how the world sees america

Arriving in Lebanon

Beirut_Skyline.jpg
Beirut skyline, usually prettier than this.

"What did you say? Have I been in exile?" I ask the heavily-made-up airline ticket agent behind the counter.

She repeats: "Have you been to IS-RA-EL?" slowing down and accentuating her vowels for this confused American.

"Oh, no not ye…No, I haven't."

Just a one-hour flight later, I touch down in Beirut and the customs control agent asks me a more pointed question: "You are a journalist. Is your reporting political?"

"It's about how America is perceived," I reply, and he summons over an army officer who stands at least 6'5".

"Come," the officer says. He leads me into a back room, where a pregnant woman wearing a huge fake Dolce & Gabbana belt looks at him, extremely displeased.

But my experience is less taxing than hers. Over the next 45 minutes I explain that I am single, I am here for a week, I am living near the American University of Beirut, and I'm looking at how Lebanese view America.

In the end, the officer smiles. “Welcome,” he says, and ushers me out.

As in all introductions to new countries, it seems, then comes the taxi driver who rips me off driving me to my hotel, but who shares a few stories on the way.

"What do you think of the upcoming Presidential elections?" I ask.

"We need a candidate who is not a puppet of Iran, or Syria, or the U.S., or Lebanon,” he replies. “We need Lebanon for Lebanon."

As we drive into an old tunnel, a large billboard of Hezbollah's leader Hassan Nasrallah signaling triumph hangs above the entrance. "And Nasrallah?" I ask.

"He is a good man. An honest man," the driver says. "I know many of the people in Hezbollah.” When Israel attacked, "my eight year old daughter was terrified," he said, but "I told her to remember Hassan."

But when I push him a bit harder for his thoughts on Hezbollah’s violence against innocents, he turns quiet. Soon enough, we're at my hotel.

An amphibious tank is parked directly outside the entrance. A man in a military uniform asks me to open my backpack before letting me in.

"Enjoy Beirut nightlife," my taxi driver says, shaking my hand before he drives away.

Time for me to prepare for the coming week's interviews. What should I be asking about in Lebanon? What do you think I’ll find here? Please send your suggestions my way.

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Comments (21)

Lamis Sleiman from AUB:

Hello Amar and whoever is reading this!
There is plenty of work for you at AUB and outside AUB as well. The students at AUB are of three types: the first belongs to clearly identified political parties mainly March 14 and March 8, some are pro these 2 mainstreams, and the rest are simply neutral, not just because they have not identified themselves within these two mainstreams but also because they are alienated from the political work altogether. You will hear so many opinion about the US from AUB students depending on the political background from which they come from! You should go outside Bliss, like your friend above and ask not just a bunch of youthful energetic people, but also some middle aged people who have witnessed different stages of the American involvement in the Lebanese arena.But I can tell you one thing for sure: there is a huge waiting line infront of the American Embassy in Awkar waiting for a time ticket to apply for a citizenship, visa, or whatever. Everyone wants to be American, but not everyone in Lebanon agrees on the ways the States portrayed the middle east, and especially Lebanon when it comes to the Lebanese-Isreali conflict.
Try to get to the embassy in Awkar, Beirut, and ask the people about their experiences in the war and why they are applying to the US Green Card, that is worth investigating.
See you tomorrow at AUB :)

Vic van Meter:

Victoria,

It'd be hard to find something in print. We don't talk about peace between Israel and Palestine. It's not as big of a deal. I know Israel's dropped off the violence against neighbors in the past, and Egypt comes to mind right off the bat. The signing of the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty withdrew Israeli forces from the Sinai Peninsula and since then the Egyptians and Israelis have been cool but cordial. Part of that plan was to finally cool off the hotbed of violence between Israel and the PLO, but it was hard to play ball between the two. Egypt's treaty did weaken the PLO's status.

Jordan followed not long after in signing a treaty with Israel that normalized relations. That's not exactly a big eye-popper, though. Jordan went to war with the PLO and then afterwards normalized relations with Israel. I'd say that, even though relations between Israel and its neighbors can be cold, they can be made. And considering that both of these states were pretty much in a perpetual state of war with Israel before that, I'd say that Israel's definitely held up to those treaties as much as the neighbors opposite them on the table have.

Everyone in the world decried Israel's attack into Lebanon, with the United States trying to walk that careful line. But the truth is that a lot of what Israel is can't be overturned by international courts because, technically, they have the right.

