, the sound is ubiquitous. The day-to-day spoken language is filled with reminders: "God be with you" and "God willing" are as common as our "hello". We were surprised at the inseparability of religion and "mundane" life. In the West we tend to view our religious lives as personal and distinct from our societal roles. There is no such distinction in the Middle East. The idea of secularity is a relatively new import from the West. The Arabs we met were interested in the secular ideas but were fearful of losing the "preservative institutions" of their own culture.

When I told an American friend about the low rate of violent crime in Syria, he said "well, sure, because they cut the hands off thieves." Syria and Jordan are not secular the way we are, but neither do they inflict the harsh punishments of the Saudis or the Taliban. Syria has a civil code much like the French, and a thief is punished much as in France. I point this out to illustrate that normal day-to-day life is much like ours.

We encountered Koranic literalism even among the educated elite. The Koran is dictated by Allah and is incontrovertible. The Bible is equally holy whether translated into English or Swahili, but the true Koran is only in Arabic; translations are mere curiosities. Textual analysis of the Koran is forbidden, and doubt is unacceptable. I believe that this rigidity will be a significant impediment to progress in Middle Eastern countries.

Stability versus Democracy

We often heard an expressed fascination with Western democratic ideals, and a real yearning to see them grow in the Middle East. There were two countervailing concerns, though. The first was that democracy should grow out of the Arab cultures, as much as possible, rather than be imposed from outside. Secondly, people were much more worried about stability than about personal freedoms.

These two concerns are closely related. The Middle East has been somewhat chaotic over the last century, so dictators like Hafez Assad, while they may be disliked, are respected and admired for the stability they've imposed. Assad killed 30,000 people, most of them innocent, in suppressing the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980. Syrians still support Assad's actions; Arabs that we talked to are afraid of Islamic extremism and are willing to sacrifice some civil freedoms to protect their way of life.

Historically, prosperity does not grow without stability. The only time we heard criticisms about the American role in Iraq, the comments were about the instability and insecurity, not about the fundamental justifications for our invasion. (Everyone, by the way, seemed happy that Saddam Hussein was gone.)

My opinion now is that Arab concerns for stability and security must be addressed before we can start encouraging democratic reform.

I would also like to point out that Syria and Jordan have very low rates of violent crime. (I don't know about Egypt.) We repeatedly heard that anyone could safely walk the streets anywhere, anytime, and feel safe. The police in Syria are few and unarmed. The Secret Police of Syria are the highest civil power, but they maintain a rigorous invisibility. (By comparison, we were constantly aware of the tourist police in Egypt.)

The Role of Women

We expected women to be downtrodden and mistreated, much as they are in Saudi Arabia. We saw a broad range of women's clothing, ranging from jeans-and-tanktop all the way to the complete black covering and veiled face that we associate with the Saudis. (We did not, however, see a burqa.)

We talked to women in leadership roles in government and academia. Their concerns were very much like those of women in the West. For instance, Bouthaina Shaaban, of the Syrian Foreign Ministry, talked about day care and the glass ceiling.

We were surprised that, generally speaking, the women we talked to were more interesting than the men. The meetings with men tended to be more ceremonial, or often consisted of serial speech-making. The women were much more likely to engage in give-and-take conversation, and often challenged us rather than offering conciliatory blandishments.

Middle Eastern women that we met bridled at the idea that they were oppressed. When one of our group challenged Egyptians at the Young Muslim Association round-table, two women, one Christian and one Muslim, responded with spirited defenses of the fact of their freedoms and opportunities.

On the other hand, I did see a sobering sight in the lobby of our fancy Cairo hotel. An Egyptian man in shorts, T-shirt, and Teva sandals, carrying a camera and wearing sunglasses. His wife for full black robes and veiled face, on a hot day. She was awkwardly trying to tend to their child while wearing this traditional garb.


I came away with the feeling that Arab civilization, once the world's most advanced, has been in a medieval period for several centuries but is now poised for their own renaissance. However, this renaissance is stuck behind the Palestine issue. The Arab world is obsessed with it, and some despots profit from exploiting it. The problem doesn't need to be resolved in entirety, but I believe that a perception that progress is being made, and justice being served, would start the process of isolating the extremists and awakening a hunger for change in the ordinary people.

The Palestine issue can only be settled if both sides give up certain ambitions and some cherished grievances. I am not a big fan of the abstract notion of "justice". I believe that it has led, here, to a sense of aggrieved entitlement on both sides. Each side points to the actions of the other as justification for their own, and the spiral continues. I've heard arguments from both sides that any kind of "concession" would be "rewarding terrorism." The emphasis should be not on "look what they did; we could never forgive that" but rather on "how do we get out of this mess." This requires a focus on the future rather than the past.

The United States needs to re-establish itself as a fair arbitrator. This is not only in the interests of peace in the Middle East, it will also start a slow process of rapprochement with Arab nations and the isolation of the extremists.

We often heard that the current conflict is political, not religious or cultural. We frequently heard hope expressed that we could enter a dialogue rather than a "Clash of Civilizations". I believe that the events of the next few decades will include both dialogue and clash. The latter is inevitable, but can be diminished by strong doses of the former. I want to emphasize that dialogue does not mean agreement or support. But it does mean listening carefully and speaking wisely.

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