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The World / Showdown with Iraq | AMERICA FROM ABROAD

Bush Policy Gives Expatriate Pause

American educator in Saudi Arabia grapples with public perception of the U.S. as an arrogant superpower pushing for war.

March 13, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — It's not something he seems proud of, or even comfortable with. How could he be? But with his eyes cast down and his head bowed, Larry McIlvain concedes that these days he is uneasy with his "American-ness."

That surely will anger people back home, where his president has drawn a line: You are with us or against us. It may not make McIlvain popular with his old pals in Wyoming, or the students he used to teach in Cheyenne. But it's how he feels.

"I really struggle with my American-ness," said McIlvain, a principal at the American International School here in the Saudi capital. "I see what American foreign policy does."

Americans may view themselves as good guys, defenders of freedom and democracy and noble values. But that is often not how they are seen by many Middle Easterners -- not these days, when France and Germany and Russia and China are seen as calling for peace and the U.S. as pushing for war.

Walking down the street. Shopping for food. Stopping to ask directions. Every occasion that might lead someone to ask "Where are you from?" increasingly gives expatriate Americans here pause. That's what McIlvain is living with these days, with his wife, Talla, and their two daughters, Karmah, 7, and Zeyna, 5.

He stopped recently at a shop that sells sandwich wraps of chicken or lamb. He had a nice chat with the man who prepared his lunch.

"Where are you from?" the shop worker, an Afghan immigrant, asked McIlvain.

"Canada," he replied.

"I felt if I said America, it would have cut the connection," McIlvain said days later by way of explanation.

He's clearly not alone. The issue is not the merits of the argument, the right or wrong of taking on Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. The issue has become the perception of American power, American style, American arrogance.

"Yes, the threat is there, but it really, really matters how we go about it," said an American diplomat based in the Middle East. "Are we creating a world where our actions further alienate and polarize the world?"

McIlvain drops his head, signaling a touch of shame, when he admits his feelings. But one gets the sense, because he knows he is talking to a reporter, that his goal is to help enlighten Americans. They don't have to agree with him, but he'd like them to understand that there is a world out there, a world that doesn't see things the way they do.

"In my circle of friends, there are very few who have faith in our government to do the right thing," he said the other day, sitting on a couch in his two-bedroom house here.

McIlvain was destined to have wanderlust. When he was 7, his parents took him from Wyoming to the jungles of Peru, where they taught school. Then back to Wyoming for a few years. When it was time for McIlvain to enter the seventh grade, his parents took him to Afghanistan, where they again taught. He lived in Kabul, the capital, for two years and that cinched it.

After university in the States and three years of teaching in Cheyenne, he went to Jordan to work as a teacher. He spent three years there and met Talla, a Jordanian American. There have been stints in the Dominican Republic, Russia, Malaysia and now Saudi Arabia.

McIlvain and his family live in a big housing compound, behind a big wall. The street outside their front door is so full of children they call it "Sesame Street." He walks around in jeans and a T-shirt, looks and sounds the typical American, so much so that a television crew from MSNBC came by his house to do an interview, to have him tell Americans back home what it is like to live in Saudi Arabia, the homeland of 15 of the Sept. 11 hijackers.

"I am not really afraid for our safety in Saudi Arabia," he said to the camera. "I don't think the general public is out to get us. What is difficult is the hype, the uncertainty."

The camera turned to Talla. "I think the anxiety comes from the uncertainty of what will happen," she said. "It's not about security for my family. It's about uncertainty."

Uncertainty that, in their view, has been fueled by Washington.

Talla's father is Jordanian and her mother American. The interviewer seized on that and asked how she dealt with her dual heritage.

"I am proud to be both," she said. "I don't think it has to be this way. I think people can talk and work things out. That's what we teach our children."

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