Obama? Obama! An American’s Travels through the Middle East in November 2008 by Julian Zabalbeascoa

I’m lying face down on the marble stone of a göbektaşı in Cağaloğlu Hamamı, struggling to breathe in the thick air of the bath house, while my masseur Qadir – an unassuming man with a cheery disposition and an enviable mustache – does his best to grind my spine into loose jelly.

“Where from?” he asks.

I turn around slightly, if only to momentarily stop the massage. Curly black hairs circle his nipples and grow in an isolated patch on his sternum. “United States,” I say.

Qadir’s dark and densely forested eyebrows lift. “Obama?”

I give him a thumbs-up. “Obama!”

“Obama,” he says, nodding.

The moment, if there even was one, is over as quickly as it began. Qadir continues the massage, the name itself a terribly misleading siren. Sandwiched between slippery marble and this man’s unforgiving mitts, I try resigning myself to the fact that I may never walk again. A blonde man moves unsteadily past us to sit near one of the hot-water basins. Each of his steps is tentative and cautious. The sound of his wooden clogs on the slick tile echo in the room, off the marble-blue arches and columns and the impressive dome that is perforated with blue light.

Upon entering the bathhouse I was given a checkered red-and-tan towel, but most of the men here have folded theirs and sit on them while they ladle hot water onto their naked bodies. Whether I turn my head to the left or to the right I cannot avoid looking at the relaxed, open-legged pose of an Australian slumped against a wall. I close my eyes and try to suffer through the massage, all the while thinking, And I’ve paid for this?

Qadir must notice my pained expression. He stops the massage. Should he carry on? he wants to ask me. Is it too much? Do I wish to give him the impression that my country people and I are pampered prisses who can’t even handle a massage? He asks these questions in the only way his limited English allows him. “Obama?”

In a flash, I think about what brought me here to Turkey – my entry point into the Middle East – less than two days after Barack Obama’s presidential nomination. Obama’s victory was a global victory, and I wanted to celebrate with the world—the Muslim world, to be exact. But it was also a personal victory. After eight years of a Bush presidency, I could finally say with confidence and a self-satisfied pride, “the United States,” when asked where I was from, convinced that my leader was the smartest one on the block. And though none of this quite explains why, several hours into my trip, I am submitting myself to this torture on a slab of marble that is thirty years older than the United States, it does speak to the spirit of this trip.

I ready myself. “Obama,” I say.

Qadir nods aggressively and slaps my back. He pushes off me to get to his feet and kicks off his flip-flops. Immediately concerned, I turn to ask him what exactly he plans to do, but the angle is such that I can see up the towel he has cinched around his large belly. I squeeze my eyes shut, and he begins walking on me.

Later, after he scrubs me down and washes the soap off me, he hands out his hand for a tip. “Obama?”

 

*****

 

My friends and family tried to discourage me from visiting the region, likening it to a suicide mission, thinking that when the Middle Easterners saw me they would see a cowboy hat atop a walking American flag who wished to do nothing more than siphon the gas from their vehicles. But I’ve always managed to maintain faith in the ability of people, no matter their nationality, to separate the individual from his government. Religious extremists, political tyrants, and other sociopaths aside, we all follow the path from cradle to the grave sharing a common core of ideals and an ability to recognize the humanity in others.

I recognize the contradiction in my pursuits. After eight years of not wanting to be mistaken for the Bush Administration, of wanting to be seen not for the color of my passport but for who I was as a person, after eight years of having to answer the question “Where from?” with an almost apologetic “The United States,” I now very much want to be associated not only with my country but also with its administration-elect. Look at me, world! Look at what my fellow Americans and I have accomplished.

The next day while I try to fork a kebab into my mouth, while every muscle in my back screams for a merciful end, an Australian a few tables over offers the first comments that can be taken as a “job well done” from the international community.

“I wish England or Australia could have a leader like Obama,” he says, “a man who has the globe’s blood in his veins, someone who can inspire nearly every demographic from nearly every country.”

