Apr 9, 2006


We had a birthday party for Dash on Saturday night. We invited three families, including the people next door. They never came. The mother is a doctor, and a politician, from a small town east of Malaga. Last fall, she rented a chalet here for two of her young children. They're in the 6th grade with Dash. The mother is getting a divorce. The children live with a Moroccan housekeeper. The mother appears every few weeks. The father appears when the mother doesn't. He drives a lemon yellow sports utility vehicle and likes to follow the road rallys from Europe to West Africa. He wears dark glassses, I've never seen his face. The eldest child, an 18-year-old boy, has Down Syndrome. He doesn't live here, but Dash tells me he was here over the weekend, playing with tiny trucks, laughing like a child. Once I asked the two children, Guillermo and Violetta, why they came here. They said they didn't know but at the other school they went to before there was a lot of violence. Apparently, they live in a Wild West part of the costa del sol.

The night of the party, when we reached dessert, I went to invite the mother once more. I saw her in her kitchen window that looks out of the back of her chalet at the valley of Ifrane and the forest beyond. The mother is tall, big boned, and strikingly beautiful but in this moment. just after dusk, looking out the window but not looking, as though staring life full in the face, she was a portrait of tremendous grief. I let her be.

The other guests included a lawyer from Azrou. He came alone; there was some medical problem with one of her children and his wife remained at home. She also speaks English, he doesn't. I wrote about him once before; he spent three years in prison here in Ifrane during les annees noires.

A couple from the university also came. He's Iraqi, she's Mexican. She teaches economics, he teaches finance.

All tolled, three men, two women. B and the woman from Mexico disappeared into the garden, the three men fell into conversation — which was interesting just for this. These two men, one a Moroccan lawyer, K., the other an Iraqi professor of finance, M., are perhaps typical of well educated people we have met here. The lawyer spent three years in jail during les annees noires yet he's very defensive of the monarchy, the son of the man who imprisoned him. He's also remarkably anti-American. For his part, the professor is more critical of the government here and is more pro American. He often tells the story of the letter he wrote to George Bush congratulating him on his decision to liberate Iraq.

But now that's changed. His family in Baghdad hasn't had electricity in more than a week. None at all. Before they had some, even if only for an hour a day. Now there is nothing. Food is hard to find. Water is erratic. They are terrified of using the phone for fear it's tapped They are Sunni. The mother recently went to Mosul to visit relatives and it was harrowing journey. As far as they are concerned it's not a question of whether there is a civil war but a question of survival. And so M. has now changed his mind on the war. He believes the Americans should install another dictator. "Isn't it so Mark? We agree. We always agree don't we. I'm telling you we are 500 years behind the West. What can you do? There is no other way to see it. Five hundred years, you cannot make that up over night. These people only understand power. It's survival of the fittest."

K., the lawyer, agrees, although he is more thoughtful and more refined in his expression. He speaks in Arabic, which M translates. "If I were Bush I wouldn't defend what America is doing in Iraq with a policy. I would just say, 'we have the power, we need the oil, and we are going to take it.' There is no reason to create this fascade."

K. also believes the trial of Saddam Hussein is nonsense. "Everyone knows what he did. There is no point to documenting the crimes, it just gives hope to those who hope he will return."

It was a strange thing for a defense attorney to say. M. agreed. "This is what I am telling you. These people only understand force. This trial is a nuance of democracy no one cares about."

Asked whether America should withdraw from Iraq, M shook his head, K shook his shoulders. And if America pulls up its draw bridge I said, will the world be better for it?

"America is always threatening the world with its isolation," said K, "but it never happens."

* * * * *

You can make the argument these days, the evidence is becoming a mountain, that the clash of these two civilizations, which happens every century, has rarely been more thunderous, that the war in Iraq is lost and democratic reform from here to the Tigris with it. Everywhere you look, everything you read, everyone you speak to, all the most subtle stories suggest that things are turning sour, even here, on the fringes. Power is in; the populace is out. The US is increasingly seen as impotent, Bush as lame. There are no incentives left for democratic reform, no possibility of carrot and stick. Iran's raised nuclear fist is proof of that. And so the Arab awakening seems to have gone as far as it can for the moment. Now back to sleep, to a nap at least, to a forgetting. The light has been too much, too unbelievable, too untrustworthy. Now the only option for the West is to withdraw, wait, and resist the extremists until the ummah awakens again. The danger of fundamentalism will pass. Materialism is already undermining it, and if you say, 'well yes but materialism has been undermining it for centuries,' that's true, but this last burst, which seems to some like an effort to take over the world is a death rattle.

"No one believes anymore." People are always telling me that. Middle class people to be sure, but even poor taxi drivers and maids will tell you. The reason Islam prevails is because it provides basic services, which the government doesn't. It offers refuge from globalization which no other structure can do. But the message is being lost. It's becoming like so many other organized religions, a sentimental hope in fearful times, a source of order amidst chaos.

And so all that can be done if you are in this sea is to make the smallest gesture. Pick up a hitchhiker, put an extra dihram in an old woman's palm, complement the policeman on his uniform, stop for people crossing the road, and assure people you are leaving, but that they live in a rich and beautiful country and you wish you could stay but home is home, and your family needs you. Better to fall back on gentle deceptions and the white lies that keep appearances up because hope is on hold.

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