A new book titled Live from Jordon, Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East reveals a stark contrast between Arab frustration with some U.S. policies in the Middle East and Arab admiration for the American people and culture.
Author Benjamin Orbach, 27, an American graduate student, says the book grew out of a series of e-mails he wrote to family and friends while working on his Masters degree in Middle East studies.
Orbach had left his home in Pittsburgh for Amman, Jordan, on July 16, 2002. Officially, he was traveling to do research on Jordanian-American trade programs and to hone his Arabic language skills. Unofficially, ten months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was on a self-appointed, secret mission to confront stereotypes, correct false perceptions, and find common ground between Americans and Arabs.
"I was just writing long email letters home to my family and friends, trying to re-assure them that everything was OK, and that I was meeting these different sometimes interesting, sometimes generous, sometimes difficult people." Orbach says.
He never thought his 13-month tour of several Arab countries would end up as a book, but when his e-mails started getting forwarded to strangers he saw there was an interest. "I would get responses that these were so interesting, these people that I was living with and that I met, and (asking) 'Could I be added to the list-serve?'" Orbach recalls. "So I realized that there was an unmet thirst for information about the feature stories of the Arab World, about the human face of the Middle East."
Orbach says there is more to the "Arab Street" than the angry faces that so often fill American TV screens. Because he
has lived in Cairo, Amman and Damascus and visited Turkey, he came away with a more realistic perspective on the mutual misconceptions and apprehensions of the U.S and Arab World.
"I write about everyday people, people that are critical of U.S foreign policy, but who love Mariah Carey and Michael Jordan and the American higher education system," he says.
Orbach says in his e-mails, he "had the luxury of having more time and more space to tell the human stories of the Middle East." He notes that the nightly television news, which reduces stories to just three minutes of airtime, "they don't have the opportunity or maybe the interest in telling those stories."
From his first hand encounters with the "Arab Street," Orbach concludes that it is anger, not hatred, which characterizes most anti-Americanism in the Arab world, and it is aimed at the government, not the people. He says Arabs would like to see an America that would not fingerprint Muslim visitors, or sell F-16 jets to Israel. The author says the U.S invasion of Iraq became another item on their list of grievances.
"Almost everyone I met and spoke with was critical of U.S foreign policy. There was a substantial negative impact to their daily lives as a result of U.S foreign policy as they saw it."
He notes some referred to their Palestinian cousins being attacked by Israeli-operated F-16s, but he says that didn't prevent them from being welcoming to Americans.
"Time and again I was just surprised that people made this distinction between what they thought was very well-founded criticism of U.S foreign policy and their affection for Americans, and their interest in knowing more about American culture."
Orbach found that cultural images from American universities, books, movies, TV shows and popular "rags to riches" immigrant stories are instilling admiration for the United States among Arabs of all ages and walks of life, even those who never had a chance to travel to the U.S.
But he acknowledges that there is a segment of the population that really does hate America. "There is a core group of people who are a very small minority that do hate us. Their goal is to create an Islamic State across the Middle East and North Africa that is ruled by the Islamic law," Orbach says. "The steps to reaching that stage for these 'America-haters,' as I call them, are to overthrow the regimes in Egypt, in Jordon, in Saudi Arabia."
Orbach says those 'America-haters' "hate the U.S. because they have been unsuccessful in overthrowing the regimes, and they see the U.S as being the lifeline that keeps these regimes afloat."
The author of Live from Jordon, Letters Home from My Journey Through the Middle East says if Washington could help achieve a two-state solution for the Palestinian question and bring a successful end to the war in Iraq, there will be a decline in anti-American feelings in the region. But he also sees a very important role for private citizens to play in bridging the Arab-American gap.
Benjamin Orbach says it is extremely important that Americans travel to the Middle East, not just as tourists, but also as experts, working with organizations like Doctors Without Borders and the Peace Corps. He'd like to see Fulbright scholars and journalists spend time in the region, teaching and training their colleagues. The contributions of these "unofficial ambassadors" to the overall development of the Arab societies, he says, could improve the U.S. image in the Middle East and give Americans' true nature a chance to shine