The man is older and is traveling Turkey with his British wife. Though he is from Australia he has spent the last several decades in London. We are sitting in the second floor of a restaurant, and out the window we can see the minarets of the Blue Mosque that are tipped with the golden, crescent moon of Islam. Along the tree-lined avenue where chariot races once took place, organized groups of tourists stand around the 3,500-year old Obelisk of Theodosius while young Turkish men try without success to sell them books of postcards.

“Is there anybody like Obama in the pipelines?” I ask the Australian.

He shakes his head and turns away from the window. “We won’t be having someone like that for a while yet.”

“Well, until four years ago, the world had never heard of Obama,” I say, staining the red-and-white checkered tablecloth with some feta sauce. I dabble at it with my cloth napkin. “There’s hope.”

“Yeah, there’s hope.”

Yes. Hope. Above all else, it was what the can-you-believe-itness of Obama’s victory offered the world. It’s what caused people

from some of the dustiest villages the globe has to offer to some of its most metropolitan to dance in front of camera crews so that this abstract idea, this four-letter word physically manifested, could be beamed all across this planet of ours. After a global economic meltdown, catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the realization that we have placed our planet in peril, all that is left, aside from resigning ourselves to almost-inevitable doom, is hope. That it is symbolized in one of the finest citizens that my country has to offer makes me incredibly happy.

 

*****

Days pass, roads are travelled, and I am now outside of Cairo and headed towards the Pyramids of Giza. My Egyptian cabdriver wants to confirm the character of his cargo. He honks at a car as we approach it, then as we pass it, then again as it is in our rearview mirror, and asks me, “Obama?”

I smile and hold up both thumbs, nodding my head. “Obama!”

But this does not satisfy him. “And Bush?”

The morning after the 2004 elections, the UK newspaper The Daily Mirror asked the question on the minds of so many of the world’s citizens: “How Can 59, 054, 087 People Be So Dumb?” This question “Obama?” is asked for the same reason why early Christians drew a fish in the sand when they met a stranger. The question is not quite rhetorical but its tone is leading, it begs for the affirmative. It’s a way of asking, “Are you one of us or are you one of the fifty-nine million plus?”

I turn my thumbs down. “Bush bad.”

He now smiles along with me. “Why Bush want to be in the Middle East? He crazy.”

“Yes,” I nod, smiling. Bush is crazy. How simple, poetic, and direct, put by a man whose ancestors formed the first great civilization. How else can you explain sending American servicemen and women into a country without a clear plan for victory, let alone withdrawal, yet remain tragically stubborn in the face of towering death toll numbers? Like Hitler ignoring the hard lessons learned by Napoleon in Russia, Bush obstinately said, “What the Crusades, the Russians, and so many others could not accomplish, we can.”

“It’s crazy,” my driver says. “Why not Americans just stay in America?”

“Yes, crazy.”

We drive along a narrow strip of the Nile River. Long shoots spill over the riverbank. We break away from the rest of the traffic and begin picking up speed. In Cairo, cars rattle and choke trying to make it to the next incomprehensibly traffic-jammed street. Car lights and blinkers are either all burned out or never employed. Brake pads, actually the lack thereof, scream as they grind against metal. I look into the passenger-side window and see the exhaust pipe offering a big middle finger to Mother Nature. Cairo is the second most densely-populated city in the world, and its air is poisoned by cars that are held together solely by the determination and terribly low income of its drivers. The recent arrivee to Cairo gets the impression that the only way a car can earn a well-deserved eternal rest in a junk yard is if its horn goes kaput. Egyptian royalty were buried with most of their treasure, and if there is any justice in this world of ours then these drivers will one day be buried reverently clutching their car horns.

My driver honks and swerves around a car that is observing the speed limit. He looks over at the driver and sees that she is a woman. She wears a headscarf like the majority of the women in Egypt and doesn’t pay any attention to his stern gaze. “Women driver,” he says, “they’re crazy. Women should not be on road. Women in the house. Women only good for two things. Cooking and…” He takes his hands off the horn and makes a pumping motion with his hips, laughing. He then further muddies his definition of “crazy” by passing a car on a blind turn, narrowly slicing between it and the surprised driver in the approaching car. He blares out an aggressive Egyptian Morse Code to both drivers. He turns to me and laughs, his gray beard betraying the youthful insanity that still burns in his eyes. “I’m crazy!”

