Journey Into America - Part 1
By Siraj Wahab
Published in Arab News on Thursday, April 24, 2008
These are certainly not the best of times between the Muslim world and the United States. The world's only superpower is seen by an overwhelming majority of Muslims as a brute and arrogant force on earth. Here, in the Muslim world, the US is seen as the source of all corruption; it is blamed for all the ills in the world. Muslims tend to identify George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld with some of the world's worst dictators.
Just switch on your television and take a look at any footage of any demonstration in the Muslim world. There you will come across people holding placards bearing caricatures of Bush, Cheney and Rice drawn in the least favorable way. Take a look at political cartoons in newspapers in the Middle East, and you'll get a sense of the depth of Muslim anger. Discuss America in any Muslim household these days, and you will invariably hear the choicest invectives hurled at Uncle Sam. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are immediately mentioned to make the root of such anger even clearer. The death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq and its blind support to Israel are pointed out as proof of America's colonial ambitions and lust for oil.
To cut a long story short, a large majority of Muslims see America as their Public Enemy No. 1. It was perhaps or rather for this reason that a colleague of mine remarked casually, "So you are going to America? Is the FBI funding the trip?" According to this person, no Muslim with "Abdul Wahab" as his family name would take the risk of undertaking a journey into America at this point in history unless it was funded by the FBI! That remark haunted me for much of the two weeks that I spent in the United States last month.
Go, Change Your Passport
The easiest part of undertaking a journey into America is the decision itself. The difficult part is the trip to the US Embassy in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter on the assigned day of the interview. The US Consulate in Jeddah no longer issues visas, so everybody now has to go to Riyadh in person. Being a journalist and working for the Middle East's leading English language daily and having a letter of recommendation from the editor in chief is certainly a huge advantage - but no guarantee that you will get the visa. You will still be subjected to all kinds of questions by the visa officer.
"Why should you go to America?" "Because my editor in chief thinks that as a journalist I should know about your country and that I should familiarize myself with it. Plus, I have an invitation to speak on Middle Eastern affairs at one of your universities."
The visa officer remained unconvinced simply because if you are in your 30s you are seen as a potential immigrant. All questions are geared toward ascertaining what the chances of you coming back are. "Do you have relatives in the States? Who will you stay with? Which places do you plan to travel to?" And then, "What do you think will make you come back?" "My wife of 10 years and three lovely kids in Jeddah," I said and that perhaps clinched the deal for me. Or so I believed.
"All right, we need you to get your passport changed." "Changed? Why?" "We don't accept manual passports (the ones in which all details are filled in hand by passport officers) anymore. We need a machine-readable passport. Just go to your embassy, and they know what we want." "So I have to come back to Riyadh again with a new passport?" (I dreaded the thought of having to go through all that I have been all over again.) "You can just courier it," was the reply.
I wonder if the visa officer noticed my sigh of relief. All right! Back in Jeddah, getting a new biometric passport was not much of a task. And it took less than 48 hours for it to come back from Riyadh with the US visa duly affixed on it. (For those who may not know, a visa on your passport is no guarantee that you will be allowed into the country. It is the immigration officers who have the power to decide whether to let you in. You can still be turned away after having reached a US airport.)
A Tale of Two Brothers
On flight SV0035 from Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz International Airport to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I sit next to Syed Sajid Rahmani, a 60-year-old American national of Indian origin. He lives in the Beltway and retired in 2006 as a senior manager in one of America's top retail giants. He is accompanied by his wife, Fahmida Begum. Both are from Hyderabad in India.
"We keep coming to Saudi Arabia every two years to perform Umrah or minor pilgrimage and to visit the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah. I have a brother in Jeddah; he works as an engineer at a construction company headquartered in Jeddah. It is always good to touch base with him," he says.
Rahmani tells me about his long-dead father in Hyderabad. He owned a printing press, and they had a roaring business in the 1950s and 1960s. "We were only two brothers," he tells me. By the early 1970s, Rahmani's father decided to send his two sons abroad. "He had saved enough and wanted us to go to the States. For those who had money, it wasn't difficult then. A lot of Muslims were migrating to US in those days but many others were also heading to Saudi Arabia where the oil boom had just begun.
"Because Hyderabadis had a special connection with the holy cities thanks to the Nizam of Hyderabad, Saudi Arabia was the first destination of choice for anybody wanting to move out of the historic Indian city," he said.
