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PART I  Why Are They So Angry at Us?      Page  1  2  3  4

Unsanctioned Words

The Khan al Khalili market in old Cairo. Photo: William Tolan
One afternoon, in the Khan al Khalili market in old Cairo, this all comes sharply into focus. We are accompanied by a "minder" from the Egyptian press center. If we want to interview regular people, the government tells us, we need an escort. He writes down what we ask, what the people on the street say in response. He takes names. It quickly becomes clear we'll need to give him the slip. But before we do, a young woman approaches us. She's very Western looking, with moussed hair and designer jeans. She's spotted the microphone, and is nearly bursting with what's inside her. Ignoring the government man, she blurts it out.

"Maybe this will wake up America. It's about time you feel our pain."

The man from the press center says to her, "No, no, we don't want to say that. That's not what we want to put out right now."

She ignores him.

"They need to hear this. We've had terrorism for years. How come the world didn't act until America was hit?"

The government man scribbles these unsanctioned words in his pad. Before he can get her name, the woman and her friends move away, swiftly, down the old stone path of the market.

The War Memorial in Heliopolis, Egypt

The state prefers official truths; official history. Amidst the sense of defeat rooted in the past, there's a powerful desire to gaze back upon historical pride. Upon rare victory. Be it Saladin in 1187, or the momentary victory over Israel, 786 years later: in October, 1973.

The October War Panorama celebrates Egypt's 1973 victory over the Israeli occupation of the Sinai. Photo: © 2000, Michael M. Cohen

Hundreds of Egyptian children come each school day to the October war panorama in the town of Heliopolis. Flanking the building, Egyptian tanks, missile launchers and troop carriers; inside, a diorama of model planes and encampments in the Sinai. A booming voice claims that in 1973, Egypt shattered the myth of Israeli air superiority — not mentioning how Israel destroyed the entire Egyptian air force only six years earlier.

Despite official efforts in the Arab world to recall the glory of victory, in the end, this is not what stays with the people.

They remember defeats like the one experienced when the Old City of Jerusalem and the West Bank fell to Israeli hands.

Amman, Jordan

"In 1967, until the 5th of June, we thought that the Arabs, especially with the leadership of Nasser, could convince, by hook or by crook, the world to let the Palestinian people determine their future."

Three old friends gather in an office in Amman, Jordan. Mu'nis Razzaz, a novelist, recalls the Arab world's most resounding defeat — at the hands of Israel, and aided by American weapons and support.

"They defeated the Arab world in a humiliating way," says Mu'nis. "Nasser was defeated, Jordan lost half its kingdom, Syria was defeated, all the Arabs were defeated."

Many consider former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser a latter-day Saladin. Photo: Al-Ahram Weekly
This marked the unofficial end of pan-Arabism, the quest for one Arab nation championed by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser — a man many considered a latter-day Saladin.

Thirty-four years later and Mu'nis and these two friends, Hani Hourani and Mazan Saqqat, kept working toward it — aligning themselves out of convenience with the socialist bloc, because they supported the Arabs. Jailed and exiled, the men, over time, were worn down, while they watched Nasser's authoritarian model of Arab unity, independent of the West, be replaced by dictatorships aligned with the United States.

"They built up a huge bureaucracy and became more and more totalitarian. And now this is the situation we are in. We have Abdel Nasser model without Nasserism," explains Hani. "Without the progressive face of that. We have the model of Sadat or Mubarrak — only they are taking the power — or we have Saddam Hussein or Hfaz al Assad or Khadafi, these people who are raising big slogans and achieving few things and ignoring the people. This is the problem in the Arab world."

Mu'nis continues, "Secularism and pan-Arabism were assassinated by the United States and the West in general by the war of '67, then the war of '73, and the war of 1991 against Iraq. Because of these wars — the result of these was the end of secularism in the area and the support of Muslim movements."

In this analysis, political Islam — including extremists like bin Laden — emerged from a suppression of secular opposition movements. A suppression by Arab governments, supported by the United States. Unable to express themselves openly, many flowed to the mosque, making it venue of opposition politics.

Wanting Neither the West Nor the Extremists

Others, wanting neither choice provided by the West or the extremists, feel lost.

