Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Sir, I beg your pardon,” said the sandy-haired young man. “There is nothing here. You don’t seem to understand. The Middle East, all of this, this is nothing.” He gestured around the new living room and toward the window, where we could see a half-finished house, obscured in the fading winter light by a haze of blowing sand.

“The Middle East,” he said, firmly taking another crescent, “is just a corridor, a pass-through for great powers. Always has been. Throughout history. Even more now.”

“But the Golden Age,” I protested. “The Arabian Nights.”

“That was centuries ago.” The young man laughed disdainfully. “Do you see any magnificent palaces in Baghdad today?” …

Mr. Kirtikar set down his biscuit-filled plate. “Ah, Sami,” he said to the sandy-haired young man. “You’re not being fair to our guests. We are all here, my dear Sami, most probably, is that you do not see a long-range future for yourself here in Baghdad.”

“Why?” asked Bob. “Is it politics? Religious discrimination against Christians? East-West tensions? The Arab-Israeli conflict?” Bob came out with it. The company looked slightly embarrassed. Mrs. Kirtikar offered more tea. There were more cardamom crescents and also large round thick cookies with whole almonds pressed into their centers.

Sami nodded. He had apparently decided to take this strange American seriously. “All of those things,” he replied. “Yes. I would like to go to America. Maybe you could give me a list of places where there are scholarships available? Because,” he rushed on, “well, in addition to all of those things you mentioned you must remember that this is a poor area, a poor country. Without resources such as you are accustomed to taking for granted.” He laughed, bitterly, I thought. “Nomads. The desert. Living off of goats’ milk. You have surely heard of all that, even in rich America.”

“But what about oil?” Bob asked. “You have plenty of that.”

Mr. Kirtikar sniffed. “The British take most of it. Iraq gets only a small share. But you see the British made a great investment and they are the ones who brought the technology that made it possible for Iraq to exploit their oil. So they deserve the largest share.”

Was he serious? I stared at him. He was, and he was not finished talking. “And the Arab-Israeli conflict, that is not such a problem. It will pass with time.”

— Elizabeth and Robert Fernea, The Arab World: Personal Encounters, ch. 14, “Baghdad and Al-Nahra, Iraq” (1956) [New York: Anchor Books, 1985], pp. 334, 335

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