John F. Kennedy, or On American Prestige

I’ve written before about what it’s like to be an American traveling in the Muslim world (see posts of 4.9 and 6.6), but in this post I thought I would share some more thoughts on what it means to be an American in the world today, especially after the election of Barack Obama (also see posts of 10.25 and 12.15).

This topic has come to mind yet again because we are in Nouakchott, Mauritania. Why, you may ask? Nouakchott is a fairly small city, being the capital of a country of only 3 million or so inhabitants, and its city center, however sprawling, is built on a fairly small number of avenues–but one of them is named for U.S. President John F. Kennedy.

This is one of many, many JFK roads throughout the world. Off of the top of my head alone, I can think of roads named after Kennedy in Paris, Buenos Aires and Istanbul, and I have no doubt that there are dozens of other cities around the world. Why is JFK so popular? Part of it no doubt has to do with the heroic stature given to him by his assassination, but it is also because of the hope that Kennedy represented to the world, how he presented America in its most flattering aspects and facets.

It is hard to imagine any country naming any street for the current U.S. President (although the San Francisco sewage plant would have been a good start–link). He is so reviled that reaction to his reign has gone from opposition to sheer bewilderment, a wonder that one person could be so ineffective, his actions at times so seemingly aimless and at others so incredibly hostile to global peace and prosperity. Before the November election, people would often respond with a one word question/statment/accusation when we said that we were American, “Bush?” They wanted an explanation, maybe even an apology. They wanted to know if we as Americans approved of the actions taken by our elected leader. We have had to answer for his actions, apologize for the state of our government, in such enlightened regimes as Uzbekistan, Pakistan, China and Iran. Imagine our position! People whose own countries torture, imprison citizens without a right to trial, push a very particular religious agenda, restrict all sorts of freedoms, people from autocracies and theocracies, were telling us how bad our government was–but, see, the thing is, they were right; the U.S. had fallen so far from it purports to be.

Yet we are happy to report, as I have explained in previous posts, that there are incredible reserves of goodwill built up for America and Americans, all over the world. Almost everyone reacts positively to us when we identify ourselves as coming from New York, not only with general politeness but with genuine enthusiasm for America and things American. It is just bewildering how often the stars and stripes is used as decoration in West Africa–the motif recurs at least a hundred times more often than the tricolore of the Republique Francaise and at least as often as the colors of the local national flag. (I’m not sure who we have to think for this goodwill–Peace Corps volunteers?)

In a Dakar taxi

A Malian truck

And, for all of the horribleness of the last eight years, I think that Bush’s reign has in some ways strengthened American prestige. The truth is that, in recent years, there has been much to challenge American hegemony. The nuclear rise of India and Pakistan, and the efforts of North Korea and Iran, challenged American control over non-proliferation. The economic rise of China put into doubt American commercial dominance. The rise of the price of oil and the fabulous accumulation of wealth in the Gulf created an entire class of super-rich well outside of the western Christian world sphere. The creation and rise of the euro created a currency to seriously rival the U.S. dollar. What have Bush’s disasters taught us? America may not have the strategic and political acumen to win wars and build strong and sympathetic regimes in Iraq or Afghanistan, but it sure has the resources and military power to create chaos all over the world. America may no longer lead the world economy in its growth but miscalculations by America’s greedy/idiot barons of finance can bring the global financial system to its knees, and reduced spending by American consumers can close factories across the world. The euro may be more valuable than the dollar but, in a time of true crisis, the dollar is still the ultimate safe haven.

In short, there is a new recognition of America’s significance in the world–that things have to go right in America for things to go well elsewhere. Currently, it seems that almost everyone in the world wishes America and its new President well–Bush may still be President, but we are now met by “Obama!” in a congratulatory or approving tone–and hopes that America can succeed, so that instead of dragging the world down with it, it can lift the world up. Maybe, hopefully, Obama will prove so popular that Obama rues and avenidas and strasses and sharias and margs and daos sprout up all over the world. Hopefully, he’ll be able to realize the dreams he currently represents not only for Americans but for so many around the world.


Obama in Africa

Dakar, Senegal

As everyone knows, Barack Obama is popular all over the world. He is popular because he is not George Bush and repudiates Bush’s failed policies, because he gives everyone new hope for America and the world, and because his victory itself seemed to restore a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, to set something straight that was so gravely out of kilter. Part of Obama’s mystique is, of course, his skin color and biography. Even without understanding the details of his domestic or foreign policy, one knows right away that Obama represents a different kind of America, is from an ethnic/racial background and generation that has not yet been represented in the highest seats of power. He is black, he is biracial, his father was a Muslim, and he grew up in Hawaii and also in Indonesia. So many things about Obama seem fresh and different, to offer new perspective and hope.