It's the same reason Turkey has every international right to invade Iraq and kill the PKK. All Israel has to do is point to a few deadly attacks coming across the border, the people of said country doing nothing about it, and they are given free reign to attack. That's why I've said before that Hezbollah is part of the problem. It's not exactly that Israel's a very tranquil nation anyway, but the fact of the matter is that the presence of an assaulting force in Lebanon made the invasion legally possible. If there was no organization attacking Israel from within Lebanon's borders, I doubt Israel has any reason to attack Lebanon whatsoever (especially with the Lebanese showing a streak of independence and telling the Syrians where to shove it). Even if they did, though, they'd probably be stopped in a hurry. Israel depends on the UN a lot, so they likely wouldn't stir up trouble they don't have a legal reason to stew up, especially with Lebanon, which looked like it was headed in a pretty glorious direction.

Israel's not a peaceful nation, and they're almost more vehement about security than America is, but you can be sure that if there's a rabid pit bull living next door, I'll leave it alone when I work in my yard. I definitely don't let my friends go and poke at it with a stick.

And Jaber,

Define accurate. It's dificult to drop a ten-ton, laser-guided bomb into somebody's back pocket, but consider the alternatives. In World War II, Americans used to fly designated Flying Fortess bombers over German population centers and just rain incediaries on them. If America applied that kind of approach in Iraq, you'd have witnessed terrible death on a scale you can't likely dream up. I'm not saying they're perfect, but if I'm living next door to a military base, I'd prefer the new technology to the old technology. And don't get me started on our military. We'd do ourselves a big favor if we stopped putting so much money into strike-fighters and expect them to toss-bomb and just buy our designated bombers, which we use much more often and much more accurately. But take a look at Bush's last military spending plan. The idiot still doesn't get it.

Anyway, if you're looking for Israel to be a solution, you can ask for peace all you want. The point is that it strongly behooves Israel to be as scary as possible. The country is surrounded by a whole host of nations that, if they aren't actively looking to dismantle it, they have elements within them that are actively looking to do so. So Israel is faced with a dilemma. Being warlike means they're giving those opposing countries a lot of reasons to not like them. But please, for a second, everyone reading my posts thinking I'm some kind of sympathizer seriously consider what would happen if Israel lowered its guard.

Right now, no government in the region is seriously considering fighting Israel. Israel is packing American-grade weapons and they've shown that they can use them very efficiently against a conventional army (remember the Six-Days War). If Israel suddenly dropped its guard, yes, I'm assuming that a lot of people would be very happy about it. They would NOT line up to sign treaties of recognition with Israel. They would most likely not change their stance much, if in any way. What WOULD happen is that those people who can, at present, do little more than launching rockets over the border and wait until they run out of fuel, would suddenly be able to do more.

Israel has the nasty choice of playing offense and suffer the icy relations or defense and hoping they can ride out the explosions. So far they've erred to the side of the former. They might not have been America's child, but we're definitely the uncle that taught them how to hunt. Any country in the world knows how to play that game. Everyone wants to be on offense if they have the ability. And as long as the Israelis look like the craziest people in the Middle East, politically it cedes them the advantage.

And unfortunately for everyone, unless the Lebanese government decides to go after Hezbollah, the Israelis will ALWAYS have a reason to hit Lebanon.

Therein lies the conundrum, why this situation hasn't been solved before. Israel would probably like nothing better than to stop having to worry about where the bombs are coming from, but realistically they aren't likely to get that from simply being amenable. Those people bordering Israel are the ones that hate the Israelis' guts so much, and the terrorist organizations working to topple Israel are also the ones providing aid and picking up the pieces when Israel cuts loose the hounds. So Lebanon (and Palestine for that matter) have these very popular organizations within their borders who have made possible the very problem they are praised for solving.

If this sounds in any way familiar, Bush did it in Iraq. Fighting terrorism in Iraq wasn't such a big front until he rolled in and created a reason for these organizations to pop up or drive down. Now Iraq IS a front on the war on terror, and Bush wants praise and support for fighting the fight there. He just forgot, conveniently, that it was his own action there that made the problem that big in the first place.

Wartime politicians (Bush and Hamas are alike in this regard) can sometimes make a lot of political capital if they make a problem to solve. Telling Hamas to make peace with Israel, even if Israel wants to make peace with Palestine, is like asking an oil company to make a car that runs on water. It's not going to happen, especially not when the entire premise of their power is to fight Israel. For Hamas to hold power, they need a hostile Israel. So you're trying to ask two sides who have every interest in continuing to put up a strong face and fight to put down their arms and come to an agreement.