The playwright Sawsan Darwaza looks up from her swivel chair. She's agreed to meet in the late evening. Tomorrow she leaves for Carthage to put on another production, though lately she's not sure why she bothers.

Darwaza is a Jordanian playwright and producer who writes about Arab identity.

"It has to be an accumulation of wars, misunderstandings, instability. It's from a long time ago and of course it affects the heart and mind," says Darwaza. "It's another ghetto. It's a huge prejudice, always on the defensive, can't create freely."

"And for myself I feel this is a waste," she continues, "all this struggle, all this effort, all these books, translations, plays, songs, all that we have done has come to a frozen picture."

But for some, the blame for broken dreams is not so singular.

"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for. "

First Names Only

At another interview, around a table in Amman, we used first names only — Hania, Mohamed, Hala, Looma, Walid.

Since September 11 there's a new penal code: it's now a crime to print anything in the newspapers that could be judged to damage the government's reputation.

"We're all angry. I can't help thinking, though, that we have much to blame ourselves for, " said Walid. "Funny, but many people who are persecuted here wind up going to the West for protection, or to live a decent life. So we do have to look at ourselves, too. Does this anger get us anywhere? No. In the end, there must be a balance between the oriental culture and the efficiency of the West."

"We have to respect each other," Walid says. "We, the West, the West, us."

"People don't like the U.S. because of what the U.S. is doing in the rest of the world."   
But for the group gathered here, these are words from a faraway world; the reality in Jordan is that tourism is dead, unemployment is high; the economic benefits of peace with Israel are virtually non-existent. So, just like in Egypt, the anger in Jordan builds. And the target is Israel and the U.S.

"I've heard over the last month, oh, why do they hate us?" says one of the men. "Oh, because they're envious of our way of life. They're envious of our freedom. They're threatened by our democracy. How can anybody believe this rubbish? People don't like the U.S. because of what the U.S. is doing in the rest of the world. American F-15s, American Apaches, American cluster bombs, and American bullets that are killing children all over."

"A very short time ago, people in the Middle East were willing to give it a shot, to put some effort to try to get the West to understand them," explains one of the women. "Simply no one cares anymore about what the West thinks or that it's important to understand our point of view. The attitude is becoming more and more to hell with the West, we don't care what they think anymore."

"We start feeling the cycle of hatred. We managed for a while to get out of it, not all Israelis or Westerners are bad. But then you see this — what did we get for our good will, trying to give peace a chance? It's like they'll always hate us, they don't even think of us as human beings. So, screw them. And we're gonna — we're gonna hate them. "


Traveling in the Arab world, you encounter this deepening sense of pessimism — among Muslims and Christians, rich and poor. The deaths in Palestine and Iraq pile up on television. National economies lie in the dumps. The suppression of speech and political opposition stifles hopes for democratic participation. The emotions of the street are rage and despair.

"We must deal with the world society that breeds terrorism and terrorists," says Mohamed Sid Ahmed, the Arab political analyst. "Extreme conflict against the system is terrorism. It's people who are so desperate that they believe they are dead anyhow. Hitting at the others alive is a way to protest against the fact that they are dead. This is a very dangerous equation. When despair reaches this point, it's a world destroying itself."

A scattering of European tourists, at the stone tunnel of the crusader castle in southern Jordan. Here in Karak, there's a statue of Saladin in the center of town. The castle was captured by Saladin, just before his reconquest of Jerusalem.

An old man in robe and keffiya stands near the edge of the castle. From here you can look out to Palestine and toward the Mediterranean beyond. "If only," he says. "If only we could have another Saladin — a man of mercy and humanity."

The old man continues, "He was not a terrorist. He did not want bloodshed. The war the Saladin launched was a just war. It was a war against those who occupied the land."

Be careful, another man had warned me. Don't ask the old man too many questions. He's grown more and more angry. Lately he's gone into the Islamist camp, thinking dangerous things.

"We feel pain and sadness for those five or six thousand innocents killed In the attacks. But you know, we lost many, many innocent people. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of them. And no one felt our pain. And maybe what happened in the United States, this will teach the people of the United States on how people feel from a long, long time ago."

Next: Part II Love & Hate—Where Britain Meets America

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