As is customary with Arab Bedouin culture, I am being inundated with potent quantities of dates, sweets, fresh juices and caffeinated beverages at the palatial home of my friend. There is much to discuss these days, and my host wants to make sure I am satisfied and alert. As I join the discussion, my nose is filled with the sweet scent of oud, a highly prized incense, which burns on a foyer just behind my host. He is a young man educated both in Europe and the Middle East who has seen the machinations of government and diplomacy up close as a blue-blooded, inner-circle member of the Qatari royal family. It’s not the food but the food for thought I’ve come for, in an effort to find out what people here in this conservative Islamic society think about what’s happening in the world. And I’m joined by scores of others, mostly Qataris, who live in the same neighborhood and have the same concerns. They regularly gather here, and I occasionally join, in a session my friend chairs known as “majlis,” a local town hall-style of representative democracy that predates the Western concept. Here people come to air all manner of grievances, from unfilled potholes to quarrels over property rights.
“Sheikh,” as he is affectionately called, is a close relative of the monarch who leads this tiny, natural-gas-rich nation. And like many from around the Persian Gulf who are well off, young and motivated, Sheikh sees it as his duty to use his comfort and luxury to try to find solutions to the troubles and challenges of our times. Some he wants to fix. Most recently I learned of his response to the collapse of world financial markets. Sheikh tells me that, after much deliberation with his mother, he decided to move every last penny of his fortune into interest-free Islamic banking. He hopes others will follow his example–and, as loyal tribes typically operate, most of his patrons will.
But there are other problems causing angst among his people, and solutions seem far beyond the four walls of this ornate setting. Like much of the so-called “Arab street,” Sheikh has struggled to understand the nuances of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. As a student of the humanities he learned about the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, but as a Muslim his heart aches for Jerusalem and his Palestinian brothers in the occupied territories. Ever since meeting him over a year ago and presenting him with a copy of my book on the subject, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the first issue he is eager to take up with me.
“If the Jews want peace,” he tells me with finger jabbing the sky, “then why they announce just now to build even more settlements in the West Bank?” There is no answer to that, of course, at least not one that will survive the hours of endless inspection that such matters are given here, a place where the press of time is rarely a factor. Although I am an American, Sheikh knows I am not one given to defending or even rationalizing the occupation.