Walking at night in Cairo, I think back to the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At the time, I found myself with some friends in Rio de Janeiro. We were a few gringos in a throng of Brazilian bodies moving to the samba rhythms of Carnival. We climbed a series of steps on our way to the next parade. The majority of the parades were pretty makeshift—a group of people with a truck, some reliable speakers, and a CD that played one song and one song only. Middle-aged men pushed wheelbarrows filled with ice and beers that sold for thirty American cents apiece. These ingredients were enough to attract a crowd.

The steps we followed that would take us to a certain tier of the city where the parade was going on became narrower and narrower, the bricks that composed the stairwell started pushing in on us. We could only walk one person in front of the other. When the stairwell finally opened up, it did so onto a glorious scene of revelers intoxicated by a communal gaiety.

The trouble was that to be a part of the fun we would have to step on the American flag that some people had laid across the final step. The Brazilians in front of us danced on the flag, wiping their feet and grounding out their cigarettes on it. When it came our turn, we refused. The Brazilians smiled and encouraged us to dance on the flag. We refused again, demanding that they move it. Why would a person not want to dance out their frustration and anger with the United States, their puzzled expressions told us.

The American flag, that American flag, those fabrics that had been stitched together by someone in China, were a symbol of empire, of corruption, gluttony, and a shameful disregard for, well, it seemed just about everything that was right and true in the world at that time. But now, with Obama’s victory, the American flag once again is that stalwart representative for a place where all things are possible. And me, being American, also distantly symbolize this.

A car horn brings me back to the dusty streets of Cairo, and I realize that though I have been walking somewhat aimlessly I do have a mission this night. I don’t recognize any of the streets or the area of the city, but I don’t fear for my safety. I’m confident that no matter what dark alley I find myself in I can trust in my fellow man (for women are a scarce sight at night in the Middle East) to see me out of it. As the clock’s hands near midnight a man approaches me asking, “Where from?” and I say without any fear of criticism, “The United States.” He makes no mention of Obama but tells me he loves the United States. He has a nephew who works in Miami. One day he will very much love to see the United States. We are a good people and a good country, I assure him. You should come visit us. Where am I trying to go right now? he wants to know. Can I trust him? I wonder. Of course I can. This is the dawn of a new age, the age of global brotherhood. I mimic the motion of putting my card into the machine. ATM. Ah, he knows just where one is. Does he? Perfect, because I’ve been looking around for quite some time and can’t find one. Yes, there are none around here, but come, he will show me where one is.

And so this is how I find myself in a car with him and his friend late at night as they drive me around city streets that are becoming less and less populated by people and streetlamps in our search for a machine that will put a great deal of cash on my person. While my new friend had been very animated and chatty prior to getting me into the car, he now sits in the back seat directly behind me not saying a word, and it is then that the seriousness of the situation becomes very clear to me. That these men who I have known for less than three minutes will offer their help, for no reason other than for the fact that a man in a country far richer than theirs has beat all the odds to become President of the United States, and because they have nothing better to do so late at night than to see that I find an ATM so that I can sprinkle some money into their economy that will hopefully someday reach them in a far deluded quantity, is incredibly and dangerously stupid of me.

“Obama?” I say to my driver as way of an olive branch. He maintains his gaze on the road as his headlights turn onto a narrow road. “Obama?” I try again. The man says something to his friend in the backseat in Egyptian. I turn to him and offer a shaky thumbs-up. “Obama?” But he just makes a motion with his chin that further ahead we will find my ATM. I know now I am in trouble.

We reach the ATM, and I pretend to not be able to find my credit card. I search my pockets, go through my wallet and then slap my forehead, pretending to remember that I left it in my room. I look at the men to see if they are falling for it. They are silhouettes against the car’s headlights. Their poses are angry and aggressive. “I think I left it in my room,” I tell them. I dig through my pockets one more time to confirm it. “Yeah, it’s probably in my room.” Their hands fall from their sides, but they remain where they are. “I’m just going to walk back to the hostel to go get it. Don’t worry about giving me a ride back. I’m sure I can find my way.” I turn my back on the men and start walking. I wait for their hurried footsteps, but they don’t come. I turn around. The men get back into their car and drive away leaving me Lord knows where. I quickly find a taxi and ask him to take me back to my hostel.

