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.
But that doesn’t deter him and his friends from bombarding me with their grievances. I am the only Western sounding board in the room, and tonight my hosts are waxing remorseful over the gesture made by the entire Arab League back in 2002, when they offered Israel full peace and normalization of relations in exchange for full withdrawal from the occupied territories, to the lines occupied on June 4, 1967. The Israeli government depressed many by its response–deeming the Arab Peace Initiative as “interesting”–and though President Obama recently hailed its “positive aspects,” it has largely collected dust on the shelf with other failed attempts at resolving this conflict. Some might say this endeavor had the most potential ever, but the settlement expansion since, coupled with hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank and the wholesale siege of Gaza, has caused many Arabs to conclude that the initiative is now a dead letter. As many here see it, their outstretched hand of peace has been swatted away.
I am repeatedly asked if Americans know what the Israelis are doing in their name and with their weapons, and whether my friends and family saw how over 400 of the nearly 1,300 Palestinian dead in the recent Gaza conflict were children. Sheikh knows when to rein his cohorts back and remind them that while it may be the policy of the US government, it is not that of his guest. It’s a defense others have made on my behalf many times in my travels across the Arab and Islamic world, and one that truly gnaws at my core as a patriotic American.
Especially in the Middle East, the United States is seen as having principles, including the Lockean commitment to life, liberty and property. But the American and Israeli policy of denying those right to Palestinians and the ongoing effort to suppress or filter that fact from full public debate are considered blatantly hostile acts here. As we talk through the night, with Al Jazeera reporting on banned Israeli tennis players and Hillary Clinton’s first visit abroad, Sheikh tells me he has little concern about the lack of American network carriage of Al Jazeera’s English-language channel. The cable monopolies today might insist that Americans are more interested in NASCAR than what’s happening in the world. But, mentioning the election of President Barack Obama, Sheikh reminds me that America remains a dynamic and ever-changing society. Besides, he assures me, in this interconnected world people will increasingly come to depend on the outside world more. The voice of the people ultimately prevails, and that leaves Sheikh, as a politician and local community leader, optimistic that Americans will some day become more informed about the “other” side of conflicts still burning around the world.
The real question, as he and I both see it, is whether that time will come too late with regard to the issue of Palestine. Like many here, Sheikh suspects that it might be too late to achieve the two-state solution that Western politicians rhetorically seem committed to. Many believe it is preposterous that a negotiated process that excludes parties and organizations that command the most grassroots legitimacy, like Hamas, stand any chance of succeeding. Sheikh is eager to see the course being charted by America’s new president. Like so many others, he sincerely wants President Barack Hussein Obama to do well. One cannot overstate the amount of goodwill most Qataris are willing to give him, not only as a man of color with an Islamic middle name but as a man gifted with the equivalent of a moral GPS navigational system. If Obama was willing to stand up against the Iraq War from the start, so the thinking goes, both he and his popular following might be the cure to American adventurism in this part of the world.
There are limits, however, to just how far locals here will take that optimism. For example, most people in this majlis believe the two-state solution, as envisioned by the Obama administration, is a fantasy of the American and European left. Polls show fewer and fewer Palestinians believe it is possible; for its part, the recent Israeli vote reflects an uncompromising rightist trend. So what to do? The conflict will, no doubt, be the focus of endless discussion around the world, as it was in majlis well before and since the creation of Israel in 1948. And even if a solution between Muslims and Jews over the holy land is not in place, hope remains that it one day will be.
Our companions have long left the majlis. All that remains after the late-night debates are a few who, perhaps naively, think the solution might emerge. Sheikh brings us to a close by responding to the minaret’s predawn call for fajr prayer: “You will see, my friend. One day I will pray at Al Aqsa!” As Sheikh walks out of the room to perform the ritual ablution, he adds the words “Insh’Allah”–God willing–a reminder that with the Creator’s help, all things in this life are possible, even if today they seem anything but.