Michael Totten

The Personal and the Political in the Middle East

Roger Cohen is taking heavy criticism for a piece he recently wrote in the New York Times in which he said the “annihilationist” anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Iranian regime tells us less about Iran than the fact that he, an American Jew, was treated with “consistent warmth” on his trip to Tehran and Isfahan. I can’t say I agree, but I sympathize to an extent with what he’s saying because I’ve had similar surprises in the Middle East, happening upon hospitality instead of expected hostility.
Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are so well-known for their considerate treatment of guests it has become a guidebook cliché. No one expects rudeness in, say, Tunisia or Morocco, but I can see why a Jewish visitor might be startled by a warm welcome in a country whose government threatens to incinerate the Jewish State. I imagine he felt a bit like I did when I first visited Baghdad in the scorching summer of 2007 when violent insurgents still waged pitched battles with American soldiers.
I had already visited the friendly Kurdish region in Northern Iraq before I dared venture south into the Red Zone. Western civilians were hunted there by militias and death squads, and it wasn’t the sort of journey one embarked on lightly. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous or that I expected to feel welcome. My nervousness ebbed slightly, though, because I did receive a warm welcome from every single Iraqi I met in the capital. Baghdad’s Arabs weren’t an iota less friendly or hospitable than even the Kurds who hoped their autonomous region could be made into the 51st American state.
Of course I was embedded with the United States military and had soldiers from the 82nd Airborne as my own personal bodyguards. Kidnapping me wasn’t an option for the Iraqis I met on the street. Their politeness, however, was optional and given freely. Don’t assume they smiled and said “welcome” just because the Americans carried weapons. Several soldiers I met had been inside Sadr City, and they told me even children there threw rocks and gave them the finger. (I have since been to Sadr City myself, and can report that the mood is calmer these days.)
It would have been a serious mistake, though, had I assumed too much about Iraq and its politics from the friendliness of its people. A significant number of Iraqis at that time still supported the very insurgents who would have covered my head with a hood and dragged me into an alley if they had the chance. Somebody in Iraq was setting off car bombs and laying IEDs and cutting off heads, and I’ve spent enough time there now that there’s little chance I haven’t come into contact with some of those people. Roger Cohen himself might have scoffed if I had written a column where I dismissed the Iraqi insurgency as irrelevant because the Iraqis I met were nice to me personally.
Arabs, Persians, and Kurds are among the easiest people in the world to get along with in person, including many Arabs, Persians, and Kurds who belong to terrorist organizations. I have met perfectly pleasant individuals who support and are members of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah.
I’ve spent twice as much time in Lebanon as I have in Iraq, and only on the rarest occasions have I encountered any hostility. Two men I met in Beirut who staunchly support both Hezbollah and the Assad regime in Damascus treated me to a Cuban cigar, a half dozen cups of strong Turkish coffee, and two fascinating hours arguing about Middle East politics. One told me he was a lawyer and handed over his business card. “If you need any help while you’re here,” he said, “call me right away.” His party’s slogan is “Death to America,” but I have no doubt his offer to help me was sincere.
Most Westerners who spend time in Muslim countries have similar stories to tell. Jeffery Goldberg related some of his own on his Atlantic blog recently. “I was once with a mullah in Pakistan,” he wrote last week, “who told me that Allah would soon fulfill his promise and destroy the Jews, but who invited me to stay in his guest room rather than make a dangerous night drive back to my hotel. I took him up on his offer, and slept soundly. It wouldn’t be fair of me to call this sort of hospitality superficial, because it grows from a real spirit of personal generosity, but I’ve learned the hard way that the personal isn’t always the political.”
It’s likely that many Iranians Roger Cohen met really don’t feel hostility toward Jews or even toward Israel. Just about everyone I know who has been to Iran has told me the regime’s face to the world is unrepresentative of what a huge number of Iranians think. But even if Cohen met Iranians whose beliefs are in lockstep with those of the regime — which also is likely — I wouldn’t expect anything less from them than what he reported. Every Middle Eastern person has been raised in a culture where hospitality even toward people from enemy countries is mandated. Not every person lives up to the standard, of course, but most of them do. We’d be wrong to think this reflects much on their politics.