At the end of an anti-war protest outside a mosque in Amman, Jordan, the other day, as the chants died down and the riot police began to relax, a lanky teenager approached me and asked “which war” I was watching.
“Your version or our version?” he wanted to know.
Wearing a Champion sweatshirt and wire-rimmed glasses, he said-in perfect English-that in the Arab version, the U.S. war in Iraq is not about liberation. He said it was about “people dying, innocent lives dying, American soldiers coming in and shooting people.”
Arabs are generally fond of American people and culture-especially our movies. But in the transfixing saga unfolding on their television screens, many here in Jordan have cast America as the bad guy. To them, the war has taken on a David-versus-Goliath feel-and some people here actually think the underdog Iraqis are winning. At another recent rally in Amman, one speaker gleefully asked, “How, with all the fancy technology the U.S. has, can a simple farmer shoot down an Apache helicopter?” (The Pentagon has denied this.)
Jordanians I’ve spoken with say they are rooting for the Iraqis and, increasingly, for Saddam Hussein himself. After the Gulf War, Mr. Hussein was widely viewed here as defeated and discredited. But now many people in Jordan-indeed, across the Arab world-are chanting his name. By taking on the Americans, he’s seen as striking a blow for Arab dignity. And after decades of perceived humiliation at the hands of the Israelis-who are, many Arabs believe, propped up by the Americans-the thirst for some sort of victory is profound.
Much of the anti-war, anti-American sentiment is fueled by the Arab media, in particular the satellite channel Al Jazeera. These outlets, which didn’t exist during the last Gulf War, now serve up a very different narrative of the war than the one the Western media deliver.
Americans-including many in the Bush administration-were disturbed when Al Jazeera broadcast pictures of dead U.S. soldiers. The Qatar-based network-as well as newcomers Abu Dhabi Television and Al Arabiya-seem to compete for which can show the goriest footage. But many Arabs defend these networks, arguing they provide a truer (read: less Westernized) account. Nabil el-Shari, the round-faced, soft-spoken editor of Ad-Dustour , Jordan’s second-largest Arabic-language newspaper, said that Americans are seeing a “highly filtered version” of the war. “Like the coffee they consume,” Mr. el-Shari said.
Bush administration officials-including Secretary of State Colin Powell-have been appearing on Arab television networks lately to make the U.S. case. They argue that this war is about ridding Iraq of weapons of mass destruction and freeing the Iraqi people from the grip of a tyrant. The Pentagon has also welcomed Arab journalists to Central Command Headquarters in Doha, Qatar. Some are even “embedded” with U.S. troops. Thus far, however, the outreach effort doesn’t seem to have changed many minds.
In fact, fury and frustration about the war is by no means restricted to what one Arab commentator called the “beard-and-turban crowd.”
Over French wine and Thai food at Amman’s sleek new Four Seasons hotel the other night, Alia Toukan and her friends-a worldly, Western-educated set who wouldn’t look out of place in a bar full of Soho sophisticates-said America had lost its credibility.
“People are scared,” said Toukan, a 29-year-old media consultant who has lived in both the U.S. and Canada. “They think it’s not just about Iraq. It could be Syria next. It could be Lebanon next. It could be anything.”
Ms. Toukan warned ominously that people in this part of the world are starting to see this conflict in religious terms. There is a growing sense that the war on Iraq is in fact a war on Islam.
As evidence, Ms. Toukan pointed to George W. Bush-a born-again Christian who, shortly after Sept. 11, publicly described the war on terror a “crusade.” In the Arab mind, that word conjures up images of wars of Christian conversion.
“It alarmed people,” Ms. Toukan said. “You could have ignored it months later if there wasn’t anything to back it up. But what’s happening now on the ground is actually making people think, ‘Oh, that wasn’t a Freudian slip.'”
As the war becomes longer and bloodier, moderate Arabs warn that the “crusade” argument will only gain resonance.
Jamil Mroue, editor of Lebanon’s Daily Star , said it might be “days, not weeks,” before that view becomes the prevailing one.
“It’s like the beginning of El Niño,” Mr. Mroue said. “It doesn’t come in a huge wave, but we know it moves the Pacific.”
The consequences for America are grave, many here warned. As the war gets longer and bloodier, the moderates are in danger of being drowned out-or, worse, radicalized.
