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Monday, August 13, 2007

Springtime for Osama and Nasrallah: the banality of evil and ordinary people

In Daily Star, Rami Khouri writes about The epic story of Arab ordinariness. His complaint is that the Arabs are really very ordinary and nice people, and it is only Western journalists who manage to seek out and find every little fault:
...I was able to contrast this Western news-anchored view of a troubled Middle East with the personal experiences of two graduate student friends of our sons who came to the Middle East for a two-week vacation this month.
They visited four different corners of the Arab world - Dubai, Beirut, South Lebanon and Damascus...
The experiences of our American friends and the coverage of these regions in the mainstream American and Western press are as different as night and day. On the ground in the region, the visitor sees and experiences the full range of issues that define contemporary Arab society, the good and the bad together: extremism and compassion, suspicion and hospitality, destruction and construction, tension and relaxation, political concerns and the assertion of a powerful humanism, anger at American policy but also a warm embrace of individual Americans.

Especially in places like Damascus, Beirut and South Lebanon, visitors from abroad experience the nuances and subtleties of daily life, political sentiments and social-cultural dynamics that unfortunately are largely missing from the global media's reporting on our region.
Global reporting about the Middle East has presented it almost exclusively as an arena of aberration and violence, seen primarily through the lens of conflict and extremism, emotionalism, exaggerated religiosity, and deep ethnic or religious prejudice. The underlying human rhythms, prevailing moral norms, and routine cultural and political values of the 500 million or so Arabs, Iranians, Kurds and Turks are not presented accurately or fully.
Rami, people can get used to anything, and when they do, they consider it, and themselves to be "ordinary." I wonder if you are acquainted with the story, "The Lottery," by Shirley Jackson. It is about a town that holds a lottery each year. A very ordinary town with ordinary people. They have always held this lottery. It is a custom. Each year they choose one person to be stoned to death. For them, it is "ordinary." For you, dictatorships, terrorism, gangsterism, assassination, religious fanaticism and racism are just part of the scenery.
After all, what could be wrong in a place like Damascus, which hatches plots to murder foreign polticians? Beirut and South Lebanon are so ordinary. Isn't it the case that opposition politicians are murdered on a fairly regular basis in every country? Doesn't every country have a region of dug-in military fortifications manned by gangster religious fanatics who participate in the government? Doesn't every ethnic group in the world take it into their heads, once in a while, to lob suicide bombing kidnapped airplanes at skyscrapers? And of course, in Paris and New York and even in Tel Aviv and Moscow, it is clear that once in a while the powers that be decide to wipe out the opposition, cut them up into steaks and send them to their families. Aren't most leaders elected in one-candidate elections? Doesn't everyone in the world have a copy of Protocols of the elders of Zion?
And let us not neglect this too:
... prevailing moral norms, and routine cultural and political values of the 500 million or so Arabs, Iranians, Kurds and Turks are not presented accurately or fully
Consider the prevailing moral norms in Iran, where homosexuals are hanged, as an example. It is an ordinary sort of thing entirely. I don't know why you dragged the Turks and  Kurds into this, as they do seem to be ordinary and decent people by most standards, and the Iranians, while not too ordinary, are not Arabs either. Unfortunately there are extremists in Turkey and problems between Turkey and Kurds, and these must be reported as news. "Ahmed and his friends had breakfast today and discussed the football results" is not news, so it doesn't get reported. "Ahmed and his friends got blown to kingdom come while discussing the football scores" is more likely to be reported.
If you live in stench for a long time, you get used to the smell. Tom Friedman recounted the tale of the Beirut housewife, who, during the civil war, asked her guests whether they preferred to have dinner now, or wait until after the evening gunfire. You get used to everything. For you Rami, this sort of thing is normal apparently.
There is a Hebrew joke, perhaps originally Arabic or Russian, who knows? - with a universal message: 
"Baby snake asks mamma snake, 'Am I venomous too'?" Everyone thinks they are ordinary and every society thinks that what they do is ordinary. After all, they eat, they work, they sleep, they raise children. The wife of the Reichsfuhrer SS who knitted socks for the Winter Hilfe to help the boys on the front considered herself an ordinary person, and the mother of the suicide bomber is an ordinary person, and the mothers of Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir as well. And all these ordinary people admire the "ordinary" deeds of their monstrous sons. Stalin was a regular sort of fellow too. The ante-bellum USA southland was really an ordinary place, with high moral values, except for the detail that they had African slaves.  
Why indeed are Western journalists persecuting the poor Arabs for no reason? Perhaps you should write a musical, "Springtime for Bin-Laden, a romp with Osama and the gang in Bora-Bora."
Ami Isseroff

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