The whole world is excited, yes, but Africa particularly so. When we mention these days that we are American, we are often met with “Obama” as a response. We’ve seen Obama stickers on shop signs and one Obama t-shirt. One American living in Mali told us that there is even a hair salon named after Obama in Bamako; the hand-painted business sign, characteristic of such signs all over West Africa, went up just days after the election.

Dogon Country, Mali

Ile de Goree, Senegal

Why the excitement? For one, Africans can with some justification claim Obama as one of their own. Obama is not only black, but far closer to Africa than the typical African-American, whose ancestors came to the American continent centuries ago as slaves and lived through the horrific and heroic African-American experience; Obama’s father was himself a Kenyan, a true African and citizen of Kenya, and essentially all of Obama’s father’s family (however poorly he may know them, given that his father left Obama and his mother when he was a baby) still lives in Kenya. For Africans, even Obama’s name is a very tangible reminder that he is just one generation away from the continent, that he is almost one of their own. Religion also serves as a common link. So many in the Muslim world seem to know that Obama’s father was a Muslim, and many even erroneously believe that Obama himself is a Muslim (as some Republicans so badly wanted Americans to believe). As Muslims themselves, the West Africans of Senegal and Mali seem to find it easier to identify with Barack Obama, and hope that Obama will usher in foreign policy that is not as anti-Islam as Bush’s appears.

But, perhaps more powerfully, Africans’ identification with Obama comes not only because of Obama’s specific ties to the continent but for similar reasons as African-Americans’ exaltation. For African-Americans, Obama’s election was tangible evidence that black Americans can make it to the very top of American society, that racism, while still alive, did not stop a clear majority of Americans from voting for a black man as President of the United States. Obama’s election was tangible evidence that anything is possible, despite race. This sort of affirmation was likely necessary in part because African-Americans have had a long-held suspicion that it was not possible, or almost impossibly difficult, for a black man to succeed in America, because there were too many barriers, including possibly race-motivated violence, in the way. To a population that is often made to feel downtrodden, Obama’s election was an event for great jubilation.

Africans recognize that they live in a continent that is, economically and politically, well behind the rest of the world. They recognize that Africans make up a significant percentage of the world’s most poor and that many African governments are among the world’s most corrupt and oppressive. This mild sense of shame is tangible–a hotelier showing us the relatively primitive plumbing of his bathroom described it as “toutes africaines” and a taxi driver described his nearly-falling-apart car as “une voiture africaine.” There is some pan-African pride, too, yes, but more often there is a sense that Africa, unlike North America or Europe or Asia, is a place that is backward and dysfunctional.

And so, just as an African-American may be sorrowful for all of the problems blacks face in America, and take pride and comfort in knowing that, despite it all, blacks can still rise to the very top of American society, some Africans we have met see in Obama proof that an African or a near-African, despite all of the problems the continent faces, can become the most powerful man in the world. As a young man in Dakar explained to us, now anything is possible, not only for African-Americans and other minorities in America, but also for Africans from Africa.

Will people be disappointed? Perhaps. Obama can’t be everything that the American left expects and desires, and everything that Europeans want of America, and everything that the Muslim world and the developing world think may come from a black President whose father was an African Muslim. He simply can’t please everybody. But as we keep telling people, everything may not be good after 4 or 8 years with Obama as our President, but everything will be better. Given the fiascos and disasters of the last eight years, everyone seems to be content with this expectation, with much nodding of heads, heartfelt pats on the back and even a few inshallahs. The African people, like the rest of us, are tired. They need what we all need, for America to lead again.

One funny story. We met a couple of Peace Corps volunteers who are working in a small village in Niger. Early morning on November 5, they woke up to the sound of great cheering as the villagers heard on the radio that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States. The Americans, too, were overjoyed. Also living in their village was an American Christian missionary, who was apparently, as evangelical Christians were likely to be, a McCain supporter. Later that day, one of the villagers approached the Peace Corps volunteer, confused because Missionary Mark wasn’t excited and happy for Barack Obama. The villager just assumed that everybody wanted Obama to win, and couldn’t understand why one of the actual Americans among them wouldn’t be celebrating. Grinning broadly, the Peace Corps volunteer answered simply, “Because he’s dumb.”

Djenne, Mali

Accidental Leaders

One of the peculiarities of this part of the world is that two of its leaders, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria (also see post of 5.4) and King Abdullah II of Jordan, came to power almost accidentally, and at young ages.