"My brother - I suggest you don't mention his name to protect his identity to save him any possible embarrassment - came here to Saudi Arabia, and I went to the States. That was 1971. I joined a US university and earned an MBA before taking up all kinds of jobs and eventually settling down with a retail establishment. I rose up the ranks to become a senior manager in the firm."
Rahmani's brother in Jeddah did well as a civil engineer. "We went back to Hyderabad after some time, married and got busy in our family and professional lives. In between our father died, and we basically lost touch with the city we grew up in."
Now, more than three decades later, Rahmani says he is a full-fledged and completely integrated American citizen. "My kids are grown. They have graduated from some of the best universities in the United States. They are on their own and are completely independent." The same, however, cannot be said of his brother in Jeddah. "Yes, he has the money but no citizenship. His kids, like all other children of expatriates, were not allowed in local universities. They had to go to Malaysia and Dubai for higher studies. Every two years, he still has to beg his employers to renew his residency permit or iqama. There is no difference between him and a newly hired foreign worker in Saudi Arabia. His kids have separate iqamas, but they have to keep coming to Saudi Arabia to renew them. Do you see the difference?" he asks.
"Being a blood relative, you could always have gotten him into the States, couldn't you?" I ask him. "Well, despite everything, he says, he loves being in Jeddah because it is the gateway to Makkah and Madinah." I am reminded of that classic first line of Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
Rahmani's tale was certainly more interesting than Tariq Ali's novel, "The Book of Saladin," that I had planned to read on the plane. Before I could take a short nap and talk to a large group of Saudi students on board, the plane was hovering over Dulles International Airport about to make its descent. Down below was a breathtaking view of Washington, D.C., the seat of American government. We could see America's most famous manmade landmark - the Capitol Dome - the one that we see on television and in newspapers all the time. As the plane descended further, the view became even clearer. We were confronted with stirring icons and marbled monuments, and the wide Potomac River sparkled in the afternoon sun. The landscape seemed just beautiful.
"So this is America," I said to myself with a sudden rush of adrenaline. The plane had taken off at 9 a.m. (Saudi time) and landed at around 1 p.m. (US time). If you calculate the time difference it was 11 midnight in Jeddah, meaning we were onboard for nearly 14 hours nonstop.
Dulles International Airport is considered to be one of the world's busiest. And it seems there are always long queues at the immigration counters. The day I arrived was no exception. There were large numbers of people streaming in from all corners of the globe. At the immigration counter, people had to give their fingerprints and face the camera. The immigration officer would ask a question or two, and then one was out the door. For me, it took less than five minutes at the counter; the immigration officer asked me just one question, a weird one though: "Are you carrying any alcohol?" "No," I said, wondering where he thought I could have obtained alcohol on a direct flight from Saudi Arabia. "Thank you. Enjoy yourself," he said.
That was pretty easy and simple, I said to myself. I collected my bags and was out and was greeted by the crisp Washington air. I felt relaxed and exhilarated. The sight of the blooming cherry blossoms was a sight to behold - beautiful.
War in Iraq or Recession?
Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recession what are Americans more worried about? And how are newspapers and news channels treating the two stories? Arab News' well-informed and Sorbonne-educated Washington Bureau Chief, Barbara Ferguson, had an interesting point of view. "Recession is the most important issue for most Americans at the moment," she said and explained why. "The events in Iraq were being closely followed until the credit crisis or subprime loan scandal burst onto the scene. Then the scenario changed. Iraq concerns a specific section of Americans - those who are in the armed forces. And in the US, it is not compulsory to join the army; it is voluntary. So the people who are in it know the risks involved, and only one percent of the American population joins the armed forces. But recession has hit everybody. It has directly affected everybody's pockets. Gasoline prices have gone up and many Americans are being laid off. The stock market is no longer bullish, and the dollar is - as my husband says - in the toilet. The mood in this country is bad, very bad."
What Barbara said was also reflected in the newspapers. They mentioned "stagflation," which occurs when overall prices are rising with little or no economic growth. Everyday there were big stories on recession on the front pages of major newspapers. The Iraq story would be on Page 1, too, but that was precisely because Moqtada Sadr's men were back in action on the streets of Baghdad and Basra.
