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The view from Bader Sharabati's hill

[Times photo: Cherie Diez ]
In his St. Petersburg tobacco store, Smoke Cheap, Bader Sharabati chats with a customer. Sometimes the conversation across the counter turns into a discussion about Palestinians, Israelis and human perception.
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By ELIJAH GOSIER, Times Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 2, 2002

It is almost too obvious to say, but our view of the world is determined by the vantage point from which we observe it.

The billionaire looks out the window of his mansion and sees a couple of acres of lush, landscaped grounds; his lawn man looks out the window of his truck and sees a day of tedious, hot work. The storyteller sees the detailed recounting of his experience as witty and entertaining; his listener sees it as self-indulgent and boring.

What we see depends on where we are. Obvious, but hard to admit sometimes. Especially for the 290-million of us peering at the world from the hill named America. We look at the world and see a montage of peculiar rituals and traditions; they look at the same thing and see normal people going about their normal lives.

That is why Bader Sharabati's passions have been bubbling to the surface lately, sometimes spilling over to customers who walk into his Smoke Cheap tobacco store at 3110 First Ave. N in St. Petersburg. He is frustrated with Americans' peephole view of the Middle East and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Sharabati, 32, is Palestinian, born in Jordan. He came to the United States when he was 19 to attend the University of Arkansas. His grandparents, parents, four brothers and two sisters are still in Jordan.

His discount prices on cigarettes bring a cross section of the city into his store, where the aroma of incense makes the air heavy and Sharabati's intensity often does the same with discussion.

Talk often turns to the crisis in the Middle East.

"I'm a news junkie," Sharabati declares proudly. Between customers, he checks the Internet, reading from the Jerusalem Post and watching CNN. At home, satellite allows him access to as many as eight overseas broadcasts, including al-Jazeera.

When his phone rings, it is likely to be a relative calling from Jordan, as his brother did one afternoon last week.

He says his connection to Jordan and the Middle East gives him a perspective his customers don't enjoy. He is more than happy to share.

"Having lived in both places (Jordan and the United States), I think I have an advantage," he says.

He uses it effectively. Customers who begin with declarations often leave with points for reconsideration tucked into their pocket alongside the pack of discounted cigarettes.

"If I go to your house and say that my father lived there 70 years ago for five years and now I want it back, do you welcome me with open arms?" he asks a customer who has remained after paying for his cigarettes.

The customer concedes the only sensible answer.

That is what the Israelis have done to Palestinians, he presses forward.

"Do you welcome tanks with flowers? Do you welcome Apache helicopters with flowers?" Again, the answers are obvious and Sharabati drives his nail a little deeper.

"It is different there than here. The land means more back home than it does here. There land is sacred. When it is taken from you, you get desperate."

And, he says, it doesn't matter that God promised the land to you when your God is not mine.

"When the land is taken from you and settlements are built and Jews from everywhere -- New York, Argentina, Russia -- are asked to come live there while the Palestinians are living in refugee camps, you get desperate," he says, still leaving little room for debate.

"Terrorism? What's terrorism? I believe occupation is the greatest terrorism in the world. It takes your dignity. When military forces occupy Palestine, it terrorizes the people under occupation every minute of their lives."

The discussions, though passionate, don't become angry. Many of Sharabati's customers are regulars who joke with him and call him Patrick, the name he chose so Americans would have an easier time. He says Patrick was the name he found that came closest to the sound of Bader, which he pronounces as the grammatically nonexistent badder but translates as a phase of the moon.

Attempts to counter Sharabati's points generally wilt under the assertion that American media are biased in favor of the Israelis.

"But isn't your media also biased?" a customer asks defensively.

"Yes," Sharabati responds unhesitatingly.

"Aren't Palestinians brainwashed by their biased media?" the customer tries to build on the little victory.

"When you see kids being killed, you don't have to be brainwashed. When you see checkpoints, you don't need to be brainwashed. When you see kids being arrested for no reason, you don't have to be brainwashed," he said. "Those same people who think negatively about the Palestinians should see what we see on our media."

That is where whatever resolve the customer might have had crumbles. That is where several customers abandoned the debate and became students. It is hard to hold fast to an opinion when the foundation of that opinion, the information on which it is based, is cast into doubt.

"At least be fair on the body count," Sharabati said. "Tell us how many Palestinian homes were destroyed, how much land was taken. Show us that Palestinians are human beings, too. Don't just say that three Palestinians were killed. Don't they see that's three lives, three families, three aspirations, three dreams."

The American media does that with Jewish casualties, he said; their bodies are showed beside open books and other everyday objects that reveal the innocence of the life that was taken. With Palestinians, he said, the casualty report is usually just a number.

Sharabati, an American citizen who offered his services after Sept. 11 when investigators asked for volunteers who could translate Arabic, said Palestinians' view of Americans is formed by the same lack of information.

"The Arab world does not know how decent the American people are. They do not know that Americans mind their business and nothing else. But what they see from the U.S. foreign policy makes it hard for them to see Americans as unbiased," he said.

There are those who will read this as pro-Palestine or anti-Israel. It is not pro or anti any of the little hills that make up the world.

This is pro listening, anti hasty judgments. It is pro acknowledging that our world is made up of many peoples living on different hills, from which each has a different view of the rest of the world.

This is anti seeing some of those hills as inherently evil and some as inherently good, as our president does. That notion perverts the meaning of the word evil and converts innocent lives into acceptable targets.

This is about a little store in St. Petersburg, Fla., that offers cigarettes at a discount and a free view of a part of the world that was too far away to matter to many of us before Sept. 11.

From here, you not only see the hill, you see the faces of the people who live and die on it, you hear their hearts beat.

Then you pay for your cigarettes and walk out the door, making room for the schoolteacher, or the guy with the truck pulling the trailer of landscaping equipment, or the cab driver.

But, sad to say, no world leaders.

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