“Where from?” he asks.

 

*****

 

Though they are only separated by the Red Sea, Jordanians share little in the way with Egyptians when it comes to their approach towards tourists. It’s a tragedy that most Jordanians move from nipple to pacifier to cigarette, as they are an incredibly hospitable people who deserve to be around for much longer than their vices are going to allow them.

A man running a restaurant-slash-snorkel rental company treats me to a tea when he discovers I’m American. He lived in San Diego for several decades but returned to Jordan with his daughter when his wife passed away. Now that his daughter has married he hopes to return to the States. He relates an experience he had in the Wadi Rum desert, the same deserts that saw T.E. Lawrence do battle against the Ottomans. The man laid down on the deep red sand at night and saw nearly every star that was above him. “It is like,” he says, taking a drag on a cigarette, “the Universe is hugging you. There is nothing that can compare to it.” He then discusses the similarities between that night and the moment he learned Barack Obama would be President. “Imagine, a black man becoming President of the United States of America. When, with politics, have you ever felt as if you were a part of this thing that is so much bigger than you but that also looks to include you. Maybe not since the ‘60s. I can only imagine how Americans must have felt.”

Further north in Wadi Rusa, an American who has spent the last so many years of her life in London and who has constructed a large part of her identity as being someone who is skeptical and cynical of every move made by the country of her birth, is obviously at a loss for how she can cynically spin Obama’s victory.

“Did you at least see his victory speech?” I ask, certain that even Limbaugh, Rove, and O’Reilly must have had Ebenezer Scrooge-esque conversions when they heard Obama’s speech.

“It was early morning in London when he gave it,” she says, the tone in her voice  letting me know that London is a more advanced civilization because they welcome a new day before America.

“So you didn’t see it?”

“No,” she reluctantly confesses, “I ended up seeing it.”

“And?”

“Listen, I just don’t think that anybody is going to be able to fix this economy.”

“With an attitude like that, how will it ever be fixed? If we’re actually going to accomplish something great then we have to start believing in positive change.”

She scrunches up her nose. “Well what about that thing that he said about…”

She’s the first unpleasant person I meet on my trip during the daylight hours, and she is one of my country people. It was bound to happen. There are pleasant and unpleasant people everywhere, it obviously doesn’t matter where they are born or what passport they hold. I look at her and try to see the American-ness in her that others see when she begins speaking. Does it confirm something that they always suspected about Americans or does she confound them? In their eyes do I also possess this character trait?

We are sitting on the hostel’s open patio in the shade of some awning. Before us, the town slopes down a hill. The houses and buildings are, for the most part, either all white, all tan, or all clay-colored and are pock-marked with dark windows, just as the sandstone cliffs and mountains behind the town are pock-marked with hundreds and hundreds of Nabataean-carved tombs, caves, and temples.

The manager of the hostel, and the matriarch of the family that runs it, brings out the mint tea that the American and I ordered before I discovered what rotten company she would be. I look at the pot of tea. Being that we are in Jordan, the pot naturally resembles a pitcher, and being that I can not get enough of Jordan’s mint tea, I realize that I will be sitting across this American for a while longer. The hostel manager sets out two teacups and some packets of sugar. She then pours the hot tea into my cup. I smile at her and say, “Thank you.” She nods and smiles. She then pours the tea for the American girl but the girl does not acknowledge her. I almost fear that she will send the hostel manager away with a few flicks of her fingers. “Thank you,” I say for my fellow American.

As I sip at the tea, I look at the girl and think that perhaps we are all the children of Columbus. Maybe that’s the problem with us. Unlike other nations and empires before us, we have continually had our negative behavior positively reinforced. Only in Vietnam and now Iraq have we learned that we cannot make ourselves a home where we are meant only to be a guest—but we have a hard time committing this to memory. Are we doomed as a collective people to walk through the world, well-intentioned as we may be, with such weak heels?