“This is what a lot of people fear,” Ms. Toukan said. “It’s making extremists out of people.”
-Dan Harris. Mr. Harris is a
correspondent for ABC News.
Don’t Try Slipping Him Any Euros, Either
French fries are freedom fries, French wines are boycotted, and now, French tourists can’t even get into nightclubs in New York. On March 27, the New York Post reported that Wass Stevens, the dashing if irascible doorman at the socialite flytraps Pangaea and Suite 16, wasn’t letting in French tourists because of what the paper called the “anti-Americanism of the Chirac government.”
While a certain discrimination has always occurred at the city’s velvet ropes, such a sweeping ban is against New York City’s Human Rights Law, said Patricia Gatling, a commissioner at the city’s Commission on Human Rights. The law prohibits “discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on race, color, creed, age, national origin, alienage or citizenship status, gender (including gender identity and sexual harassment), sexual orientation, disability, or marital status” as well as “retaliation and bias-related harassment.” Ms. Gatling said the commission was going to investigate the newspaper’s claims.
When we reached Pangaea owner Frank Ferraro, he denied any such anti-French sentiment at his door. “That’s certainly not our policy,” he said. Someone answering the telephone at Suite 16 said firmly, “No, that’s not true.”
But Mr. Stevens, who claims a heritage that is “all Eastern European: Russian, German, Polish, Scottish and Italian-there’s no French in there,” wasn’t backing down when we caught up with him on March 31. He said his decision to ban the French was a personal thing, not a “club preference,” but he wasn’t about to stop.
“I turn people away every night, and a large portion of those are French,” he said. “I’m American. I’m proud of my country, and I don’t like people who diss us in the press or in a political forum.”
Mr. Stevens said that he always disdained French tourists with “attitude”-but now, in the midst of the Iraq conflict, he is more anti-French than ever. “Certain French people can be incredibly obnoxious and condescending,” he said. “What you find-with the tourists from Paris, especially, more than anywhere else in France-is that they think they’re this deserving lot of people.”
Since the mention in Page Six, in fact, Mr. Stevens said he has received mostly compliments and support for his position. “I can’t tell you how many people have patted me on the back or shaken my hand,” he said. “When all you can do is watch CNN, everyone wants to support those who have the courage to take a stand.”
Said Mr. Stevens: “It’s just a little payback on behalf of the troops.”
War and Bliss With The So-Cal Swami
On a recent night, Dr. Swami Ramananda Maharaj walked up Lexington Avenue after a pro-peace poetry reading at Baruch College. He was accompanied by a tan, brown-haired woman named Dr. Ruth Nolan and her 14-year-old daughter, Tarah.
“We left 80-degree weather to come here-that’s how deep our commitment is to supporting New York,” said the swami, a 52-year-old with bronzed skin and a neat white beard. He wore an orange ski cap, an orange hooded sweatshirt, a maroon chador with mirrors sewn into it, a pale orange dhoti , and many bracelets, rings and wooden beads.
“We’re fostering a dialogue through poetry,” Ruth said. “We can communicate through poetry.” She is 40, and a teacher at College of the Desert, a junior college in Palm Springs. Tarah nodded appreciatively.
“I live in Rancho Mirage, near Palm Springs,” the swami said. “President Gerald Ford is my neighbor. Cher lives there. I’m the only swami in a 300-mile radius. I’m like the fix-it guy.”
They stopped at an Indian restaurant. A sign said it was closed, but Swami Ramananda opened the door and said something in Hindi to the host. “We’ve got a swami with us,” Ruth said, and the party was ushered inside. The Swami removed his hat, revealing a sika hair style: His head is mostly shaved (to discourage vanity), but there is a little tail at the back, so that God can pull him up to Heaven. “What a high to come out of that reading tonight!” he said. “Tonight was about peaceful people coming together and delivering a message of peace. It’s reminding me of the 60’s a lot.”
The reading included a contest among high-school students for best poem about the United Nations. Mohammed Abbasi, a student at Brooklyn Technical High School, won second place for a poem called “War Season”: “The lush, moist and newly picked fruits / Sit on the cold floor / Black, hard and ugly / The scene is dark / The grapple has overcome the grain.”
“Mohammed’s poem was about the horrors of war,” the Swami said. It was so poignant, especially coming from someone named Mohammed.”
