Tuesday, January 24, 2012

American Clueless

"About 18 months before I arrived in Iraq, one of my predecessors had ordered My Arabic Library, $88,000 worth of books, an entire shipping container. My Arabic Library was a Bush-era, US government-wide project to translate American books, so we now have Tom Sawyer, The House of the Seven Gables, and Of Mice & Men in Arabic. The Embassy had big plans for the books, claiming, 'It is so important that the children of Baghdad, the next generation of leaders of Iraq, obtain basic literacy skills. A love of learning and literacy will mean better job opportunities for them when they grow up. They will be able to better support their families and help build a more prosperous Iraq'.

"Everyone forgot about the books until we learned that a truck was bringing them in from Jordan. After our prayers that the driver would abandon the truck en route failed, my team was stuck with the problem of what to do with a container of books that no one wanted. Apparently, there was little interest among Iraqi schools in reading The Crucible or Moby-Dick, as the books didn't fit into their centralized curriculum. I was charged with getting rid of them, to anywhere; the lucky winner needed only a truck. We cajoled a nearby school to take the whole mess from us as a personal favor. Their only condition was that they would not have to do the loading themselves, so that is how a couple of us ended up humping books into a flatbed truck while a high school principal and a local truck driver sat in the shade smoking, watching us. We heard later from a third party that, failing to sell the books on the black market, the principle just dumped them behind the school." (We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts & Minds of the Iraqi People, Peter Van Buren, 2011, p 1)

"The newspaper men to whom I talked in Syria were particularly difficult. They were bitterly nationalistic and bitterly opposed to Israel and they badgered me with questions about why I should support the Israeli cause. 'The Balfour resolution [sic] for establishment of a Jewish homeland was accepted by the United States and Great Britain after the First World War', I usually replied. 'This action encouraged the buying of land by the Jews on the assurance that a homeland would be created for them in Palestine. I feel that it practically committed our government to assist in the creation of a government there eventually, because there cannot be a homeland without a government'. The Syrian reporters were never satisfied with this answer and the most I ever persuaded them to admit was that I was honestly expressing my point of view. That, however, obviously did not mean to them that I was entitled to a point of view on this controversial and important subject.

"One evening in Damascus we had dinner with the head of of the Syrian foreign office in a kind of night club and restaurant. There were a number of guests and I noticed that a handsome, uniformed man who sat opposite me at the table seemed to be someone of importance. 'Who is that gentleman?' I asked the man sitting next to me in a low voice. He looked startled and raised his finger to his lips. 'That', he said in a whisper, 'is the dictator of Syria, General Fawzi Selo'.

"The General seemed to have little to say and did not even speak to me during the meal, so I paid no more attention. But after dinner, with no preliminaries but with the air of a man accustomed to giving commands, he walked around to me and said: 'Madame, you have been very friendly to Israel'. 'Yes', I replied, 'I am friendly to all. I am equally friendly to your people'. 'But', he persisted with some sign of irritation, 'you have worked for Israel!' 'That is true', I said. 'When I think a thing is good, I also think it should be given help'. He did not reply, but he stared at me with what I thought was anger. Then he turned on his heel and, without another word, walked away." (On My Own, Eleanor Roosevelt, 1959, pp 119-121)

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