Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Walls and More Walls

In particular focus, in a tizzy for some, the second morning of the conference began inside a cordon of determined, if amused, security guards. Because every women had to be inside the Grand Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt by 8 A.M., we knew that this morning was the day Queen Rania would spend some time with us. Therefore, with polite attention, but perhaps without much anticipation we turned to our first session "The Future of the Arab World." Our panelists sitting politely and with poise on the podium sofas were six young Arabs: Mohamed Al Bashir, a young man off to Georgetown Law School next year; Enas Abu Shasheih, a young woman who works for Netcorps Jordan; Talar Karakashian, a young woman who is an electronics engineer; Nada El Khoury, a female lawyer from Beirut; Nour Kleibo, a Palestinian young man studying business at Birzeit University in the West Bank; and Mariam Al-Musttaf, an Iraqui refugee, former translator in Iraq, and mother of two.

The female moderator, Laith Al-Qasem, a member of the Young Arab Leaders, Jordan and CEO of Arabian Business Consultants for Development, began the questioning. "Enas, why do you wear the hajab?" (Indeed the young businesswoman wears conservative attire and a wrapped headscarf.)

Enas: "I am lucky to be a Muslim lady who can represent Islam in a nice way. . . . The hajab is something that has never stopped me from doing anything." She emphasizes that the headscarf is her choice. (This is a common attitude among young Arab women who choose traditional dress.)

Moderator: "Mariam, what has the toppling of Sadam done for Iraq?"

Mariam: "With Sadam, we knew how to avoid his evil. But now we have no peace and stability." Mariam, who also wears the wrapped headscarf and traditional attire, becomes agitated. "There are increasing orphans and alienated people. The alienated people! . . . a sectarian war now. I insist we get rid of the intruder." Her reply has verged on incoherence, but we all know what she means.

Moderator: "Nour, will there ever be normal relationships with Israel?"

Nour: "We can't be partners when there is shooting every day. . . . I don't have anything against Israelis, but the Israeli government. . . . You have to understand, the wall is destroying us. This is not a virtual wall, like you talk about here [in the conference]. And I have to say that ninety percent of Palestinian youth are against normalization [of relations with Israel]." The young man's disposition is calm, even laid-back.

After asking the young Lebanese lawyer Nada something non-specific about Lebanon, the moderator turns to Talar, a willowy and vivacious young woman in a western-style pants suit.

Moderator: "What is it like to be a Christian Armenian living in an Arab land?"

Talar: "Jordan is home, and that's all I know." She turns to Enas sitting next to her. "Enas is one of my closest friends." Talar goes on to talk about her grandfather's escape from the Armenian genocide (Turkey itself never mentioned) and subsequent settling in Jordan. "I go to church every week. . . . At Christmas, my Muslim friends come caroling with us. At Easter, the children hunt eggs together." (Talking about the session later, many women would come away with a particularly favorable impression of Talar.)

Moderator: "Mohamed, you are off to Georgetown."

Mohamed: "It's time to see an international country that accepts differences. . . . I am going to live the American dream, experience the American freedom. . . . As my friend Nissreen Haram keeps telling me, 'dialogue is the best way for people to learn.' I am looking forward to the dialogue." (Note to readers that Nissreen Haram is the feisty, impassioned and articulate young woman who vented about American women's obsession with sharia the day before.)

Having scratched the surface of familiar if wide territory with her questions, the moderator now opens the questioning to the ladies of the audience. A young woman from Amman takes the mike. "I hear a lot of the victim voice," she says in a tone of reproach.

I am surprised by the comment, for I have not heard any such thing, even from Mariam of Iraq. And with quintessential Arab politeness, the young panelists respond. Enas has been working with the Bedouin of Wadi Rumm. Mohamed, in the disarming mode we have come to expect from him, says that we have to understand that their schooling has not prepared them for speaking before five hundred people [chuckles from audience] and they are not accustomed to putting themselves forward. Nour says, "victimized?--probably." He goes on to mention briefly Seeds for Peace, his organization that brings together young Palestinians and young Israelis. With the last word, the moderator defends her panelists. "You are all pro-active. Or you wouldn't be here."

Now the moderator asks if we ladies would like for her to continue with the questions or open up the questioning further to the floor. We ladies shout for the moderator to continue. Our experience of questions from IWF members has often not been a postive one (and I will have much more to say on this topic in a later blog), so we vociferously try to overrule the woman who begins to test the volume of the microphone. However, the questioner already has the mike.

IWF Member from Israel: "Why are there no Israeli young people on the stage?" There are a few murmurs of approval for the question among the audience, although most of the audience is silent, for the question is immediately followed by a spate of platforming and the statement of personal opinion, instead of the requested questions, to which we frequently have been subjected.

Ignoring the impassioned statement of the Israeli position on the Palestinian Question, the moderator turns to charming Talar with an anodyne remark about women coping in the largely-male field of engineering. Then in a reply to some question from the moderator, Mariam says that she is enrolling her two children in a Christian school in Amman. An indicator of the unreleased tension in the room is the fact that I do not have among my notes the actual question for Mariam that elicits this surprising reply.

In oblique reply to the Israeli IWF-er's political statement, Nada from Beirut says that young Lebanese don't want to listen to what's going on. "We youth--we're sick of t.v. and news and politics." Some of the other panelists agree, including Nour, even though he dispassionately admits, almost in an aside, that "some of my friends are martyrs."