Until fairly close to his ascension to the Presidency of Syria, Bashar al-Assad had no military or political role in Syria, and instead was on his way to being an ophthalmologist. In 1994, Bashar was rushed back to Syria from London when his older brother Basil, the son who had been groomed to succeed to Syria’s monarchic presidency, died in a car crash. Bashar trained quickly to become Syria’s next president and assumed the title in 2001 at the early age of 35, when his father Hafez al-Assad passed away. Neither Bashar nor his father ever expected Bashar to be in the role of leading the country; everyone had expected the much loved Basil to be the next President of Syria.

Similarly, the next in line to Jordan’s throne after King Hussein was, for the longest time, his brother Hassan, and not his son Abdullah. A mere two weeks before the death of King Hussein, he suddenly named his son as successor, replacing Hassan as Crown Prince. King Abdullah was crowned in 1999 at the age of 37. It’s not at all clear what made King Hussein seemingly change his mind at the last minute, but one point of controversy that may have prevented an earlier designation of Abdullah as Crown Prince was his “Arabness.” King Abdullah’s mother was British and not Arab, he went to school in Britain and the U.S., and, according to one Jordanian I spoke to, his Arabic language skills at the time of his own coronation were not sufficient to give an address.

Presidents Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, Syria

King Abdullah, Wadi Musa, Jordan

This is one of the risks of monarchy–people can rise to power in unexpected, less than ideal ways: Fathers can die when their sons are too young and ill-prepared; the next in line may be inadequate in capacity or temperament; rivalries can result in bloodshed, leading the most murderous to the throne (indeed entire royal families have been wiped out in order to “fix” succession). In comparison with such scenarios, Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah both seem meritorious and successful leaders of their respective country, their popularity (and that of their families) attested to by the numerous pictures of them posted all over Syria and Jordan. Their relatively young age and lack of experience (President-Elect Obama is 47, a decade older than King Abdullah when he was coronated and twelve years older than Bashar al-Assad when he was inaugurated) seem not to be affecting their rule too negatively. The only real complaint we heard about either was that Bashar was not as “strong” as his father or brother (because “Arab countries need a strong leader”), but even the Syrian who made this complaint followed it by expressing his hope that as Bashar grew into the position, he would develop a stronger hand.

And, even if monarchies can be somewhat arbitrary, it is important to keep in mind that Presidents Bush and Ahmedinejad, two of the least popular leaders in the world, were both democratically elected (although the former’s first election was “stolen”) and one of the scariest recent near-misses in unprepared leadership was John McCain’s irresponsible and bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Democracies can sometimes result in disastrous rule, while hereditary power can sometimes result in ideal leadership (see post of 7.13 on the Aga Khan, who was selected by his grandfather to succeed to the title).

Given all of the uncertainties in this part of the world, its great geopolitical complications (and with them the potential for conflict and disaster), a great deal of responsibility was thrust on these two men, suddenly and unexpectedly–let us wish them stable, prosperous and peaceful reigns.

Election Special – What the World Thinks

We just voted! If you can’t guess who I voted for you’re not reading the blog very carefully, but far more interesting than my choice, I thought that you may be interested in hearing what we’ve been hearing, from people we have met in our travels.

People in nearly every country we’ve been in have been intensely curious about the election–almost every time that we mention that we’re American, the election soon comes up. Generally, people ask us either whom we support or who we think will win. People don’t understand the U.S. electoral system completely–many thought Hillary was still running (and often preferred her over Obama), and I imagine few understand the workings of the electoral college–but they are following the election and care deeply about its outcome. People have said to us that they wish they could have some sort of say in the election, because its outcome will have repercussions for the whole world. Media coverage is equally extensive. We’ve seen articles about the election in numerous local newspapers, and see a great deal of footage on local television. Europeans have told us that their local media is covering the election as if it were an election in their own country.

Every single person we’ve spoken to, given the choice between Obama and McCain, hopes that Obama wins. This is in complete agreement with The Economist’s Global Electoral College, which reports only three countries (Georgia, Moldova and Macedonia) in the McCain camp. Why do people have such strong, uniform feelings? What little they know about McCain, their impression is that he will represent nothing new or different from the last eight years. What little they know about Obama seems to offer them hope. It seems the broader themes Obama’s campaign has been trying to hammer home (McCain = Bush, Obama = Hope and Change) have been grasped by the world at large (or at least the parts of it we’ve come across).

