Authors: Jared Cohen
Tags: #General, #Social Science, #TRAVEL, #Religion, #Islam, #Political Science, #Islamic Studies, #Political Advocacy, #Political Process, #Sociology, #Middle East, #Youth, #Children's Studies, #Political Activity, #Jihad, #Middle East - Description and Travel, #Cohen; Jared - Travel - Middle East, #Youth - Political Activity, #Muslim Youth
ONE HUNDRED DAYS OF SILENCE: AMERICA
AND THE RWANDA GENOCIDE
A Young American’s Travels Among
the Youth of the Middle East
Though the author works for the U.S. Department of State, the views expressed in this book do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. government.
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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Copyright © 2007 by Jared Cohen
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TO MOM, DAD, AND MY SISTER, EMILY:
THANK YOU FOR YOUR LOVE, SUPPORT, AND PATIENCE
or a third Wednesday in a row, I had lunch at a Western fast-food chain in Beirut, Lebanon. This time it was McDonald’s. I was alone and American, but it wasn’t the comfortingly bland Western décor or the universally recognizable taste of a Big Mac that drew me to one of Beirut’s most popular fast-food restaurants. It wasn’t homesickness at all that brought me to McDonald’s; it was Hezbollah, one of the world’s most notorious terrorist organizations.
The members of Hezbollah who invited me to McDonald’s week after week did not fit the Western profile of Middle Eastern terrorists. Instead of tattered green military fatigues, they wore Armani jeans and Versace sweaters; their hair was not covered by checkered scarves or head wraps, but meticulously sculpted and styled; and rather than slinging Kalashnikov rifles over their shoulders, they lugged around bulky, heavy backpacks, more likely to be filled with books than bombs. When girls walked by, they didn’t avert their eyes in an act of chastity; they whistled and gave catcalls that would have been equally at home at an American mall. The few shy boys contented themselves with juvenile comments to the group. The girls, independent-minded and cosmopolitan, would shout back, flirtatiously condemning the boys for their churlish behavior.
They always paid for my lunch, and each week there were new dining companions; most were other members of Hezbollah, but all were supporters of the group. Their political views—when expressed—were ultraextremist and they unabashedly shared them with me. But more often than not, we talked girls or sports. When we didn’t discuss politics, it was easy to forget that these young men were considered by most of the Western world to be terrorists, especially in a cosmopolitan city like Beirut.
Beirut is one big paradox. The notorious green line that divided the city between Christians and Muslims during the country’s fifteen-year civil war is visually unrecognizable, as it has been replaced by trendy outdoor cafés and clothing stores. The bombed-out buildings that haunted the Lebanese population with violence now take on an aesthetic appeal as they stand sandwiched between modern structures. On the surface, it seems that the city’s historical divides have all but disappeared. But this is hardly the reality.
Socioeconomic disparity and religious tensions have become the modern green line. At the top of the socioeconomic chain are the entertainment districts of Monot and Gemayze, each of which boasts a vibrant nightlife and ostentatious display of wealth. When I walked the streets of these districts I felt more like I was observing a fashion show than a social scene. But just fifteen minutes from the outdoor coffee shops and valet parking at Starbucks and McDonald’s is the impoverished and predominantly Shi’a south Beirut suburb of Dahiye, where residents are far more conservative and economically deprived than their more affluent neighbors. The conservative brand of Shi’a Islam and the dire economic situation in Dahiye have propelled Hezbollah into the role of community caretaker. With its headquarters based in these suburbs, Hezbollah wins popular support by providing housing, electricity, clean water, hospitals, and educational opportunities to local Shi’a. To the east of the Shi’a slums is the predominantly Christian section of Beirut known as Achrafieh; however, the only thing east and south Beirut have in common is that they are both located fifteen minutes from downtown. Like the Shi’a and the Christians, the Sunni also have their neighborhoods in Zarif and Verdun, where there is a mixture of wealth and poverty. The close proximity of each of these groups, combined with political, entertainment, and educational realms that bring them together for better or worse, make this diverse city a recipe for sectarian and political conflict.
