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THE WORLD | AMERICA FROM ABROAD

In the Gulf, They Don't Hate Us as Much as They Want to Know Us

January 02, 2003|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

MANAMA, Bahrain — I had to leave America to truly feel like an American.

It's a common theme of expatriate novels. But the feeling was new to me during a recent six-week reporting trip to the Persian Gulf.

I don't travel much. At age 55, I've been out of the United States only twice, beyond day trips to Baja California.

The first time was to accompany Marines from Camp Pendleton into southern Afghanistan in 2001. The second was this jaunt through Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman.

Home or abroad, reporting is reporting: Gather the facts quickly and accurately, present them in an interesting and intelligible fashion and file.

But what was different in this assignment was the collateral role of unofficial U.S. ambassador at large. I can't remember a day when I wasn't quizzed by cab drivers, government officials, students, shopkeepers and other strangers about America, its history, foreign policy, visa requirements, intentions toward the Middle East, showdown with Iraq -- and even whether Disneyland provides discount prices for foreign visitors.

Make no mistake: There is a level of animosity toward America throughout the Gulf region. But there is also enormous fascination, envy, curiosity and even affection. And also, a great deal of misunderstanding.

I was asked more than once why Jewish Americans get preference for jobs and college admissions and why Jews knew to stay away from work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. I was asked why U.S. soldiers have been promised medals if they kill Iraqi children.

I got relatively adept at sidestepping political questions.

Why does America back Israel so strongly?

"It's a complex issue."

Do Americans really want war with Iraq?

"Americans want peace but are worried that Saddam Hussein could hurt his neighbors and America."

What's President Bush really up to?

"It's a complex issue."

Some questions were not as easily parried.

A journalist from Saudi Arabia, who had been friendly and helpful, gently lectured me: "The world looks to America to protect the weak from being bullied. But then America supports Israel when it kills Palestinians. Why don't Americans see the contradiction?"

A Western diplomat warned me not to debate the issue of Israel vs. the Palestinians. "It's beyond rationality with a lot of people in this region," he said.

A government official in Oman, where the sultan has brought many advances to his people, seemed genuinely puzzled over America's insistence that democracy is the best form of government. It can lead to instability and squabbling, he said, using relatively more democratic Kuwait as an example.

"You say democracy can help bring better schools, health care, national security and protection of individual rights," he said. "But we have those things with our sultan. Why should we risk that for democracy?"

We ordered some more sweet tea and moved on to other topics, including his inquiry about whether baseball or professional football is the true national sport of America.

Not all of my questioners and lecturers were Arabs. As we shared a bus ride from a news conference by the crown prince of Bahrain, a German businessman scolded me at length for what he saw as the "cowboy diplomacy" and foreign policy ignorance of every U.S. president since Eisenhower.

He went so far over the top that two German journalists later apologized.

A Frenchman, standing in line ahead of me at the Kuwait airport, gave me what-for about the possibility that Bush will order a preemptive strike on Iraq. "You Americans understand nothing and accomplish nothing when you intervene," he said.

I stifled the urge to respond that the fact he speaks French, not German, is proof that occasionally American intervention in international conflicts works rather well.

On the day after the Bahraini election in October -- the first parliamentary balloting in nearly 30 years -- local journalists were eager to see how the vote was viewed by outsiders. An international contingent of poll-watchers from a Washington-based group had deemed it fair and open.

A Pakistani journalist working for the English-language Bahrain Tribune asked me what I thought of the election. He said he was working on a Dave Barry-like humor column and needed one more quote.

Never one to refuse help to a reporter on deadline, I joked that the election was so smooth that maybe the Bahrainis should conduct the next election in Florida.

The next morning a front-page news story appeared in the Tribune with a four-column headline: "Model for Florida: U.S. journalist."

In the story I was quoted saying, "I will tell the congressmen that they should request Bahraini authorities to conduct elections in the state of Florida, where the U.S. Supreme Court had to intervene.... "

The story brought me an invitation to appear on Bahrain's equivalent of "Meet the Press," along with a veteran Middle East correspondent from Britain's Daily Telegraph. I tried to steer clear of taking sides in partisan or sectarian issues -- Sunni vs. Shiite Muslims, for example -- and talk about the election procedure. The moderator asked about American elections.

A few days later, as I was picking up trinkets for my family in the downtown souk, I drew a crowd of shoppers who had seen the show. They peppered me with questions about the United States. Some were hostile, but most were just curious about our ways and our values -- and why American men are so dominated by American women.

The television station promised me a tape of the show, but it got lost in transit to my hotel.

Somewhere in the Gulf region there is a videotape of a reporter trying to explain his country to people who want to know everything about America and Americans -- if only we will take the time to talk to them.

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