If this was some matter of an aggressor attacking a group of innocent people, this would be a no-brainer. But these are two "defenders" whose people have suffered because Hamas would lose a lot of support if it made peace with Israel, and Israel refuses to look weakened in front of their enemies. The ones who end up dying are the people in the middle, but common Israeli, Palestinian, and Lebanese citizens only know pain.

This is the hallmark of perpetual war, two sides that can't realistically yield. And if anyone really does want this to end, they're going to have to look at the roots of the problem, not the products. We can't be indignant over things that took place before most people living in the area were even born. If we REALLY want this to end, we have to dig down to the basest part of the problem and face it. And the basest problem is this:

Way too many people in power in this region are making gains because of this conflict. These sides will continue to go at it like dogs in a cage as long as the people in their respective countries take charity from warhawk Israeli conservatives and Hezbollah militants without recognizing that these two sides are what has created the very thing killing their friends and burning their homes.

And we'll be probably debating this way for a LOOONG time waiting for everyone to get off their high horses and recognize the most terrifying facts of humanity. Some people live for war. And those people are getting voted into office in these countries by citizens too afraid to face it.

leedogg:

Ask them, when America elects a new administration, what are some of the things they would like to see from the new leadership. What direction and/or role, if any, should we play over there?

Jaber the Q80 hillbilly:

Gentry,

America is a great place to live and the people are some of the most caring, charitable and good natured to ever walk this earth, i should know i lived there for over a decade and most of my friends are American; the reason why Americans need to care about how their country is perceived over seas has to do with the extent to which their foreign policy affects the lives of those people. Kuwait doesn't have much of a foreign policy, so people here don't really care how they're perceived.. though i think they should still care.. even though Kuwait is considered a major non-nato ally of the U.S., and as grateful as we are for U.S. intervention in 91, alot of people here are not too crazy about the effects of U.S. policy in the region.. which has something to do with the gas prices you pay at the pump these days..

That being said, America shouldn't care about everyone's feelings cause no matter what you do, someone out there ain't gonna like you.. but that doesn't mean that every aspect of U.S. policy is a positive one, nor does it mean that it will have a positive effect.. even though Americans have a chance, every four years, to wipe the slate and elect a new president, it doesn't mean that the policies enacted by previous presidents are forgotten in the countries they affect.. case in point, Iranians are still bitter about U.S. intervention in Iran to install the Shah's puppet regime.

Victoria,

you're right about why hamas was voted into power back then; and i don't mind :P

victoria:

good points hillbilly (im sorry, i just like saying it- hope you dont mind)

the hamas werent elceted because the palestinians wanted military might- (which they dont have) but because they delivered social services over a long time.

Gentry:

We're always supposed to care about how other countries perceive us, but most of those places could care less about how we see them...

Oddly, the more violent they are, the less they care.

Jaber the Q80 hillbilly:

hi vic,

going on the theme of fast food and stuff that explodes, i read somewhere that the u.s. has never attacked a country that has mcdonalds.. not sure if that's true, but it would be an interesting foreign policy for a country over here to avoid the laser guided bombs.. which by the way are not that accurate..

as you mentioned, hizballah is part of the problem and the solution, but israel is a bigger part of the problem and the solution is in it's own hands. israel is here to stay, and arab countries have to accept that, but israel also needs to take advantage of the opportunites that present a chance at peace; when hamas won a fair election, israel and western powers could've taken that as a sign from the palestinian people that they're not happy with fateh and want hamas to give it a shot (no pun intended); sure, those powers see hamas as a terrorist organization, but if you're not going to negotiate with your enemy how do you propose to reach any kind of peaceful agreement? by bombing them into submission? that'll breed more generations of disillusioned people with nothing left to lose.

you won't reach it by setting preconditions to negotiations, and cutting off the funds that sustain millions of palestinians.. the whole point of a negotiation is to see where both sides can find agreement. in that sense, israel was not sincere about peace. why would hamas agree to lay down arms ( a lengthy process to verify) and recognize israel's right to exist (whether hamas likes it or not, israel does exist, it's a silly symbolic gesture) before they could even get to a negotiation table? the table is where israel and hamas could've agreed on more points than the above two. israel was using a delay tactic to continue thumbing it's nose at internatinal law and u.n. resolutions by building more illegal settlements and a wall that encrouches on palestinian land.