Now, there are some in the world who may favor McCain. We met a Kurdish man in Syria who thought George Bush a “brilliant and beautiful man.” We’ve also found, in the past, that some non-Muslim minorities in Muslim countries who feel oppressed–Christians in Malay Borneo, Balinese–favor Bush, and may favor McCain, possibly because they view Bush as a foe to all Muslims. Al Qaeda seems to favor McCain. But the desire for Obama to win is nearly universal. As you probably already knew this, let us delve into a few more specific topics.

Many (especially Germans, it seems) are curious whether Americans will really elect a black President. I do not know if I can go as far as Kristof in his recent New York Times column on “rebranding” America, but there is no doubt in my mind that the election of Obama will revive in global consciousness America as the land of opportunity and equality, an America with ideals worth looking up to.

Some Muslims, it turns out, believe that Obama is a Muslim, and Indonesians feel a special connection to him because he used to live in Indonesia. As the media reported during the primaries, no doubt Kenyans are especially excited, although perhaps not the Kenyan spiritual warrior who exorcised Palin.

While people are quite optimistic about an Obama presidency, many are also fairly realistic. As strongly as people favor Obama, and as hopeful they are for change, they recognize that certain things won’t change. Arabs know that we won’t pull out immediately from Iraq. Palestinians know that U.S. support for Israel will continue (and many feel that nothing will change for them no matter who wins). Even if people trust that Obama will make wiser decisions than Bush, they know that the U.S. political system will not allow Obama free rein. The only person who responded hopelessly pessimistically, however, was a young Pakistani man from Karachi who said that Pakistanis didn’t care at all (actually, the phrase used was much cruder) about America or its election (which seems foolish given that we are currently attacking part of their territory).

But generally I think that people view Obama as internationally minded, and Bush’s worldview relatively parochial, one of many reasons that they support him.

Many Americans abroad are also excited; we aren’t the only ones who managed to watch debates that took place in the middle of the night local time.. We met one young woman who said that she had somehow arranged to meet her ballot in Kathmandu, so that she could vote while traveling. If you also are currently traveling abroad, it is still possible to vote, as easily as downloading a blank ballot and mailing it in (or going to a consulate or embassy as we did). Instructions are on this site–no excuses!

The Hejab, or On Equality

There’s even a street named after it.

Iranian law enforces the hejab, or the Islamic dress code, on all women age 9 and over (corresponding to the age at which girls could be married in Iran immediately after the Islamic Revolution, although that age has since been changed). Iranian women do not wear the burqa, like women in parts of the Arab world and Afghanistan, but the rule seems to be that absolutely everything be covered except the face and hands. (This rule even applies to, with ridiculous effect, Iranian movies, in which female characters are covered even in domestic scenes in which in real life a woman would not be covered.) The hejab is often satisfied by wearing a chador, a very large piece of black cloth that is draped over one’s head and held in place with one’s teeth or hands to cover nearly the entire body but the face. Alternatively, and preferred by many women, is a coat (called a manteau and sometimes fitted), along with a headscarf. Young women in big cities flout the rules a bit by wearing shorter manteaus and wearing their headscarf rather “high” on the head, exposing a good portion of their hair. Some non-Muslim women tend to dress even a little more casually, perhaps exposing a little neck or ankle. [See my post of 6.4 for photos.] But the hejab is the law. If you break the law once, we are told that the police will just take you to the police station and call your family. But if you kept breaking the law, you would be fined and eventually end up in prison. The Ahmedinejad administration has ordered police crackdowns on the hejab, especially in the summers when the temperature climbs and it becomes tempting to relax one’s clothing. As once reported in the press, “Police will seize women with tight coats and cropped trousers.”

Bathroom sign

For some of you it may be tempting to view the hejab as something cultural, rules that we as non-Muslims may not be comfortable with but may well be desired by Iranians for the ordering of their society. I personally am certainly comfortable with traditional dress (cf. post of 4.16), and recognize that different cultures do find different clothes more or less acceptable or objectionable. But through our travels in Iran we have come to feel more strongly than ever that dress is an important form of personal expression, and that the legally enforced hejab is an unreasonable infringement of women’s liberties. (This may sound a bit American–and indeed I also find objectionable (although not in the same way) rules in France and Turkey that prohibit the wearing of headscarves.)

