Thursday, August 31, 2006

A final word from Lebanon -

I have been "reading while falling" since it featured in BLoggers "of note" list.

The final post before he left Beirut was posted Saturday. I have just finished reading it for the third time.
You wonder about getting up. This is your last official errand for the SDC. You have accompanied SDCCurlyRedHairVolunteer to the hospital so that SDCCRHV can have a meeting with one of the staff here. The SDC is producing a hygiene manual for children enduring tough conditions as their homes are being rebuilt. You have been told to wait as the meeting will last only 15 minutes. Over an hour has passed.

You take to the chair, only glancing up occasionally at the doctors and nurses emerging onto the balcony above the waiting area, silently and with straight faces and white coats watching the parade of people come in and out. The images of Qana roll through your mind as do the visions of destroyed bridges, the smoke rising from the port, the old man screaming in his bed, the filthy stickiness of the Beirut shelters, the overwhelming anger at how quietly this challenging and destructive failure of 'the system' and individuals seems to be slipping away, attention redirected to Iran or whatever new conflict currently brewing in the minds of the powers that be. Selim is convinced Israel will take the Bekaa Valley next, where Hizbullah is still strong and the International presence will be weak. By fear or by plan. And regardless, what has changed? There will be another conflict soon, there will be more dead given only a number to mark their graves. Some of them will be children. You are hit quickly with two successive impulses: 1) to rush into the hospital, to sit and chat and invest a comforting interest in the lives of those patients that have no one to visit them; 2) to shut up your stupid idealistic mind - who are you to do that job? You are certain that one of the patients would be upset with you for not being the rounds nurse that he has been expecting for over an hour with his pudding cup. Where is my pudding? Where is my pudding, dammit?

later -
Baha: Here we have had the Greeks, we have had the Romans, Ottomans, the Arabs, the French the British…

You remember that instead of taking a Guidebook with you to the Middle East all you took was a $4 Rand McNalley historical atlas of the world. In recent days you have been flipping through it, watching the area of Lebanon change color at almost every page, dominated by some new force...early in the book, the city of Tyre appears - on par with Carthage as one of the largest cities in the world 1000 BC. It's been leveled as of last month.

Baha: But ...and the history you have? You do not look to your history because you do not know it - only we see your history. Bush, Rice...they are saying that this is a new's a new...

Me: experiment

Baha: it is the same, it is the same that happens with us again and again. This is the same experiment – it is the same as 1950s, as 70s, as 80s as 90s... it is the same again and again!

We go through all of of Middle East modern history. The creation of Israel, the series of conflicts, the US buying off Egypt to secure peace, the US funding both sides of the Iran/Iraq war which killed hundreds of thousands (IranGate under Reagan); we touch back on other issues. They raise the argument that the US Civil War has more to do with economic interests than anything as noble as the rights of the human being, talk about Native Americans, the Louisiana purchase, contras, Bin Laden (funded until even '96 by the CIA under Clinton)... you talk about 9/11, you talk about Pearl Harbor, you talk about the military-industrial complex. You see your country as having fallen down a very, very slippery slope.

The themes of economic interests and ideological interests and military posturing as intertwined appears...

Selim: You know, we kick Baha around and we call him a jackass for fun but you know he is speaking the truth. The United States, you like to let us grow big big big so you can cut us down, so you can claim a victory. You like to keep us broken up...

You all agree that this is a problem, a course of action that has failed...and you sit and watch the others still trying to figure out how to transition to a more forward-thinking foreign policy. How to cement in the mind of the average American the idea that neighborliness is actually strength? That supporting economic development of all regions is the only way to lay the cornerstone to peace ("you know, people will fight when they are hungry")? To inspire a new level of competition in American companies that will reform our education system in a way that promotes truly innovative, capable and creative minds. You ask them what should be done.

Baha: You should play the.. broker.

Me: The 'honest broker'.

Baha: Yes.

Selim: No no no, it's not gonna work. You can't, the United States can't do that anymore. You already have declared your stake. With this, you know, this changes things. You have to look at that stake first.

Me: Well, if I were president what would you tell me to do? You're my political advisor...

Selim: You have to figure out...what is the deal that the United States has with the Arabs?

He's right. We have no real foreign policy, no system in place, ad hoc decisions based on playing favorites...

Selim: To do that you stop funding Israel – no not stop funding - just fund who is right, who does the right thing. Play by rules. You have a stake now. America was built to be a republic, not an empire. You are not set up to do this. And look, look at what happens when you try to go against your own design? Look everywhere...this is just an embarrassment to the United States. This is a real embarrassment. With Clinton he did great things but they didn't take, they were weak and he left office. But still, he understood. With Bush? This guy... ..I know the Syrian Ambassador to the US, I have met him personally. And the Syrian Ambassador, who is a real jerk I don't like this guy, he told me this story. When he first arrived in the United States, he went with his wife to meet with the President. It's a custom to go and meet and introduce. He goes to meet with Bush. And Bush he turns to the ambassador's wife and he says 'so how do you like America?' and his wife says that she is bored, that she wants to find a place to continue her studies; Bush says, oh, what are you studying? Computer engineering. Bush says to her – and I cannot...he says to her: 'they let women study in the middle east? They let them go to college?" this is the most powerful man in the world! This is the man who claims to have a new plan and he does not know a thing about what he is doing!

Baha: "Thomas, Thomas look at me. I want for you to promise that you will do me a favor. Only to your friends, I want you to tell your friends. Tell them we have internet. Tell them we do not – we are not bombing things all the time (mimes bombs strapped to his chest). Tell them that we read books! Please Thomas! Ha ha ha! I am serious, you have to tell them. Tell your friends. Tell someone. Tell them we read books. Tell them these things.

Selim: We have culture here. Thousands of years.

Me: So, why the fighting? Because you would think with would think with age would come...

Selim: Because along with culture, we do not have a strong economy which means we do not have the best schools. Without good education the people turn to religion as a crutch, which leads to divisions. This is not just the middle east – this is everywhere, this is how people are, you know? And where the religion leads, the people support.

And with that last comment from Selim, I gently direct your thoughts back to my previous post.
The fight of secularists against racism and poverty appears bland compared to the ardent certainties of religion. ... Jamaat and other fundamentalist groups are sowing the seeds of future conflict, as well as obscuring more hopeful and humane pathways to equity and harmony for Bengalis, in both Britain and Bangladesh.

Thomas, thank you so very much for your record. Thank you so very much for your honesty. I wish you well in everything that you do.

Please, remember that idealism fades with age. Do not let it be further dimmed by cynicism.

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