The cab driver today was from Yarmouk but he was not Palestinian. As usual we got to talking. I wasn’t stumbling too much for the first five minutes prompting the compliment that I speak Arabic “well.” When I told him that I was an Arabic student from the States, he lit up.
“Excellent! And what about this new president?”
“I have a question, you are American. This Obama, he is African?”
“Well his father was from Kenya. But his mother, from Kansas. He was born in America.”
A friend of mine was in an old bookshop yesterday, and the bookseller was apparently convinced that Barack Obama was Jewish.
“Aha, so he’s not African.”
“No, well half. What do you think of him?”
“Better than Bush!”
This is the Syrian refrain, at least from my small sample size, mostly cab drivers. I’ve come to calling Bush “Shaytan” — the Devil, though translated literally in many ways (as a noun: “adversary” or “enemy” or “opponent;” as an adjective: “adversarial,” “opposing,” or “evil”) — which always elicits a warm response and usually some laughter. It’s the easiest way to get my politics across, right away.
The cabbie went on to ask me if the American government pays for all students expenses, to which I said no. My Arabic got worse here, and he might have realized I didn’t deserve the compliment after all. He had rattled of the spate of wars — Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Palestine — that Bush and others had created or exacerbated for the new half-African American president to tackle.
“American people, do they like Bush at all anymore?”
“Hardly. Some of them still do. More of them used to.”
I tried explaining the wave of jingoism in the early part of the decade that prompted the invasion of Iraq, but again here my Arabic fell short.
“I have another question for you, forgive me. You are an American here. But what about these four helicopters…” he pantomimed an air raid with his hands.
He launched into a condemnation of the American cross-border raid. I said it was ridiculous — or rather just a “big problem, bad politics” I couldn’t find the Arabic word for absurd, or last-ditch attempt by an out-going American president to destabilize the region. He explained how the Syrian-Iraqi border was hundreds of kilometers long.
“The government tries to monitor all that area, but if it can’t, why is it up to the Americans to be the police? You are from where you said? The city of Boostoun?”
“Okay, yes, Boston. Well let me ask you: if you were in Boston, and someone attacked the border of the city, or the border of the area outside the city, you would be angry and would want to retaliate, no? It’s your land.”
A fair question, and a serviceable analogy for understandable Syrian outrage at a cross-border raid that seems rapidly forgotten in the international press.
We were nearing our destination. He had been going on about a few things I didn’t understand, so I asked a question.
“Do you think Iraq is better off without Saddam Hussein?”
“Well… Iraq without Saddam is better, okay. But this doesn’t mean it’s any good. All the killing, and for what? Petrol.”
“Exactly. For what’s under the ground.”
He delved into a history of colonialism. “The French, they were in Algeria for a hundred and twenty years! And how many dead Algerians? And they wonder why they have problems in France!”
I said that the American government was a bad student of history, that “they’re following in the footsteps of the British…”
….”who invaded Iraq 90 years ago!” the driver interrupted.
A Mercedes drove by and he changed the subject yet again. “What a car!” We were in the diplomatic part of town; a BMW SUV was driving towards us.
“Merceedeez. Bee Emm…”
“Right! German cars. Japanese cars!” he tapped the wheel of his Hyundai, which was in fact Korean. “German people, Japanese people. All good people.”
There aren’t any American cars in Syria, at least few that came off the assembly line after the 1970s or 80s. I wanted to repeat the game: American cars….
But we was going on about the traffic in front of us, its nationality. We were where I needed to be. “Okay, you can stop here,” I said.
We said our goodbyes, remarking on the good fortune of having met. I was standing on the sidewalk leaning in the passenger window to pay. I traffic police, or an embassy guard — we were near the Saudi Embassy — was waving his hands and approaching. Horns were honking. “Move the car! Get moving!”
I slipped the money through the window. He laughed, peace be upon you, and sped off.