Saturday, January 5, 2008

Council On Foreign Relations

I was in Ramallah on Thursday, the unofficial capital of the unofficial Palestinian state—about which more in my next post. But a little exchange at the end of the day explains something about why the absentee vote I cast for Barack Obama in the upcoming New Hampshire primary is my proudest since checking the box for Pierre Trudeau in 1967.

I got into a cab taking me back to the Hizma checkpoint. The driver, a cousin of the driver normally called for guests of the office I was visiting, spoke virtually no English. He was eager, nevertheless, to connect. “Deutsch?,” he asked me. I replied, jauntily (and a little cautiously), “American.” His face took on a pensive look and fell silent for a moment.

“American bipple very, very good.”

“Yes,” I said, nodding approvingly.

“Bush very, very bad.”

I smiled. What the hell, I thought. “Yes, Bush bad,” I agreed, “very bad.”

It is important to know that I had just spoken with Khalil Shikaki, founder of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, who had just told me, gloomily, that his polls were showing Hamas making a kind of comeback in recent weeks, holding steady at something like 7% behind Fatah in the West Bank as in Gaza. For the dramatic peace process promised by America to Abbas was bearing little fruit. George Bush, for his part, would be landing by helicopter in Ramallah, probably on Tuesday. PA police, mainly loyal to Fatah, and in newly starched uniforms, had been out in force all day.

“American bipple very good, Bush very bad,” my driver repeated, sealing the point, encouraged.

Then he raised his bid: “Jew very bad,” he said. “America Jew bad.”

“No, Jews are not bad,” I said in my most Pickwickian voice, blowing my cover. “Jews good and bad.”

He stiffened, realizing his offense with a kind of perfunctory regret. He refined his point. “Tzioni bad, Tzioni bad.” He searched my eyes in the rear-view mirror; I decided, under the circumstances, not to challenge the point. I buckled my seat-belt. I wondered about the mere 7% that separated one cousin from another. Then I got an idea about how to change the subject:

“Do you know Barack Obama? Barack Obama, good?,” I asked him.

My little poll did not go exactly as planned. “Barak..?,” he asked skeptically, trying not to show annoyance, obviously assuming I was referring to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who had just recommitted Israel to all 540 checkpoints in the West Bank. “No, no, not Ehud Barak,” I laughed, a little too Hilary-like. “Oba-ma, Oba-ma” I said, “Barack Obama.” “Oba-ma,” my driver repeated slowly, confused and a little abashed, obviously not up on what I was talking about. Then, suddenly, he stopped the car. A friend or relative who had flagged him down jumped in beside him and looked me over. He was, apparently, going to keep us company the rest of the way. Our foreign policy conversation had ended.

NOW AND THEN I could make out that the driver was replaying it all to his passenger: an American he had picked up, going back to Israel, through Hizma, Bush. “Yehud,” he said gravely at one point, and I confess feeling a slight chill. We drove past a fruit stand, and I noticed a very faded poster of Mohammed Ali. We heard what sounded like gunfire along the road, and an Israeli troop carrier sped out a block in front of us, out of the Kalandia refugee camp, and turned off to the Kalandia check post. “Soldier Israelian,” my driver said, as if apologizing for the slowing traffic, but also pointing out one of the natural wonders of his landscape. Then silence again, until we got to Hizma, and he pointed to the town on the hill. He wanted me to understand that Hizma was a town before it was a checkpoint. I paid him. He shook my hand warmly. I felt a little ashamed for imagining myself in danger, which I suppose I was to some degree.

Still, it occurred to me yesterday, as I woke at dawn to hear the results from Iowa, that my driver would soon hear about Barack Hussein Obama. It also occurred to me that Americans sometimes get too fancy about what kind of foreign policy will work here. We speak about a war of ideas; some go on about a clash of civilizations. We hold seminars about the relationship between Islamic theology and Islamist ferocity. But like most people without a lot of time on their hands, this cab driver had simply put a face to the problems he was experiencing, as he navigated through an infuriating life. That face was George Bush’s, who was somehow (and a little magically, perhaps) not considered a part of the American people. The answer to Bush was Khaled Meshal.

But what if the face of America were Obama’s instead, and the warmth of feeling extended to Americans could not instinctively be denied their leader? What if the posters of Mohammed Ali would come down and posters of, of all things, the US president would be filling their spaces—filling, that is, some of the holes in the hearts of fruit vendors, terrified by globalization, from Palestine to Jakarta? Obama’s campaign, and many pundits, have made the point, so I won’t go on about it. But I thought I might report that one cannot take a cab in Ramallah and not run into what this means.