 

*****

 

Nursing a slight hangover one morning and headingtowards the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, I meet a man with a large and very expensive looking video camera who is handing out Obama stickers. He’s filming a segment about the Palestinian Territories for Obama’s future peace proposal. He gives me a business card that says he specializes in Middle Eastern photography. As for Gaza and the West Bank, he hopes that Obama can pick up where Clinton left off. “From the bully pulpit, Obama may finally be able to accomplish peace, but it will take him all eight years. Do you want a sticker?” During the last eight years of my travels I would have rarely considered wearing something that would allow people to identify me as an American. I never denied my nationality like other Peters I know who sewed the Canadian Maple Leaf onto their backpacks, but I cared enough about my safety to never put a target on my chest. Now, with Obama, things have changed.

I take the sticker and display it proudly for the rest of the day, even as I pass through security to cross into the West Bank, impressed by the Israeli West Bank barrier, the 21st Century’s Berlin Wall, just as the inhabitants of the planet of Coruscant must have been impressed by the Death Star gleaming out in space.Colored an Eastern Berlin gray, the wall is about 20 feet high and terrifies me, but that something like it exists today is also disturbingly remarkable. Graffiti along the wall pleads for the whole thing to be torn down, for a person’s ball to be retrieved from the other side, for Bush to be impeached, and for Obama to be victorious in November. One out of four ain’t bad.

Leaving the Church of the Nativity, a Palestinian man takes notice of my Obama sticker. “Obama! Yes!”

I turn up both my thumbs. “Yes, Obama!”

“Bush bad.”

“Yes, Bush very bad.” The moment is building. I can feel it.

“I hate Bush.”

“Yes,” I say, “I hate Bush, too.”

“No, I no hate Bush…” He is right. We are, after all, near the spot where a man who taught forgiveness, peace, and the loving of our fellow person, be he your neighbor or enemy, supposedly first came into this world. And does Obama not also promote these ideals of unity. If we are going to accomplish anything then everybody, American, Middle Eastern, European, Democrat, Republican, Christian, Jew, Muslim—we all have to work together.

“Yes,” I say, “no hate.”

“No, no hate.” And then his face erupts with a wicked smile. “I wish to kill him.”

 

*****

 

A Muslim boy no older than eleven echoes the Palestinian’s sentiments as he shows me a beautiful lookout spot for the Wailing Wall at night. Coming to the spot, we had run into trouble in the form of another Muslim boy who must have been about twelve and who had a bone to pick with my little guide. He punched my new friend on the side of the head, and I had to break them up while two Muslim men sat and laughed, a board game between them I did not recognize. All of this played out in the Jewish quarter, though there wasn’t a Jew in sight. My guide tried to take the punch in stride, though it did zap him of the enthusiasm he had earlier when he told me that he knew of a good location to see the Wailing Wall.

Now, as we look at the Jews, most of them Hassidic, praying silently, their noses practically brushing against the Wall, he begins to once again get excited. “Look,” he says, pointing to the underlit golden dome of the Temple Mount. “Look,” he says, pointing to the Mount of Olives and the Jewish cemetery that are visible just beyond some trees. It is obvious that he is hoping for a tip. I nod each time and encourage him, already knowing that I will give him all the change I have in my pockets. He points to everything within sight before he thinks to ask me where I’m from. “The United States,” I tell him. He nods, taking this information in, and I wonder what parts of overheard conversations regarding America and Americans he is remembering at this moment. I admire my view and smile, hoping it will be enough to convince him that Americans are a good people. Finally, he asks me, “Bush?” I shake my head, “Bush no good.” He smiles and nods. “Bush need to leave.” The tone is too heavy not to be parroted from some adult. He says it again, “Bush need to leave.” He means from the Middle East. His eyebrows pinch together and a faint line creases his brow.

“And Obama?” I ask.

His face lights up. He seems like a kid again. “Obama!” he says.

We both smile and turn to look at the men praying to the Wailing Wall while a pair of soldiers patrol the square, rifles cradled in their arms.

Julian Zabalbeascoa is a graduate of University of New Orleans. He has recently been published in Post Road, Zone 3, and THEMA.

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