hamas didn't even expect to win the election; they have no clue how to deal on the international stage the way fateh did in the past; this would've been the perfect opportunity to talk them into a more moderate position (including recognizing israel, and probably merging hamas fighters with the P.A. security forces) and maybe even a lasting peace. the next time democracy is touted by the west as the way to go in the middle east, it's going to fall on deaf ears.

peace y'all

victoria:

hi vic- ive got to disagree with your point on israel-

can you givean example of when israel let up on any aggression to it's neighbors to test the theory that militants would destroy them?

there have been many times in the history of palestine when they were passive, being promised some carrot that never materialized-

and held up to their bargain-

if you can find some time period, no matter how small- when there was no aggression from israel- id be interested to investigate it

id actualy be very happy to see it
im not kidding, i would-

i have a pretty strong and singular idea of the intentions of zionist colonialism- forged over many years of observation and paying close attention

i would be happy to be debunked- it would give me hope
peace


Vic van Meter:

Ahmad,

Hey, I think we can all agree to stay away from eating fast food every day of the week. But you can't hate McDonalds for that. As a college student, let me stand up for the company which gives me the opportunity to eat a meal that costs me a total of five minutes and five dollars on my way to school to work an all-nighter in studio.

McDonalds can give you food just about whenever and wherever you want. But it can't give you self-control. Obesity in America is on the rise not because McDonalds exists, but because people in America have lost control of their eating habits.

Yeah, but the bombs are a different story. Thank your god every day you live in the age you do, because 50 years ago, if Israel had found a reason to attack you, they could still carpet-bomb Lebanese civilian centers with impunity. We weren't using laser-guided smart bombs in Germany in World War II.

It must be wierd to live in Israel. If you do nothing, militants will destroy you. If you do something, you kill innocent civilians and cause billions in damage. If you stay in Israel, you have both of these options facing you. If you leave Israel, you leave all your family and friends you still have there.

It must be even stranger to be one of those neighbors. What do you do with the people who can stand up to the Israelis and, by doing so, call down airborne Hell on everyone? As I've often said, Hezbollah is the problem and the solution both, so what do you do with it?

Must be like what would happen if Bin Laden was given a colony in rocket range of San Francisco.

Beirut Spring:

I think the American University of Beirut is a great place to find a lot of people with very different backgrounds and opinions who can all speak English. If you're interested in where they hang out away from University, Check Café Prague near HSBC in Ras Beirut. For a different take, you can ask the USAID on the recent projects they financed in Lebanon, and interview people affected by them. It is also a must to go to Dahyeh, the southern suburb of Beirut that was bombed last year by Israel and ask people there (hint: they hate the US over there). For favorable opinions on the US, go to posh Sunni Areas in Beirut like Verdun and Qoreitem, or even better, Maronite towns like bekfayya and Rabieh. For more nuanced takes, go to Tripoli, a Sunni city with historic dislike of America but renewed openness because of politics.

http://www.beirutspring.com/

Ahmad from Beirut:

Well, the only direct effect of USA on lives can be spotted in Bliss Street and AUB (American University of Beirut). There are also the food chains such as Pizza Hut, etc. Finally, if you are lucky enough you can get in touch with someone who was granted a scholarship by USA and returned to Lebanon!
The negative effect of the American lifestyle might be spotted in the fast food chains such as McDonalds and Burger King.
The real negative effect of USA are the bombs used by Israel against Lebanese civilians. But it is not USA who is dropping the bombs; it is Israel!! So these deaths, handicaps, mutilations, etc. are indirectly made by USA.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Thanks Manuela! Yes, my friend Zvika from Newsweek told me everyone will have a strong opinion here, everyone, and so it is important to listen wisely. World Security Network looks quite interesting. I am checking it out now.

Manuela:

Good luck in Lebanon! I was there for few interviews in September (http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/topic_view3.cfm?TOPICID=42)
Take with a grain of salt whatever you'll hear from the politicians. Most will tell you what they think you want to hear. Talk with the people and go see the South, Dahieyh and Beqaa. You'll have plenty of stories on your hand.

Manuela:

Good luck in Lebanon! I was there for few interviews in September (http://www.worldsecuritynetwork.com/topic_view3.cfm?TOPICID=42)
Take with a grain of salt whatever you'll hear from the politicians. Most will tell you what they think you want to hear. Talk with the people and go see the South, Dahieyh and Beqaa. You'll have plenty of stories on your hand.