Hezbollah, or “Party of God,” has had a dark history as a terrorist organization. It began in 1982 as an Iranian-backed extremist Shi’a movement that sought to expel Israel from Lebanon, to attack American establishments, and to aid in the Palestinian quest for statehood. Historically, Hezbollah has dealt America some of its most devastating terrorist attacks: the bombing of the American Embassy in Beirut in April 1983, the bombing of the Marine barracks in October 1983, an attack that took the lives of 241 Americans, and a slew of kidnappings of Americans between 1983 and 1986. That doesn’t include Hezbollah’s history of violence against Israel, which, after a six-year hiatus, precipitated a major conflict in 2006. Well-organized, heavily armed, and closely tied with Iran, the military wing of Hezbollah continues to threaten Israel and has the potential to carry out many more terrorist attacks against America. Despite how well we all seemed to get along, my familiarity with the history of Hezbollah made me constantly suspicious of the young members I met in and around Beirut.
I was nervous around these young men. It didn’t matter how Western they looked or how much we engaged in superficial small talk; I knew their history. For three weeks of fast-food lunches, I avoided telling them my last name or discussing my religion. Now, after just three weeks, they were ready to take me to Hezbollah strongholds. I didn’t want any surprises; I churlishly thought if I revealed my Judaism at McDonald’s, I would somehow be protected by the friendly American forces of crispy chicken sandwiches and supersized French fries.
I assumed my companions hated Jews and Americans. Hezbollah is guided by a commitment to the destruction of Israel. They had kidnapped dozens of Israelis and Americans and prior to 9/11 they were responsible for more American blood than any other terrorist organization in the world. And why would I think otherwise? I knew that Hezbollah didn’t believe in Israel’s right to exist; I knew that Hezbollah had been labeled a terrorist group by the United States; and I knew that Hezbollah had conducted numerous suicide attacks around the world. So these young men weren’t exactly the kind of people I would want to see my American passport with my Jewish last name. While they were always courteous, friendly, and even kind to me, I always took it for granted that these young Hezbollah had ulterior motives.
We developed a routine: They asked me what I wanted for lunch and after telling them, I waited patiently for Hezbollah to wait on me. Middle Eastern youth are drawn to fast food. Eating it is an expression of hipness, style, and cosmopolitanism. I once met a young mechanic in northwestern Syria who would actually travel seven hours to Beirut just to get Kentucky Fried Chicken. Every time I arranged for meetings with young people, they always picked a Western fast-food chain, like Dunkin’ Donuts or Pizza Hut. At first I thought they were trying to accommodate me, but I soon realized it was their own affinity for American culture that was determining our meeting places.
I was a little more anxious than usual on this particular Wednesday. How the hell do you tell Hezbollah—days before you’re set to travel to their stronghold—that you are Jewish? I imagined every scenario possible. Few of these had a positive outcome. Images of violent confrontation horrified me. The last thing I wanted was to come back to my apartment to a frightening surprise.
Before they even had a chance to put the trays of food on the table, I blurted out, “There is something I need to tell all of you before we go to Dahiye,” which was the location of the Hezbollah stronghold.
“No problem, what is it?” answered Fouad, who had paid for my lunch three weeks in a row. He was the leader of the group and usually dressed in dark blue jeans and a green collared shirt. We had actually met at a café in West Beirut three days after I arrived in Lebanon when I interrupted him and his friends teasing a group of their female friends. His hair was dark and curly and smothered with hair gel. He was scruffy and he always had a smile on his face.
I decided to just say it. After taking a deep breath, I exclaimed: “My last name is Cohen.”
They stared at me blankly.
Were they confused? Shocked? Angry? These awkward silences were always so uncomfortable and being the chatterbox that I am, I usually felt compelled to fill the silence. This time I did so with a collection of stuttering points, “I am Jewish, my family is Jewish, and while I am not extremely religious, I do practice Judaism.”
“I know that—” I started.
“This is not a problem,” Asharaf interrupted, placing his hand on my shoulder. He was Fouad’s friend, short and stocky, and hardly the picture of a terrorist. This was not lost on his friends, who always seemed to pick on him a bit. “We have no problems with Jewish people. We have no problems with American people. We hate the United States government and we hate Israel, but the Jewish and the American people have done nothing to us.”
