Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Ask Me, Ask Me, Ask Me

As a follow up to my review of his recent book, Live From Jordan: Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East, I got a chance to conduct a follow up interview, by email, with author Benjamin Orbach. Below are the questions and answers from that interview:

Have you kept in touch with the people that you met? Do they know that you’ve written this book, and if so, has your cover been blown in terms of your religion?

I returned to Jordan last fall and had the chance to get together with some of my friends that I wrote about in the book. Most of the people were gratified that their words had made an impression on me and that I had chosen to share them with the American public. I’ve sent copies of the book to the people in Jordan who I mention, and received warm “thank you” emails in return. We’re friends, and I treated them with respect. As I wrote about in my blog last week, once that foundation is established, I’m not sure that religion issue matters much.

While you were in the Arab East during the immediate aftermath of the Iraq invasion, now that you have a bit more perspective afforded by time, how would you say the Iraq war impacted the region, particularly with respect to America’s outreach efforts/image?

On the question of perceptions and image, the war with Iraq is a bad gift that is going to keep on giving for years to come, even after the U.S. military withdraws. Before the start of the war, we were criticized for not building an international consensus and acting unilaterally. Throughout the war, we’ve come across as hypocritical and just plain barbaric at times because of actual practices – I’m referring here to incidents like torture at Abu Ghraib. If the present political debate in the United States is an indicator, America will soon look bad for abandoning our allies in Iraq and leaving them to a fate of brutal civil war in some places and al-Qa’ida like Islamist rule in others. From an image perspective it is hard to overcome a prevailing perception that America acted aggressively, unilaterally, and irresponsibly – with little regard for the everyday people of that country.

How has the war affected the population dynamic, specifically is there a new sub-class to go along with the Jordanian-Jordanians and Palestinian-Jordanians groups, namely the Iraqi-Jordanians? Are there familiar tensions?

Excellent question. I returned to Amman twice last fall for the first time in a couple of years, and I was struck by a couple of significant changes. First, the city seemed crowded and traffic was particularly bad. Friends told me that there were between 500,000 and 700,000 Iraqis living in Amman. I could hear Iraqi dialect being spoken at Safeway (where I went to check out the prices of exotic imports like Frosted Flakes) and random cabbies complained to me about how the Iraqis had increased the cost of living for everyone. The most repeated complaint was that real estate prices were now off the charts. Several articles have been written about how Jordan got the rich Iraqi refugees and Syria got the poor ones.

Second, I was struck by the impact of the hotel bombings. During one of my visits, I stayed at the Radisson SAS, one of the hotels that was bombed almost exactly a year earlier (November 2005). Concrete barriers surrounded the hotel’s new entrance and a security guard was posted outside of the lobby with a metal detector frame that he instructed visitors to pass through. Not just at the Radisson, but at all the hotels and higher scale restaurants that I visited while in Amman, I found the same arrangement. In 2003 in Jordan, even during the Iraq war, such precautions would have been impossible to conceive. Amman was more like a friendly village than the capital city of a developing country.

So to get back to your question, there are changes taking place in Jordan – these are just two examples. There is an influx of different strangers: refugees from Iraq; foreign entrepreneurs, businessmen and AID workers; and drifters with nefarious intentions. All of these newcomers – from the Iraqi children who need to go to school to the militants headed to Iraq or fleeing from Iraq – will have an impact on Jordan’s social fabric and dynamics. It will be interesting to figure out, over the next couple of years where the Iraqis fit in. They are new outsiders, but many of them come with money.

In what ways does your current position improve your ability to act as an ambassador to the region, and in what ways do you find it a drawback?

I actually just left my position at the State Department. I worked at the Middle East Partnership Initiative for three years though, and traveled to the region frequently. I very much enjoyed speaking in Arabic, as a non-Arab U.S. government official, with civil society leaders and “bus riders.” I thought that I was able to challenge the conception that people have of the “U.S. government” as monolithic and evil.

In Live From Jordan, there seemed to be a point at which your views of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict shifted. Could you explain the extent to which this is indeed happened, and what the process was?

Actually, my understanding of “Palestine” changed. I’ve always thought (and still do think) that a deal along 1967 lines will be the outcome of serious negotiations supported by the full international community. Before I had the chance to live among the Palestinian Diaspora in Jordan, I just wasn’t intimately familiar with that narrative. Then, having had access to that narrative, and revisiting places in East Jerusalem that I knew within a Hebrew and Israeli context – it was like receiving a shock to the system. I could read the signs, understand conversations, and observe Palestinian life in a place where I just hadn’t even been aware of it previously (in East Jerusalem). And just a few blocks away, it all faded away and became so uniquely Israeli. Between the narratives and my own experience, I was able to come to the conclusion that a place could exist in full color and life, even if it wasn’t an official state with stationary, embassies and passports.

You stress that economic and political development are essential to sapping the appeal of extremism and pushing the Arab East forward. Do you have a general strategy or preferred method for achieving this?

Yes. There is a role for both the public and private sector to play and the common denominator for both is the creation of economic, political, and cultural opportunities. Young people – men and women – need opportunities to do something constructive. Ideally, governments and civil society organizations would create such opportunities for their young citizens, but they fail to do this for different reasons. The U.S. government has to step in and offer more and better targeted assistance to support the creation of such opportunities. The Middle East Partnership Initiative, where I used to work, has received about $300M in funding since 2002. That’s supposed to cover political, economic, education, and women’s empowerment reform programming in 16 countries in the Middle East! That’s nothing – what does one day in Iraq cost?

On a private sector level, the United States has been engaged in a war against Islamist militant groups for six years come September. That’s longer than our involvement in World War II and we aren’t even close to winning this war yet. It begs asking the question, what contribution are private American citizens – whose family members are not in the military or diplomatic corps – making to this effort? Not much, I have a few ideas about the concept of unofficial ambassadors and what each of us can do.

Why is Eric Martin your favorite blogger? ;)

Besides his thoughtful analyses, Eric Martin is a favorite blogger because of his email address, ericred55. “Eric the Red,” was the nickname of Eric Davis, a very good baseball player for the Cincinnati Reds. He played in the pre-steroid, pre-strike era, when I used to like baseball for more than the fact that it is fun to eat peanuts and drink beer at the ballpark.

Good answer!

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