Monday, June 25, 2007

Live From Jordan....It's Saturday Night!

Benjamin Orbach has written a modest, yet profound book. Live From Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East is a tale pieced together from correspondence that Orbach wrote during his time spent studying Arabic while living and traveling through Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Morocco and Syria. The narrative is a captivating blend of travelogue, diplomatic outreach, political treatise and tale of personal transformation. The multifaceted, and at times divergent, themes permeating this work make it an appropriate analogue to the subject matter itself.

Despite his background in economics and work on a related research fellowship while "in country," he mercifully spares the reader such technical minutia. As Orbach might say, he's a "color commentator, not a stat man." This, let me assure you, is to the reader's benefit. His narrative palette is rich and varied - evoking a sensual array of sights, sounds and smells (enough to trigger a persistent craving for falafel and humus - I'm billing Ben for my take-out bill). The canvas that takes shape from his brush strokes is a vibrant portrait of life in the Middle East, and the lives of its inahabitants - invaluable to readers, like me, who have yet to travel to that part of the world.

Such a first person vantage point - even if vicarious - exposes essential, ground-level truths regarding the people and ideas in the Arab/Muslim world. Far from being the monolithic caricature frequently depicted in Western media, where "Arabs" and "Muslims" act as an imprecise short hand for politicians and pundits selling a particular approach, there are crucial differences in outlook, customs, political views and cultural norms present in inhabitants within the same country, and between the populations inhabiting the various nations in a larger sense. While it may seem cliche to make such a point, our policymakers have been ignoring the obvious for some time now.

Whether it be the interplay of status and wealth between "ketchup eaters" (those that can afford the ridiculously overpriced import) and "bus riders" (those that must rely on public transportation) in Jordan, the political tensions between "Jordanian-Jordanians" and "Palestinian-Jordanians" (with the former known to chant pro-Ariel Sharon slogans at rallies), or the contradictions inherent in the spectacle of Westernized club-goers immersed in a deeply conservative culture - it becomes clear that the fluid sturm and drang in the Arab East belies static generalizations. Consider that at various times, and in different locations, Orbach had to alternately hide his nationality and religion (claiming he was Canadian and Christian - not Jewish), and fend off those that viewed him as some mythic, rock star persona simply because he was American (though the Jewish part never did seem to catch on as a source of adulation).

Despite the casual tone and humorous anecdotes sprinkled in, there is a seriousness, if not urgency, to one of Orbach's main themes: improving dialogue between the West and Arab East (figuratively, and literally, for a student of Arabic). This endeavor is perhaps made more pressing by the time period of his travels which span from soon after the attacks of 9/11 through the invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath. At a time when dehumanization and demonization were (and still are) being employed to facilitate belligerence and other punitive policies aimed at entire swathes of related and unrelated people, developing a granular understanding of the people whose differences we mostly ignore, and fostering a personal dialogue based on mutual respect and understanding, is all the more important.

One of the most obvious ways to establish a productive rapport with people that populate such diverse terrain is to acknowledge their differences. This indicates that we're really paying attention, and putting thought into their actual goals, fears and concerns. To state a tautology: acting dismissive will make us appear dismissive.

Orbach takes it upon himself to try to put a human face to America, and in turn extract a human face from "Arabs" and "Muslims" (through his role as foil in countless, and often repetitive, policy debates). The benefits of such an approach are quickly apparent in the friendships and connections he makes. In fact, these human interactions, which he approaches with an open mind and empathetic leanings, lead to something of a revelation for Orbach. After spending many months living in Jordan and traveling elsewhere, he enters Israel(which he calls "Palestine" at the border crossing) as an Arab would from the Jordanian side of the border - attempting to literally walk a mile in the shoes of the "other" side of such a bitter conflict. This symbolic journey speaks of Orbach's own intellectual evolution on issues related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, with his views becoming more nuanced and balanced. Such growth is instructive of the fundamental commonality of interests, and subjectivity of hostility, that reveal themselves through human interaction.

Of his time in Jordan, he had this to say:

The more I see and learn here, the more it becomes clear how important matters of religion and nationalisty are within Jordan. There is a tension between East Banker Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians that can approach hatred. While Christians and Muslims certainly co-exist here, I believe that each have their own worlds too, worlds that are separate. It's startling how many differences there are beneath the surface and within everyday life among the people who we wholly refer to as the "Arabs" back home.

The contradictions reach further down the sociological ladder to split individual psyches themselves, not just those shared by larger groups and nations. This is revealed mostly in the mixture of admiration and hostility for "America" and all things "American" frequently housed in the same person.
Some U.S. leaders and government spokespersons say that we are hated because of our freedonm, but the picture is really much more complicated....I've reached the conclusion that there are two main strands of anti-Americanism: There are American policy critics and America haters. Many people in Jordan fall into the first category; they like Americans but do not like the U.S. government's policies. [...]