In the Middle East, we have often been told that the media in the US never talks about American deaths in Baghdad and Afghanistan. That turns out to be a complete lie. The center spreads of leading American newspapers were filled with pictures of those who had died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The media was not hiding anything from the public. Having said that the general impression I got from the Americans with whom I had an opportunity to talk was that they really think they are in Iraq and Afghanistan for the good of those countries. Why they think so is very difficult to comprehend. Americans are indeed easy-going and good-natured people.
Hillary or Obama?
America is in the grip of election mania. Bush's party, the Republicans, took little time to decide on their candidate - McCain. But all eyes are on Democratic Party - the party that everybody expects to win the presidency. Bush has made a mess of himself and the country. Most Americans blame him for everything. The conventional wisdom, therefore, is that the Republicans will lose this time after having misruled for eight bad years after the good eight years from Bill Clinton. Some say, the Democrats have hurt their chances because of the bruising fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
"The contest between the two shouldn't have gone this far," said Nigel Fernando, a Washington tourist guide. "They have confused us all. They have fought a bitter war and have left a bad taste among Americans," he said. Hillary, he felt, should have withdrawn in the larger interest of the party.
"That is not possible," said Clarence Wilbur, an international relations student at American University. "The Clintons are very, very ambitious. They will never go without a fight. They don't care for anything. Their eyes are fixed firmly on the next presidency," she added.
I found the momentum to be in Obama's favor. His slogan for change has really caught on with the average American, but Americans are divided on whether they are ready for the first black president. "This is a very racist society," said Boston-based Abdul Wahed Aziz, an American citizen of Somali origin. "They will never allow a black man to become president. McCain who aims to succeed Bush would like to see Obama as a rival because that will make his task easier. It will then be a black-and-white issue, and McCain will win easily." Abdul Wahed's views were not shared by many others that I met across Washington and California. "Barack O, Barack O, Barack O," they would tell me. "He is the man."
Requiem for the American Newspaper
The newspaper industry in the US, I discovered, is facing a huge crisis. Newspaper revenues have gone into a tailspin because more and more Americans are reading their news on the Internet. Journalists are being laid off in huge numbers. Special correspondents, who would go on overseas assignments or out on the campaign trail with presidential candidates, are being told to stay at home. That is one way of cutting costs. Instead, agency stories are being run. Writing in the March issue of The New Yorker, Eric Alterman says few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. "Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago."
Alterman's words were confirmed by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller who said during a recent speech in London that at places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is "funereal." "Editors ask one another, 'How are you?' in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce."
According to Alterman, the rise of the Internet has made the daily newspaper appear dated and unresponsive. Independent, publicly traded American newspapers have lost 42 percent of their market value in the past three years.
Hamas or Fatah?
The one person who is doing a tremendous job in the field of interfaith dialogue in the United States is Professor Akbar S. Ahmed. A prolific writer, his recent book "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization" is getting good reviews in the US media. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge Universities and once served as high commissioner of Pakistan to United Kingdom. He also directed the film "Jinnah," which was recently shown at the Asian Film Festival in Jeddah.
After Sept. 11, 2001, he became one of the most sought-after scholars on Islam. The highly articulate intellectual that he is, Ahmed is fully aware of his Muslim roots and knows what he is talking about. Through his efforts, he has created a bridge between Islam and other faiths. Small wonder then that he has been described by the BBC as the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam.
I was particularly fascinated in 1990s with his book called "Post-Modernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise." It left a deep imprint on my mind and I have been his fan ever since. In a meeting in his office at American University, I tell him about the book and compliment him profusely. "Oh you remember that book?" he says. "Yes, of course," I tell him. Ahmed is an unassuming man who wants to see young people of all faiths come together and build bridges. He is full of life, and academics is his passion.
Ahmed then takes me to deliver a lecture on issues dominating the Middle East. I talk about why it is important to talk to Hamas and how it should be seen as a national liberation movement just as the IRA is seen now. Ahmed's bright students bombard me with all kinds of questions. One of them asks me about Arab News' stand on Iraq, and I give him an honest opinion. Unbeknown to me was the fact that he was checking our online edition at arabnews.com on his laptop even as I was answering his question. I found that very interesting and alarming as well. It is not like in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East where whatever the professor or expert says is the last word. "Here in America, students are taught to think critically. This is a questioning society. It keeps asking questions of itself," says Ahmed. "This is what makes them pioneers. They think out of the box and come up with amazing solutions." Indeed.