Monday, December 05, 2005


Hi All,

If you haven't had a chance to browse the links to the right yet, you may have missed my friend Brian's great blog "In The Axis", where he reflects on life in Syria.

He had a great post a few weeks back about a Syrian journalist's rather miserable trip to the US, courtesy of the State Department. I am posting the entry in its entirety as it gives a glimpse of the sort of fundamental lack of finesse or even understanding our government exhibits about the rest of the world.



I met my former student, Siham, over coffee the other day, so eager to hear what she thought about her journeys through my homeland. She had just been to the US on a State Department program to bring Arab journalists around for a tour of our country. Along with a dozen or so other journalists from a host of Middle Eastern countries, she had the chance to visit Washington, DC, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Seattle, and Houston.

While she was attending my classes in English journalism, she often talked about her hopes for getting accepted into the program. She had to apply with the US Embassy in Damascus, go for a series of interviews, and then work through the visa process. I encouraged her at every step. "It's gonna be wonderful!" I assured her. "You'll get a different perspective of the US. You'll love it so much, see some of the great things about America." I am always telling my students that there is much more to America than superficial pop culture. Siham bubbled with anticipation, and said how much she wanted to meet real Americans, rather than the stereotypical rich blond-haired blue-eyed uebermenschen that are standard TV and film fare in the rest of the world. In addition to her professional mission, she was particularly thrilled about the shopping prospects.

Siham was still upbeat in the first days of her trip. She phoned me at my parents' home in Wyomissing while I was on vacation. But that mood has since evaporated. "I don't want to disappoint you," she said gazing down into her cup of Nescafe, "but it was awful." The State Department scheduled a set program of tours and talks with key government people and business leaders. "We were lectured everywhere we went. I mean, they talked down to us like we were little children, like we were born yesterday or something." She said that the purport of most of the talks was a glossy-eyed missionary-style tour through the most hated features of American foreign policy. "They didn't know anything about us or about where we came from. And they didn't care." The 'terrorism' label was applied generously to the region, in a move clearly aimed at making friends and influencing people. The dialogue, she observed bitterly, was a one-way conversation.

Siham said that the officials were quick to point out the miniscule sums the US spends to take care of refugees and to promote democracy in the region, while ignoring the vastly larger amount spent to promote conflict and violence, in the Occupied Territories and Iraq for instance. Every month in Iraq alone, the US spends about one-third of the entire Syrian GDP. "This is our life; we know this," she pleaded. Syrians live side by side with over 2 million Palestinian refugees, a by-product of America's multi-billion dollar annual support of Israel. They have also opened their doors to several hundred thousand refugees from America's Iraq misadventure. These policies do not have anything like a positive impact on the lives of Syrians, and nor do the threats of sanctions and even war against their country. "They couldn't understand why our mouths didn't fall open in amazement," she commented dryly.

Siham complained that the US Embassy in Damascus has phoned her several times to ask why she has not published any articles praising America since she came back. I advised her to publish copiously, to tell exactly what happened, just to dispel the delusions on both sides.
The whole program seemed hinged on a flawed and widespread myth: that the people of the Middle East simply don't know what happens outside their countries. They are kept in the dark by their evil and tyrannical governments about all the wonderful features of America and its policies. But the reality is that the orange trader on the donkey-cart down the street here in Damascus knows far more about American foreign policy than the average middle-class American. Arabs hate American foreign policy not because they don't understand it, rather because they understand it perfectly; they live it.


Blogger se7en8six said...

nothing like a bureaucratic barrage of talking-down-to to sap the life right out of any cultural exchange...

oh well...

hope you guys are doing well over there...


6:47 PM  
Blogger huma said...

depressing -- maybe the pop culture aspect is somewhat of an anesthetic -- you're missing american idol

10:10 PM  

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