Our policy options concerning the American haters are limited. We are at war with bin Laden and the haters, and we have to deal with them accordingly. At the same time, military options alone won't protect Americans and U.S. interests. There is no substitute for waging a complementary war against the root causes andd conditions that transformed these disaffected drifters into basement bomb-makers. In particular, we need to address the lack of political and economic opportunities that characterize life in the Arab East for young people and women. And this is where we need the American policy critics on our side. [...]

President Bush said, "You're either with us or against us in the fight against "terror." We might feel that way, but such a public statement isn't helpful. Ironically, that is just how bin Laden has divided the world - into two. Not allowing for ambiguities, bin Laden defines Al Qaeda as the representative of Islam and America as the crusaders bent on religious war. For obvious reasons the American policy critics here don't necessarily want to be with us. But they don't want to be with the terrorists either....The haters would love for us to lumpt the Muslim world's American policy critics in with them, for the policy critics to have nowhere to turn, and for us to see the haters as representative of the masses. Our goal must be to isolate the haters, not all them to isolate us....

Our actions and behavior [can] increase the number of American policy critics who remain silent in the safety of their homes, rather than increase the number of religious and secular leaders and citizens who, though they may still disagree with U.S. policies, may at least feel compelled to step out into the streets and foster an environment that rejects the haters. These leaders can't and won't come forward if they are going to be publicly labeled as being politicall associated with American, and that tag carries connotations that are only negative.
This is precisely the way to combat the spread and appeal of extremist terrorism - and to better construct a broad level of peaceful cooperation with potential partners. Terrorists rely on the populations in which they operate. We must begin to marginalize the extremists by engaging and empowering other elements - even those that we do not agree with 100%. Of course, it's hard to achieve this through "shock and awe" entreaties, and "Islamofascist" labels applied to groups as far apart as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian mullahs.

While in many ways, our foreign policy vis-a-vis this region has created enormous obstacles that will prove difficult to overcome, our culture and ideals provide us with a certain level of access and advantage that is waiting to be put to better use. One thing that comes through in this book is the extent to which our pop culture - the product of the dreaded liberal "Hollywood" - has served as our most able ambassador.
This same cultural output is America's most successful means to gain favor among the people of the Arab East and beyond. It is through Mark Twain stories, Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington, and movies like the Matrix that Amefica has created attractive American magnetism, American dreams, and the personal stories of hope that seem otherworldly.

When people who have never traveled to the United States say that they hate America but love the American people, it is because of our cultural output. They don't personally know us. Cabbies sing along with Mariah Carey, I watched the Fugitive with a spellbound Fadi, and there is a guy at the university with a Nike Swoosh shaved into the back of his head. These are all symbols, and people take their symbols of America from the entertainment and creative ideas we provide.
Contrary to what cynical or, at best, ignorant politicians have suggested, "they" actually love us for our freedom, our culture and our principles. This sentiment is captured quite well in this excerpt from a conversation Orbach has with a pair of Jordanian citizens after the launch of the Iraq war (an even that Orbach proves quite prescient about):
"Why do I like America?" [the Jordanian woman] asked.

"Why?" I answered, stumped.

"Because the American people have freedom - the government wne to war, but the people had protests in the streets, real protests. We saw it on al Jazeera, in New York and in San Francisco - hundredds of thousnads ofpeople. Here, no one agreed with the war, but we couldn't protest. We have no voice"...

The point about Americans' freedom of speech was made by others, too. People fundamentally disagreed with the war but had no way to express themselves. They greatly admired how Americans voiced their opinions against government policies. It is ironic that we were supposed to win respect in the Arab East through our display of force but, in fact, we gained respect as a democracy by the activities of those who were derided as "unpatriotic."
In my email correspondence with Ben Orbach, he confided in me that his three primary goals in writing this book were (to paraphrase): to inspire Americans to engage the rest of the world (particularly the Middle East), to offer his first-person insights on the Middle East (from the roots and contours of anti-Americanism, to the diversity of its people) and to bring to life some of the colorful places that he had visited. In all of these undertakings, Orbach has succeeded masterfully.

There is one brief encounter with a Syrian woman that captures the essence of Orbach's purpose quite nicely.
As we said goodbye, Rania reached her hand out, looked me directly in the eye as we shook hands, and told me that she was glad to have met me and that we - meaning Syrians and Americans - needed to keep talking.
In writing this book, Orbach has greatly expanded the number of participants in that conversation. It is an invaluable contribution from an erstwhile "unofficial ambassador," and it's worth a thousand Karen Hughes heart-to-hearts.

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