If you want to make Americans uncomfortable, mention politics or religion and watch the room fidget. You only have to look at the current presidential race to feel the awkwardness of American politics and see the deep divides it creates. And religion? That’s a topic better left to another blog post.
When I moved to Yemen, I quickly learned that these two subjects, nearly taboo in polite American conversations, are the same topics most often broached in first conversations in the Middle East. In fact, not discussing religion or politics with a guest in your home might be considered rude.
I wasn’t prepared to offer deep thoughts on American intervention (or interference) in Iraq and the rest of the Middle East, or support or defend then President Bush’s war on terror, but these questions were the ones most often posed after the chai ahmar (red tea) and cookies had been consumed during afternoon visits with neighbors and friends.
I’d been in Aden for roughly four months when Saddam Hussein was captured, sentenced and hanged. I vividly remember the afternoon I learned of his capture.
My fellow teacher, Vlad, dashed into the teacher’s room and breathlessly told me, “They got him.” I looked up from a grammar book I was perusing. “Who?” I asked. It was a steamy, Aden afternoon and I was battling a desire to nap. “Saddam Hussein,” Vlad gasped. I dropped the book.
We ran to the computer lab to pull up any information we could find. (Pre-Twitter days, but the internet still had plenty to report). Needless to say, my students were full of questions and opinions that night. They wanted to know if I thought Hussein deserved death, and whether George Bush hadn’t committed the same sorts of crimes in waging war against Iraq. Ironically, I had a student in class named Saddam Hussein (I’m not making that up), who took a lot of teasing that night, too. Eventually, he changed his name.
These were tough questions, and I didn’t feel completely comfortable discussing them, but I tried to push through my American upbringing and join in the debate. It’s not that my students didn’t agree that Hussein had been a brutal dictator, but they were uncomfortable with the idea that the U.S. could roll into any country, conduct a war, and drag that leader out of a hole in the ground for public trial. To be sure, they had cause to worry. The U.S. was (and still is) carrying out drone strikes against suspected Al-Qaida militants in a region east of Aden.
Occasionally we’d hear the military jets leaving Aden on flights to observe that desert area and, I suspect, feed information to their U.S. partners. Perhaps their uncertainty also stemmed from the fact that their behemoth neighbor to the north, Saudi Arabia, is also a U.S. ally. There is little love between Yemenis and their northern neighbors, for too many reasons to cover in this post. It came as no surprise to me when the Arab Spring in Yemen resulted in a civil war partially influenced by Saudi Arabia and other outsiders. My students’ fears we spoke of on that long ago day are, in many ways, coming true.
Though I found the political questions challenging, I had to admire the openness with which my hosts asked these questions. They honestly wanted to know my thoughts as an American. I should also say, I never felt condemned by them, even when we disagreed or debated. They agreed that leaders can be separated from those they lead. In fact, the phrase, “Bush no good, but you, we like,” was a pretty common utterance. Evidence to the fact that meeting someone face to face and having an open dialogue is a far cry from the politically slanted, hate or fear fueled news we ingest every night.
I often wished (and still do) that every American could have the same experience I did and sit down to discuss politics with my Yemeni neighbors over a steaming glass of tea and chocolate filled cookies.
Wouldn’t the world be a different place if we could?