The Other Side

There are plenty of American Journalists living in and writing about the Arab World; for various reasons, there are comparatively few Arab journalists living in and writing about the United States. A year ago, my friend Khalid Abdulhadi traveled to the United States in a trip organized by the State Department’s International Visitors Program. Here the English version of an article he wrote for al-Masdar; original Arabic article can be read here

America is split, tightening its belt 

There will  be no better  ideal opportunity to see  Americans normally  behave   than to visit  a bustling city, such as San Francisco, which I actually did late last October. At that particular time, the US presidential   campaign was nearing its climax just one week ahead of Election Day, as the San Francisco Giants team won the World baseball championship, which was coupled with the advent of the Halloween festival.   

The US, which is the world’s economic superpower, receives its visitors with an official caution and yawning atmosphere as if it acquiesced to economic concerns after it had renounced its costly pride.

Washington Dulles airport , which receives the bulk  of travelers coming  to the US capital through Europe, features America’ fear of any visiting foreigner. Visitors usually stand in long lines, waiting for drastic security checks and/ or huge police dogs appallingly and zealously scrutinizing all new comers in what can be described as the most noticeable psychological legacy from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  Autumn has strewn about cherry leaves along Washington pavements surrounded by landmarks tinged with French taste and Greek-like design. A combination of scenes spurs visitors to think  that the superpower that grapples with an economic crisis is to going to see another autumn visiting exhausted empires.

Furthermore, myriad renovations are simply and austerely carried out on Washington streets and buildings as the Japanese and European-made vehicles dominate vehicle lines in all US cities. It is here in America that gleaners of paradoxes can pinpoint  many signs of austerity in the largest country of Capitalism and the guardian of its values.

Though the third debate that took place  on October 23 between the Democratic presidential candidate, Barack Obama, and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, was allocated  for the discussion of the US foreign policy, both nominees tended a little bit to deliberate upon  economic issues that have been of key concern for Americans since the global economic crisis erupted.

“One of the challenges that have faced us over the recent years  in the countries we governed (Iraq and Afghanistan) is that we tried to build up such countries while neglecting our economy, education and energy. We cannot give lessons to the world without applying same in our country,”  said Obama.

Responding to Romney, who pushed for an increase in defense spending, and criticized his rival’s military policies by accusing  him of stinting military spending and of weakening the US influence across the world, Obama said, “The world needs a strong America. therefore, it is important to rebuild America. My plan is this: let us first bring industrial jobs into our country. This is actually what I have done when I subsidized automakers. We should also do our best to create job opportunities for tomorrow , mainly in the field of energy”.

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Listening to Gangnam Style in Sanaa

The idea of Yemen as a land caught in time–though somewhat appealing–is ultimately a rather orientalist stereotype. It’s something I’m almost constantly reminded of here, whether in the form of tribal leaders who tuck Iphones in the embroidered belts holding their centuries old Jambiyyas or the smattering of FC Barcelona memorabilia decorating shops tucking into ancient buildings in Old Sanaa. Even rural areas, it seems, are far from untouched. A friend, I remember, once described his astonishment as he reenacted a famous movie scene on a cliff-top in his village: as he shouted “I’m the king of the world” with arms outstretched, his cousin noted that the scene was “just like Titanic,” getting the cultural reference without missing a beat.

This idea of Yemen the isolated has been floating through my mind recently as I’ve been subjected to the surprisingly frequent sounds of Korean rapper PSY’s single “Gangnam Style,” a rather-focused satire that’s somehow developed into the most paradoxical global hit since Los del Rio’s “Macarena.” I have no idea whether those behind the song had any inkling of their impending worldwide fame when they initially set out to parody classless Koreans’ vain attempts to attempts to channel the “style” apparently epitomized by the residents of Seoul’s exclusive Gangnam district; either way, months later, the original meaning has more or less dissipated. PSY and his colleagues have been compensated with money and notoriety, so I’d imagine that they’re not particularly distressed.

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Demonstrator, Field Hospital, Change Square, Sanaa

Demonstrator, Field Hospital, Change Square, Sanaa

An odd footnote in this year of upheaval has been the May 2011 death of American Jazz musician/poet Gil Scott Heron, who authored “The Revolution will not be Televised,” arguably the most quoted poem ever set to bongo drums.

Unsure how the under-appreciated proto-rapper would have reacted to the ubiquity of his words throughout the various fronts of the so-called Arab Spring, but I imagine he’d be sort of cool with it.