Friday, September 23, 2005 | This has been quite a summer for anyone interested in the Middle East. From the Israeli pullout of the Gaza Strip, to the continuing bloodshed of the Iraqi insurgency, to the end of 30 years of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, the many “foreign affairs” stories the region has provided over this long, hot summer have certainly not been short on historical significance.
And as I returned to my studies for the fall semester, a witness to the incredible human history unfolding through my far-away lens here in San Diego, I was reminded of just how dominant news from the region has been throughout my life.
I have been back in school since January, working on a course of study in International Relations, eventually hoping to earn an advanced degree in Middle Eastern Studies.
Oddly, I am often asked why I am interested in the region. I usually answer with some variation on a similar theme; being so disenchanted by our country’s foreign policy in the region, as it is driven solely by our own economic and security interests with little regard for the local people, culture or history, I am motivated by a strong desire to provide our policymakers an alternative viewpoint.
I frequently offer as evidence any number of disastrous recent decisions affecting the Middle East. From its ill-informed and ineptly executed invasion and occupation of Iraq, to its continued inaction in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, to its misguided refusal to participate in diplomatic efforts to thwart Iranian nuclear aspirations, this White House (and their allies in Congress) rarely fail to disappoint me when it comes to Middle East policy.
I’ll often also mention their stubborn continuation of the unwise policies established over the past 50 years by previous administrations, too. Our long-running alliances with corrupt, despotic regimes such as those in power in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Gulf states show that President Bush is not alone in tilting toward a policy of realpolitik for the region.
Returning to school after a brief summer recess, the possibility of a deeper source of inspiration for my interest in learning more about this fascinating part of the world became a bit clearer to me. It was on the first day of classes, in pre-Civil War American History at Palomar College, that I realized my interest in studying the region might actually be rooted in my childhood.
In explaining his passion for his subject, the professor, whose PhD is in the history of the Antebellum South, explained how, growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, he literally watched the nation’s Civil Rights movement unfold on his television set. He told the class of how he was both horrified at the scenes of violence and captivated by the images of struggle playing out in the streets of America’s cities on nightly news broadcasts. He told of watching the fulfillment of the dreams and aspirations of a people who lead such different lives in what appeared to be a far-away place. He told of how as a kid steeped in California surf culture, he was both fascinated and inspired by the searing images of that turbulent time. After all, he was witnessing history on that electronic box, watching the deep-rooted customs and cultures of a whole region change in the face of violent opposition. It moved him to learn more about those who struggled for, as well as those who resisted against, human dignity and equal rights in their time.
So I thought of how the televised images of historic events in the Middle East, covering the full range of the human experience, from brutal warfare to unprecedented peacemaking, are a part of my own childhood. I suspect I’m not the only child growing up in America in the late 1970s with disturbing memories of frightening images of American hostages in Tehran. I still recall that afternoon in 1979, when, for the first time that I can recall, an unfolding international incident preempted regular television programming. To this day, when an ongoing tragic event from overseas dominates the headlines, I’m drawn back to those images. The embassy hostage crisis and, particularly, the Ayatollah Khomeini, dominate much of my recollection of the news from the early 1980s. After all, he was the international “boogeyman” we were told to fear the most during some of my most impressionable years.
As I rewind and watch the memories of my life unfold, visual images of the historic triumphs in the struggle for freedom and justice for the people of the Middle East loom large. Often even more indelibly, so do the painful and bitter defeats. I vividly remember the image of the handshake between Arafat and Rabin on the White House lawn. I also can’t forget the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when the report that Rabin had been assassinated was first broadcast in a breaking news alert that, once again, “interrupted regular scheduled programming.”
Just recently, as it was reported that the last of Israel’s troops had fully withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, I once again witnessed the news of this world’s most fascinating region unfold. I watch, not just as a student with a desire to work for positive change for our own country’s policies in the region. I watch, having first become aware of the wider world around me by the human stories of struggle and resistance, of peace and hope, broadcast into my home from the Middle East.
Matt O’Connor attends Palomar College, is an activist with several North County political organizations, and has worked for a professional fund-raising company in San Diego.