Among some Arabs, bitterness reigns

Posted: Apr 15, 2003 12:00 AM

It was almost a disappointment when Iraqi "Information Minister" Mohammed Saeed Al-Sahaf failed to show up for work last week. He, along with the rest of the Saddamite criminal conspiracy that called itself the Ba'ath Party, simply disappeared. In his final performances, Al-Sahaf's daily press briefings were becoming a Babylonian "Saturday Night Live."

"What American troops at the airport?" he scoffed. There are no Americans at the airport. "What American troops in Baghdad?" he demanded, as a tank made its way down the street a hundred yards away.

It seems funny to us, but of course this fantasy world is all too common among Arab countries reluctant to live with hard facts and truth. Following the crash of an Egyptian airliner in the United States that was caused by the suicide of one its pilots, the Egyptian media concocted a web of fantastic rumors suggesting that everyone from the Mossad to Jackie Mason had downed the plane. That the evidence pointed clearly to the Egyptian pilot was unacceptable.

After the atrocity of 9-11, many Arabs could not handle the reality that the terrorists involved were Arabs. The Arab press rattled with the disgusting rumor that thousands of New York Jews had not shown up for work at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001.

During the Six Day War in 1967, the Egyptian and Syrian governments put out so much false information about the crushing defeat they were inflicting upon Israel that they found themselves in a very awkward spot when they pleaded with the United Nations to stop the fighting.

Similarly today, many Arabs are responding with disbelief and confusion to pictures of Iraqis gleefully greeting American soldiers and Marines. The BBC reports that in Saudi Arabia (where coverage of the war has, until now, consisted almost exclusively of wounded Iraqi civilians), some do not believe what they've seen on TV. Hakim al-Saghri, project manager at a banking and investment house, said, "I still do not think they (Americans) have the capital." Regarding the toppling of Saddam's statue, al-Saghri said: "I think it's all made up. ... I know they are not real Iraqis. I think they were brought in from the north to cheer." Ahmed Salem Batmira, an Omani "political analyst" (so The Associated Press labels him), couldn't make sense of the pictures he was seeing. "There must have been treason."

In the Palestinian areas, the mood is not just shocked but mournful. Nael al-Am, a Ramallah grocer, said: "This is a sad day for all the Arabs and Muslims, particularly the Palestinians. ... I invested a lot of money in buying a satellite dish and a new TV set because I wanted to watch the day the battle for Baghdad begins. ... I feel as if a dagger has been stuck in my heart when I see American soldiers strolling in the heart of Baghdad."

And yet the bracing splash of reality was not lost on everyone. Ali Hassan, a government employee in Cairo, told the AP that, "We discovered that all that the Iraqi information minister was saying was all lies." And then he added, "Now no one believes Al-Jazeera anymore."

And speaking of Al-Jazeera, one of its reporters, Dima Khatib, was asked by Larry King if the joyful Iraqi response to American soldiers had surprised her. Her answer: "Yes, I was actually very surprised. ... A lot of my colleagues also were surprised. People are surprised all over the Arab world. Everyone thought the Iraqis were not receiving the Americans and British with smiles and with flowers. Actually, I think the people who were the most surprised are those mothers and wives of men who lost their lives who are from Syria or Lebanon or Egypt or Tunisia or other Arab countries who actually went to Iraq and volunteered to defend the Iraqi people and then, when they saw the reaction of the Iraqi people, they were disappointed in a way because they, well, we thought we sent our men to defend the Iraqi people and look at them -- they are actually very welcoming to the Americans and the Brits."

Those pictures of Iraqis throwing flowers at American and British soldiers will not remake the region overnight. But a giant step has been taken toward peace and freedom.