Moderator: "Turning to the issue of globalization, does it contribute to a dilution of national pride, a simplified fabric of life, does it make life more plain and dull."

Nada: "I think it [globalization] helps me find my identity." In her disagreement with the moderator, the young lawyer from Beirut talks about blogs.

Mohamed: "I want to be able to get a McDonald's meal, you know?"

Despite Mohamed's amusing reply, the word martyrs hovers in the Grand Ballroom. Perhaps sensing that she no longer has her audience's complete attention, the moderator addresses the ladies directly.

Moderator: "All of us are speaking in English, for your benefit."

The room at large seems to acknowledge this linguistic largesse, and after a round of replies to the moderator's question about West learning from East, the moderator again opens the questioning to the ladies. Alejandra, a young guest from Mexico City who will begin medical school at Goucher in the fall, takes the mike.

Alejandra: "What do you want from western youth?"

After a series of general comments, it is Nour's turn. He reiterates the distinction he makes between the Israeli people and their government. He says, "I have no problem with Israelis--we are all human." Nour's body language and tone of voice suggest that he is telling the truth. Continuing, desultorily at first, he speaks in more detail about his life and returns to the subject of the Wall.

Nour: "A wall twelve meters long keeps me from visiting my friend who lives one meter away." Nour goes on. "East Jerusalem, it is a prison--and we are separated from Palestinians in other areas. In July a new law goes into effect requiring a permit to go to the West Bank. Already I get up at 4 A.M. to reach school [in the West Bank] at 7:30. Now it will get worse. And I--I even have an Israeli I.D. Other people just have permits."

Nada: "We need to focus more on education. It is the challenge of youth."

The fact that the young Beirut lawyer has turned the question around, focusing not on what Arab youth want but on what they must do, is interesting and revealing. However, the import of her reply is lost on me at the time because the room is growing restive, as if something unheard and unseen, but a presence nevertheless, has entered the room. A young Palestinian IWF Guest steps to the mike and addresses Nour.

Young Palestinian Woman: "Are actions on the ground by Israel showing Palestinians they [Israelis] want peace?"

Nour: "Even if it is not on the news every day, every day people are late to work and school." He cannot let go of the Wall.

In the restive room, Mrs. Brown from New Jersey takes the mike. In a stentorian voice, she launches into the me-me-me-who I am-my views platforming some of us ladies have come to dread. She addresses the panelists, three of whom are Jordanians (four if you now count Mariam the Iraqi refugee), as parties to the conflict under discussion. She does not differentiate, she does not acknowledge that Jordan has a peace treaty with Israel. Surely, she knows as much, but in her haste to make her point she unintentionally insults the Jordanians on the panel. At the end of her speech, however, she asks a good, pointed question.

Mrs. Brown: "Do you want to make peace with Israel? Each of you, yes or no--that's all I want, let's go down the row, yes or no, each of you."

Mohamed's reply is lost in the scattered applause, the swell of conversation as ladies turn to their table companions to exchange comments sotto voce.

Enas: "That is the hardest question I have ever had to answer." She pauses. "I want peace, but the answer is no."

Nada: "Yes."

Talar: "Yes."

Nour: "Conditional yes, with 1967 borders."

Mariam: "Yes." She thinks a minute. "Conditional, with rights."

Trying to absorb the no from the friendly and reasonable young business executive, we ladies turn to hear Paula, an IWF-er from northern Ireland, who incidentally is one of my new friends, or perhaps "friendly acquaintances," I should say.

Paula: "In northern Ireland we worked it out, and in that way, have any of you [panelists] thought about entering a political party?"

The room thrums with bits of conversation. Northern Ireland, good example. What does she know . . . Lebanon . . . Syria. Paula's question has received different responses, East and West. Amid the tension, and with my curiosity to hear what is being said around me, I record none of the replies from the panel except one.

Nour: "Most of my friends are trying to do just that."

The moderator brings the session quickly to a close. Walking to the hall for coffee break, I run into Paula, in tears. Surprised, because Paula has the tough resilience of a seasoned politician, nevertheless, I put my arm around her shoulder. It seems that one of the IWF-ers from the Bahamas verbally laid into Paula as soon as the session ended. Paula does not repeat what the woman said, but she is shaken and cannot quickly recover her composure.

The hall has filled with Jordanian secret service and police, for Queen Rania is about to descend the staircase into the hall outside the Grand Ballroom. We ladies jockey for position, cameras primed. The earlier tension evaporates. Euphoria reigns. The lovely Rania claims us, if just for a moment.

Final note. If in somewhat pedestrian fashion, I have tried to give you a blow-by-blow account of this particular session. One thing only the writers of the books on the reading list for the conference agree: there can be no solution for any Middle Eastern problem without first the return of the West Bank to the Palestinian people. Secondly, the United States must discontinue its unconditional support for Israel. I have been surprised that the Arabs with whom I have spoken understand our underlying good intentions even as they deplore our invasion of Iraq. They know our generosity and idealism and like us for those qualities. Certainly, in Jordan people appreciate our financial aid and our free trade agreement (the U.S has a free trade agreement with only four countries) and have told us conferees that many times. Many of the Arabs here at the conference either attended or teach at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo (both founded by American missionaries in the nineteenth century). In short, the Arabs I have met honor everything Americans have done for them and do not seem hung up on notions of colonialism in the way some of the reading list's authors are. That being said, all is for nothing without the return of the West Bank to the Palestinians.

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