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At afternoon tea in Lebanon, families learn there is more to America than domination

Published October 31, 2004

Afternoon tea has been a tradition in my family for as long as I remember. At 4 p.m., men and women of all ages stop by our home in Srifa in southern Lebanon to drink tea and discuss religion and politics. From our eastern terrace, Israel's northern border is visible just 11 miles away.

The gathering takes a different dimension when I visit from America. People come to hear stories about the United States, freedom and the American way of life. This summer, however, the reception was different. They came to talk about the U.S. presidential election and their strong resentment toward America's leadership and foreign policy in the Middle East.

I listened as guests complained about the invasion of Iraq and the current guerrilla war. They voiced disappointment about torture at the hands of Americans in Iraqi prisons. And, of course, they complained that Israel or Israel's friends in Washington are responsible for the invasion and for the rest of the mess that has befallen the Arabs.

In this part of the world, everyone has strong opinions about politics and religion, and conspiracy theories are abundant. In the minds of some who attended the tea, the American presidential election already has been decided: The Israel lobby in Washington selected President Bush for a second term because of his overwhelming support for Israel, and the rest is all theatrics.

If John Kerry wins, according to this line of thinking, it can only mean that the Israel lobby has another, bigger scheme to extract favors from the new president.

Even my mother, who rarely gets involved in political discussions, was talking about theAmerican presidential election with the neighbors as they rolled stuffed grape leaves. She remarked that if Bush is re-elected and invades Syria and Lebanon next year, my sister would have to buy wheat from the market because it would be difficult for the family to harvest the fields during a war.

It is no coincidence that most people would see the American election in terms of Israel. They see American foreign policy in the Middle East and Israel's objectives intertwined, making it difficult to separate the two. The Bush administration has maintained an unusual silence as Ariel Sharon continues his plan to deny Palestinians a homeland, an issue that has dominated the Middle East for more than 50 years.

The majority of people here fear the war in Iraq will send shock waves throughout the area, bringing even more chaos to an already unstable region. A small number of people on the religious right are convinced that Bush is waging a religious war against Islam, or a crusade, a phrase the president used in 2001 after the Sept. 11 attack.

Although this group displayed the most resentment toward the United States, it believes Bush's faith-based invasion and foreign policy ultimately help fundamentalist Islam. Clans and government officials express concerns that if the United States somehow succeeds in bringing democracy to the Middle East, they might lose their grip on power and face a mutiny.

"Who elected the Americans guardians of freedom?" one member of Parliament asked.

And there are the intellectuals, tantalized by the few flickers of freedom appearing in the Middle East. But somehow they do not trust the United States either. They complain the United States continues to protect the ruling families of oil-rich states and supports regimes riddled with human rights violations, such as Hosni Mubarak's in Egypt.

The United States cannot create democracy in the Middle East at gunpoint, they argue; it has to come from within.

Although I have my differences with the current American foreign policy in the Middle East, I did not express my opinion. But I felt the urge to defend my country. The challenge was to turn resentment to curiosity. So, I began describing the freedom Muslims in America enjoy, practicing their religion and preserving their culture.

I talked about how my Christian co-workers refrain from eating near my desk during Ramadan, the month of fasting for Muslims, how they respect the fact that I do not eat pork and I do not drink alcohol, and how often I am asked to speak at churches about Islam.

I also told stories about how compassionate Americans are, rallying around each other during tough times, supporting the troops but not necessarily the war in Iraq, taking vacations to build homes for the poor and adopting children form poor countries to give them better lives. At first, I thought people were nodding to me out of politeness, but when they asked for more stories and had questions, I felt relieved.

Even my father - the town's religious leader - confided to me late one evening that "it seems that there is more to Americans than just wanting to control the world." He winked and added, "Be nice to people, so they will continue to be nice to you."

That was his way of finally accepting my decision to become an American citizen and live in the United States, a thought he had rejected for the 22 years I have been away. As I traveled around Beirut, I found American movies and music dominated the airwaves, long lines spilled out of McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants, and many people who wanted to speak English.

I also noticed how crowded the two Starbucks cafes in Beirut were with young men and women who came to sip coffee and speak English. They came to get a taste of America. At the end of the two-week trip, I came to realize the resentment against the United States centers around the leadership, and restoring America's image might not require an elaborate plan. The fascination is not with how many missiles America has, or the number of wars fought.

It's the compassion, tolerance, freedom and opportunity - it's the simple American stories that reach hearts across continents and make America special.

Khalil E. Hachem was born in Lebanon and immigrated to the United States 22 years ago. He graduated from the University of South Florida with a political science degree, is a former Times reporter and is currently a journalist in Michigan.

[Last modified October 31, 2004, 00:56:31]


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