“Wow,” said Ruth.
“It was amazing to be at a poetry reading when I could literally feel death in the air,” said the Swami.
“It feels very front-line,” said Ruth. She meant “pioneering,” not the PBS documentary program, Frontline .
“Very front-line,” said the Swami.
“It’s like minute-to-minute reporting about what’s going on in the human soul.”
“Very nice!” the Swami said.
“It was inspirational,” Tarah said.
The following night, the Swami was planning to read his own poem about walking alone in the Himalayas, “Mount Kailasha,” at a UNESCO end-violence-against-women event.
“It’s on the new album I just did with Elvis Costello, Wings of the Dawn , and in my new best-selling book, Bliss Now ” he said. “It’s a prayer for world peace.”
Then, on Friday morning, the Swami was scheduled to visit Ground Zero with a rabbi, a Sufi mullah and a priest from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. He said he was going to bring along a vial of water from the Ganges River, to bless and purify the site. “New Yorkers think only airy-fairy people live on the West Coast,” he said. “But we feel very deeply our solidarity with New York. I was just reflecting on what Joan Rivers said on Leno the other night: ‘The farther you get from salt water, the less your intelligence.’
“Luckily, we’re near salt water!” Ruth said.
Ruth, Tarah and the Swami drank chai tea as the restaurant’s management hovered anxiously.
“I will always remember this night,” the Swami said.
“Wasn’t it powerful?” Ruth asked. “Poetry is the one place where people are trying to tell the truth.”
Tarah pulled a spiral notebook from her mother’s bag and began writing and crossing out energetically with a purple-glitter gel pen. Ruth explained that Tarah was writing a poem, which she would recite at the UNESCO event. Tarah told the table that the poem was “kind of just like a metaphor for what the whole world’s going through right now, and how love will prevail.” She counted out syllables with her pen, mouthed some words, and uttered frustrated little sounds.
The Other Embeds
Embedded in the 5 p.m. line at the Duane Reade at 60th Street and Lexington Avenue.
“We’re doing O.K. I can’t give you an exact report of our progress, but I can tell you we’ve moved at least six inches in the last 10 minutes. Do I sense any doubts out here? No, I have no doubts I will eventually purchase this Speed Stick deodorant sometime before the 2004 Olympics in Athens. But yes, it’s frustrating-the cashier’s on the telephone, she seems to be booking a multi-city plane ticket, and the dude ahead of me appears to need 1,300 99-cent bottles of baby shampoo. Screw it-I think I’m going to thumb through The Star . Looks like Jenny Aniston’s at her wily ways again.”
Embedded in the early afternoon “laptop crowd” at the Astor Place Starbucks.
“Morale is not high. I get easily distracted. I’ve already read this week’s New York Press three times and Page Six twice. I can’t afford to do this-I’m not one of those trust-fund freelancers. I gotta make cash. I have a piece I’m doing for Elle Girl about designer bra straps, and there’s a screenplay I’ve been working on, off and on, for, like, three years-it’s about cheerleading camp, kind of Bring it On meets Meatballs -but I spent a lot of time staring at other people. Yesterday a homeless guy walked in and offered to take everyone to Pluto in his Lexus. That was cool. I need to write that down.”
Embedded in the upper grandstand, Shea Stadium.
“I can’t really see much, honestly. These are crap seats-even Mo Vaughn looks skinny from up here. But I’ve sat in the same area for 17 years. There’s Tommy, from Queens, and Big Ed, from Port Washington. We were all at the Series in ’86. Buckner’s legs, the whole bit. Last year was a disaster. We’re supposed to turn it around this year. But Glavine’s start was a meltdown. M-E-L-T-D-O-W-N! Do I think we can do better? Yes. Do I want another Bud? Sure.”
Embedded at the premiere of his roommate Damian’s one-man-show on the Lower East Side.
“This is pretty tough. I had no idea what to expect. I knew that Damian’s tastes weren’t exactly mainstream, but the slaughtering of a lamb wearing a Boy George mask was a bit much. And what’s with all the lame-ass Sandinista and Christopher Cross references? I hate Damian. He’s late paying rent and I know he swiped my copy of Blonde on Blonde . Several people have already bailed. Those that remain are jealous. I wonder what’s on Conan ? I want to go home.”