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Documentary : On the Road Again: Life as a Mideast Reporter : * The memories of the last three years remain as vivid as the numerous cities visited, from Kuneitra to Baghdad.

April 14, 1992|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AMMAN, Jordan — Out in the Jordanian desert, an inhospitable mix of scrub, sand and black basalt rubble from some prehistoric volcanism, a solitary Arab stood on a ridge off the road to Baghdad. A light breeze tossed the red-checked kaffiyeh covering his head. If he was herding goats, they could not be seen. No Bedouin tent stood nearby, no car or motorcycle. He was utterly alone.

"I've seen this a hundred times over the years," a veteran Mideast correspondent told her colleagues as their van sped past. "There they are, hours from anywhere. What are they doing and how the hell did they get there? I've never figured it out."

Every Western journalist who has worked in the Middle East has stop-frame scenes like this etched in their memories. After three years I've kept my share:

* On my return to Iraq after last year's Gulf War cease-fire and the anti-government rebellion in the south, Shiite Muslim women in black chadors sat huddled outside a prison gate in the southern city of Basra, shrieking lamentations and hoping for word that their husbands and sons were alive inside the high walls. That was the best they could expect--that their men were imprisoned and not among the thousands of Shiite rebels shot down by Saddam Hussein's helicopter gunships as he re-established his hold on the country. There is still no accounting of the dead.

* In Kuneitra, a ghost town at the foot of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, leveled in the 1967 war and again in 1973, Syrian soldiers peered from the rubble of buildings, fingering the triggers of their rifles as my car arrived from Damascus. Except for weeds pushing up through broken concrete walls and birds circling overhead, they were the only sign of life in the town--a symbol of the wars that have racked the Middle East in the second half of the 20th Century.

* No country has endured a fratricidal conflict worse than Lebanon's, yet there's a spark of class that will not die. In a moment of truce, I sat down for a patio lunch with a Canadian journalist in the Christian-controlled port of Jubayl. The wine was good, the crepes excellent and they were served by a waiter in black tie and dinner jacket. Windsurfers were cutting across the surface of the old Crusader port. Two weeks later another session of the civil war broke out.

* During the Iranian earthquake of June, 1990, many reporters wondered if they would join the 20,000 dead as they zigzagged through a canyon in old, badly overloaded U.S. Chinook helicopters that they shared with Iranian refugees leaving the disaster scene. In Rutbar, the worst-hit town, a militiaman stopped me on the main street, lectured me on the Great Satan, then said: "Hey, you're a reporter, who won the (soccer) World Cup?"

* Charles Dunbar, the American ambassador in Yemen, invited me for breakfast on the patio of the fortified U.S. Embassy in Sana. Dunbar approached with a shortwave pressed to his ear. It was Aug. 2, 1990. "Have you heard?" the ambassador asked. "The Iraqis have invaded Kuwait!" And then we sat for the shortest ambassadorial breakfast I've ever attended, my thoughts focused not on Yemen but on how to catch the first flight out.

* Twenty Indian nurses from the steamy climes of Madras huddled in a refugee tent near the Iraqi-Jordanian border, the canvas flapping in the icy cold of a high-desert winter. They had reached safety in the first weeks of the air war, bused from Baghdad in a harrowing drive along what reporters dubbed Hellfire Alley. "We were quite fortunate," one said in the understated lilting English of educated Indians.

But when Middle East reporters trade stories of their experiences, the recurring theme is the Arab people themselves. There's a great deal about them that a Westerner may never understand.

Most live in hard, unforgiving desert lands and their culture, their ethics may seem complicated, even mysterious. The picture is no clearer with the prism reversed--many Arabs find other societies rootless and dangerously chaotic.

Understanding the differences is the first step toward closing them. A modest collection on my shelves includes three separate books entitled "The Arabs," evidence of the need to try to explain. One of the authors is David Lamb, a Times predecessor in the region.

He wrote of the Arabs: "For them . . . the future is rooted in the past--in their own unique and rich heritage, in their belief that what Mohammed the Prophet taught 13 centuries ago is a precise guide for today's life--and when their sons would rather watch 'Dallas' than go to the mosque, when Nike sneakers and a greed for material things replace prayer beads and the need for spiritual fulfillment, then the very foundation of their Arabness is challenged and shaken."

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