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
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!)
Disrespect of Islam
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
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
The Madrid accord was seen as a viable formula for peace.
We heard much about the Green Line but surprisingly little about
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
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
America is seen as the only entity that can arbitrate between the parties.
(One Palestinian man said
"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
Some denounced them, although pointing out the desperation that
helps to incubate such behavior.
Al Azhar University we heard one woman strongly
denounce the western press for calling them "suicide bombers" rather than
(We were especially dismayed to hear this repugnant viewpoint from
a group of educated English-speaking faculty dedicated to inter-cultural
A theme that we heard constantly was religious
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
The women were much more likely to engage in give-and-take conversation,
and often challenged us rather than offering conciliatory
Middle Eastern women that we met bridled at the idea that they were
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
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
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
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.