Sharif, another of the young men, chimed in as well. He seemed to be the most slick of the group. Like Fouad’s, his hair was drenched in gel, but it wasn’t an explosion of curls as much as a stiff slicked-back style. He wore a sleeveless shirt, perhaps to prove that he ventured to the gym every now and then. What he said surprised me the most: “You know, we have never known any Jews before, but we have Christian friends. We even have three Christian deputies in Parliament elected from the south as members of the Hezbollah Party. If there were Jews in Lebanon we would probably be friends with them. We know the difference between religion, people, and their governments. In fact, we love American movies and music and we really like Americans. But we want to see the United States government destroyed.”
Had Hezbollah just told me that they didn’t care that I was American and Jewish? Had they also said that if there were Jews in Lebanon they would probably be friends with them? I had thought membership in Hezbollah mandated a strict adherence to the Shi’a interpretation of Islamic law, which would seem to preclude all of the above possibilities. I was shocked.
I was constantly surprised by my encounters with Middle Eastern youth, as much in Lebanon as in Iran, Iraq, and Syria. My impressions of the Middle East were largely shaped and colored by the mutually antagonistic relationship between the older generations of America and of Middle Eastern countries. I learned from my travels throughout the Middle East, however, that the youth can only be understood as their own phenomenon. They are far more tolerant than older generations and seemingly more sophisticated in their ability to distinguish between people, governments, and cultures.
Technology and unprecedented access to the outside world have given these young people sources of entertainment and means for communication that their parents never enjoyed. They embrace connectivity that transcends politics, religion, and extremism. The young men of Hezbollah were a perfect example. One minute they uttered extremist rhetoric about the American and Israeli governments, the next they went to nightclubs and danced to American music, watched American movies, and talked favorably about the concept of “America,” a land as positively mythic for them as for generations of chasers of the American dream.
Technology widened the generational gap, affording these youth the opportunity to communicate in new and liberating ways. I found youth of every political persuasion in the Middle East living multiple lives, separating their social and recreational activities from their ideological enterprises.
I wanted to see this multiplicity in every sphere possible. I wanted to feel and experience it all. I knew this meant going to dangerous places and putting myself on the line. But I wasn’t new to this.
uring my four years
as an undergraduate at Stanford, I traveled all throughout Africa. These journeys began with an anthropological interest in studying other cultures and while my primary motivation did not change, the environments I actively sought out became increasingly dangerous.
I traveled to war zones where I encountered rebels, child soldiers, perpetrators of genocide, victims of various sorts, and ordinary citizens who learned to coexist with horror that is virtually impossible to imagine for most Westerners. And it was all relatively easy. If there was no entry permitted to a country or a region, I simply snuck in. When I was not permitted to do something, I simply did it anyway. In most of these areas, the law had completely broken down.
While in Africa, I developed an interest in human rights and conflict resolution. Whether it was sneaking into the Congo under a pile of bananas, running across the Burundian border, or taking the very dangerous risk of crossing the Congo River from Kinshasa to the war-torn city of Brazzaville, I realized that one day in these regions yielded more knowledge than six months in a classroom. The adventures were addictive, not simply for the exciting stories I’d later be able to tell, but because I walked away from these experiences with a perspective I couldn’t have gained in any other way. I wanted to hear those voices that weren’t heard and wanted to be a megaphone for them.
While in college, I filled my room with eight-by-ten photographs of children I had met, families that had taken me in, and individuals I had encountered. I didn’t want to forget any of it. There was a slide show of images and experiences that constantly played in my head. The memories were equal parts jubilant, tragic, and terrifying. The mental slide show was not always easy to endure, but I appreciated the continuous reminder of what I had seen and experienced.
After 9/11, my interests began to shift. In my final excursion to Africa, I was shocked by the wave of extremist Islamism that seemed to be sweeping the continent. I had expected this in the coastal cities, where there was a historical Arab and Islamic influence, but it seemed to be gaining traction in central Africa as well. Poverty-stricken communities in desperate need of basic goods and social services have become ripe for infiltration by extremists who can garner support for a radical ideology simply by building a hospital or school. My fascination with this phenomenon led me to the Middle East.
Once I decided to go to the Middle East, I wanted my first trip to be big. I wanted to go to Iran.