My colleagues and I were, as usual, sharing a taxi back from work this evening, and chatting about some harmless subject related to our teaching. I had given the directions to the cab driver in Arabic, though he insisted on speaking to us in his very broken English. About half way into Amman, he asked, “You American?”
Before I could reply, John jumped right in. “No, no. British. Well, British and American. Two British, one American.”
The cab driver said, “No like America.” He had to say it twice before we understood it. There was a moment of silence before John turned to Martha and continued whatever innocuous conversation we’d been having. I don’t know how they felt, but I felt extremely awkward.
What’s a girl to say? I ask this as a rhetorical question, but it’s not really rhetorical. What is a girl supposed to say to that? I’m not going to say, “I don’t like America, either,” even though that’s how my Nana thinks I feel. I do like America. I’m a big fan of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence, George Washington and the two-term presidency, Ralph Waldo Emerson and “The American Scholar,” Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Dream, John F. Kennedy and the Peace Corps, and the other noble ideals with which the United States of America has been built. I wouldn’t want to have been born anywhere else, because being an American opens doors to me that aren’t open to so many other people around the world.
But I sympathize with America’s detractors. A friend asked me today why my G-chat status message read “Maryah can fly her country’s flag again with a clear conscience.” I’ve never been a great fan of patriotic gestures, but since 9/11 and the dictatorial, damn-the-consequences cowboy diplomacy of the Bush Administration, I’ve shuddered every time I’ve seen an ostentatious show of American patriotism. For the last seven years, the United States hasn’t had a government I could be proud of, or that I even really wanted to be associated with.
But today on BBC I’ve seen clips of President Obama’s appearance on Al-Arabiya television network, saying that too often America dictates what other countries should do without knowing all the relevant factors, and that this new administration is prepared to listen first, and not make decisions until all the factions have been consulted. (Much has been made of the fact that he still won’t talk to Hamas, but he does support Egypt’s talks with Hamas, and we can’t expect too much so soon.) I can’t tell you how impressed I am that our new president, despite the pressing domestic issues like economic crisis, health care, lobbying reform and transparency reform, has taken the time out of his very first week in office to address the Arab people directly, and in such self-effacing tones. In addition, I’ve been listening to the Secretary of the Arab League and other regional spokespersons express their delight at the appointment of George Mitchell as the Obama Administration’s Middle East Envoy, and praise him as someone who listens. Finally, the United States has leadership that I can believe in, that I am comfortable being associated with.
Good for you. Whenever I said, “American” in Yemen, people would look at me, shake their heads, and say, “No, no, you aren’t American.” When I asked them how they would know, they’d reply, “You do not look American.”>>-CHRIS