Vic van Meter:

I'm actually really interested to see how the locals view Hezbollah. The conflict of Israel brought up one HUGE contradiction that I could see. Their actions gave Israel a window of action that brought on an invasion. So they are a big part of the Lebanese problem. Unfortunately, after the Israeli attack and pullout, they managed to help restore the country to something resembling normal. So they were also the solution.

They are both the problem and the solution. And the whole question of the future of Lebanon rests on how exactly the Lebanese deal with the contradiction. How do they activate the positive aspects of the movement without suffering the consequences of the negative?

Do the Lebanese accept the help as well as the antagonizing of Israel (much like beating a very angry beehive with a stick), do they largely shy away from Hezbollah and thus cut themselves off of the stabalizing elements of the organization and its monetary contacts? Or do they feel that the organization must be modified and have an opinion on how this can be done?

And is there really any option? Who can stand in Lebanon independently and dictate to all the countries trying to pull the strings? Who can play America, Iran, Israel, and Syria all off against each other and make the biggest gains while suffering the fewest setbacks? Is there any candidate who can play that balancing act?

victoria:

as much as it may draw out the haters and islamophobes amar-
id really like to see a regular persons view of hezbollah in lebanon,
i guess its foolish to ask about opinions on israel-
also, the economic disparity of the lebanese would be interesting to explore a bit

has the syrian withdrawal affected their security?

i hope you get some chirstian perpsectives


how do they view the french and
most importantly- are there any pollsters there and do they think they can have a free election?

Jaber the Q80 hillbilly:

U.S. policy is often seen as being inconsistent here in the Middle East; find out what Lebanon's experience is in that regard. Get a translator and hit the mountain villages, don't just focus on Beirut.

AUB is always a good place to go for opinions and commentary. Do the night life thing; hit the clubs and find out what the younger generations think. Contact the ICRC and get the refugee/political detainee angle. Seek out Americans that've lived there for a while and are involved in the local scene, and get their input.

Spend a little time in southern Beirut and get the hizballah angle; with a name like Amar, it should make things a bit easier. Try to relax and just do your thing, don't let the tanks and nasrallah posters freak you out. The Lebanese people are among the most resilient in the world, they've never let tanks or bombs get in the way of partying hard and enjoying life. Don't get me wrong, they're sick of the turmoil but they are defiant in their attitudes.

if all else fails, tell them you're Canadian! :P hope this helps, have fun!

Jaber the Q80 hillbilly:

U.S. policy is often seen as being inconsistent here in the Middle East; find out what Lebanon's experience is in that regard. Get a translator and hit the mountain villages, don't just focus on Beirut.

AUB is always a good place to go for opinions and commentary. Do the night life thing; hit the clubs and find out what the younger generations think. Contact the ICRC and get the refugee/political detainee angle. Seek out Americans that've lived there for a while and are involved in the local scene, and get their input.

Spend a little time in southern Beirut and get the hizballah angle; with a name like Amar, it should make things a bit easier. Try to relax and just do your thing, don't let the tanks and nasrallah posters freak you out. The Lebanese people are among the most resilient in the world, they've never let tanks or bombs get in the way of partying hard and enjoying life. Don't get me wrong, they're sick of the turmoil but they are defiant in their attitudes.

if all else fails, tell them you're Canadian! :P hope this helps, have fun!

Jaber the Q80 hillbilly:

A common refrain over here in the Middle East is that U.S. policy is not consistent, so you could ask about Lebanon's experience in that regard. Do the night life thing, hit the clubs and seek out the younger generation's opinions and views. Contact the ICRC and get the refugee/political detainee angle.

Get a translator and hit the mountain villages, don't just focus on Beirut. AUB is always a place to go for opinion; you could talk to professors and students. Don't just focus on Lebanese people, seek out Americans who've lived there for a while and are engaged in the local scene, and get their input.

Finally, if this is your first trip to Lebanon, try not to let the tanks and nasrallah poster get to you; the Lebanese people are among the world's most resilient, they party hard and enjoy life regardless of who's in power and how many tanks line the streets. hope that helps, and have fun!

victoria:

dont forget to say your prayers amar

peace

Metin Talks Turkey, Newport Beach, CA:

I am truly sorry that you have to endure Lebanon (the past 'Paris' of the Middle East) after leaving Istanbul (the current 'Paris' of the Near East) . . .

When are you coming to California?. . . and write about how 'we' perceive America (or the rest of America from the eyez of La-La land) . . .

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