Often, in conversations with Iranian women, the hejab comes up. When we asked them what they think about having to wear the headscarf, we generally heard a curt “I hate it.” Young ladies that Derek tries to photograph will spontaneously point at their headscarves, saying that it’s ugly and that they would much prefer to be photographed without it (although of course that is not an option). Even women who said that they themselves would wear it even if it were not legally required, because it is dictated by their faith and tradition, told us that they did not think it should be the law, and that women should be free to choose. I do not know if there have been any reliable polls, but one fairly liberal, but older man thought that perhaps half of Iranian women would wear and half not wear the hejab if the law were lifted. (We were told by one older woman that, in Tehran before the Islamic Revolution, almost nobody wore headscarves, but the legal requirement in the last thirty years has restored the hejab to the level of social mores as well–even we started joking that women with high scarves must be of questionable morals, akin to a very short miniskirt–and if the law were revoked more women would probably wear headscarves than in pre-revolutionary days.) But just as women will object to the hejab, they will also point out that it’s just the tip of the iceberg, a meaningless symbol compared to the other social and legal handicaps women suffer in the Islamic Republic. Upon reflection, however, I have come to the belief that the hejab explains much about what is wrong with gender relations in Iran.

The first problem with the hejab is simple inequality. Although I believe that as a technical matter the hejab imposes restrictions on men as well (and at times men have been harassed by police for having “improper” hairstyles or whatever), from our experience the law doesn’t stop men from doing much of anything in the way of dress. Men wear short sleeves all the time, have all sorts of hairstyles from long to spiky, feel free to leave three or four buttons undone exposing a usually hairy chest and wear sandals exposing their feet. We’ve even been told that it’s okay to wear shorts, although we have not seen anyone doing this.

Exercising. The man looks a bit more comfortable, don’t you think?

Because the hejab is required for women when they may be in the presence of unrelated men, it creates for women a constant awareness of, a burden to check for, the possible presence of men. If dress is slightly relaxed, because they are alone or in a private place, they must rush to fix it if a man (especially an official) appears on the scene. It creates for women two spheres–the private, in which they are free to wear whatever they’d like, and the public, a space controlled by men in which they must modify their appearance. It is, simply put, a symbol of patriarchy.

No hejab, no service.

Another, deeper problem with the hejab revealed itself when we asked why it was necessary. What we were told repeatedly by men was that women need to conceal themselves in order to reduce temptation for and sexual violence by men. This is, of course, the exact mentality that allows rapists to defend themselves by pointing to the victim’s dress. This attitude is not only damaging to women, because it assigns female culpability to the male problem of sexual violence, but, I believe, also to men, who are seen in this view as totally lacking self-control. Indeed, some anecdotal evidence would suggest that this worldview generates male misbehavior–one young tourist we met in Tehran said that she received 10-20 unwanted and persistent advances by men each day, and another foreign woman temporarily living in Iran confirmed that Iranian men seem to have no sense of shame or fear of rejection. The Lonely Planet describes the Tehran subway as a “frotteur’s heaven.” Iranian men in the U.S. certainly don’t behave this way–it must be the culture of giving men a free pass and blaming women that causes it.

A few words on what tourists should do in Iran. One man we spoke to laughed bitterly when mentioning his conversations with female tourists from Europe who answered, when they were asked what they thought of Iran, simply that they liked Iran and that Iran was great. “What if they had to live here?” he asked, “What if there was an Islamic Republic of France? Let’s see what they’d say then.” After hearing this, we felt it our responsibility to be truthful, and not gloss over our true feelings on important questions simply because it is easier to avoid political issues.

Also, we have seen some Iranian domestic tourists from the larger cities avoid wearing their hejab when possible. For example, in a hotel lobby, two young ladies were sitting across from Derek without their scarves on, next to their scarf-wearing mother, and only rushed to put them back on, while expressing annoyance and rolling their eyes as they did it, when an Iranian man entered the room. On a daytrip to the countryside, some Iranian women in our group courageously took off their scarves, since they were in the presence of only western tourists and the tour operators. Sadly, on that tour, most of the western tourists kept their scarves on, no doubt not only because they were afraid of getting into trouble (we were told once that foreigners are levied a $3 fine), but because they thought that respecting local law was the “right thing to do.” But does this kind of law deserve respect? Or should the foreigners show solidarity with courageous Iranian women?

It may be the law, but does it deserve respect?

One story: We were showing New York postcards (which we carry for such show and tell) to three older women in a city park. They asked for a card, and we selected the one of Radio City Music Hall. Women are not allowed to sing or dance in public in Iran because the solo female voice and female dance are considered too seductive, causing many female musicians to move to the U.S. after the Iranian Revolution. We wrote on the back of the card, “In this place, they make music that could make you cry and there is beautiful dancing. One day, the people of Iran will dance and the women will sing. Iranian people will walk hand in hand with the rest of the world.” Each sentence was met with a quiet but firm “Inshallah [God willing].”