Monday, May 19, 2008

The Satanic Controversy

By Siraj Wahab

Who is more important: The ambassador or the consul general? Usually, and in strict precedence, of course, it is the ambassador. When it comes to Saudi Arabia, however, it is India's consul general in Jeddah who is the most important person simply because he is the one in charge of organizing Haj facilities for the nearly 170,000 Indians who perform the pilgrimage every year.

But that privilege can prove to be a poisoned chalice, as outgoing Consul General Dr. Ausaf Sayeed discovered recently. He has been in Jeddah as the consul general for nearly four years now and is due to leave the post in July; he joined the Jeddah Consulate in August 2004 for a three-year period and was given a one-year extension until the first week of July this year.

As the consul general in Jeddah, Sayeed's number is the one that politicians of all hues dial to get "special treatment" for their loved ones undertaking the pilgrimage. Then there is the official Haj delegation (which once had then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's barber as its member) that the consul general has to take care of. Then there is the headache of arranging accommodations for the Indian pilgrims. They have to be as close as they can be to the Holy Mosques in Makkah and Madinah — or else he finds himself in the hot seat. On top of all that, he has to listen to the unreasonable demands of the Haj Committee of India not to mention the frequent problem of Air India disrupting pilgrims' travel schedules. If everything goes right, it is the Haj Committee that gets all the credit; if anything goes wrong, he gets the blame.

Sayeed recently found himself in the eye of a storm whipped up by one disgruntled Hindi-language journalist. According to local newspapers, the journalist was on Haj last year in a personal capacity. His father, however, was part of the Haj goodwill delegation. With narcissistic logic, the hack announced that he wanted to be accommodated in the five-star hotels reserved for delegation members. The consul general refused him his wish. Stung by the refusal, the slighted scribbler waited for a chance to turn the tables on Sayeed. His patience was rewarded. He found an opportunity for revenge on the consul general's personal website ( Those who are aware of how the cyberspace works know full well that websites hosted on free servers have no control over what advertisements are displayed on their margins. It was what was in these advertisements in Sayeed's case that became the root of the trouble.

One of the advertisements was for Salman Rushdie's controversial books. It appears that the journalist ensured that the location of the advertisement was highly publicized in Hindi newspapers, and the coverage coincided with the annual Haj Conference that was taking place in New Delhi last month. A handful of delegates demanded that Sayeed be withdrawn and Minister of External Affairs Pranab Mukherjee had to make a statement saying an inquiry would be instituted into the whole affair.

The whole thing turned out to be the handiwork of just one disgruntled journalist. It didn't stop there, however. A mainstream English-language newspaper fell into the Hindi journalist's trap and ran a story saying Sayeed was being shifted because of the Salman Rushdie ad issue. There were quiet chuckles in the Indian expatriate community in Saudi Arabia, which knew long before the controversy erupted that Sayeed was to be transferred to Delhi having served for four long years in Jeddah. His replacement was announced long before the journalist discovered the spurious advertisement. Sayeed's successor, Sayeed Ahmed Baba, a West Bengal cadre IAS officer of the 1988 batch, was confirmed as the new consul general on Jan. 10, 2008. The controversy erupted on Wednesday, April 2.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Journey Into America — Part 2

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, May 8, 2008

When applying for a visa to the United States, you have to provide a tentative itinerary of the places you intend to visit. I did, and included New York along with Washington, D.C. I was sure I would see the US capital but wasn’t decided about “the city that never sleeps.” I just added it as an afterthought. “If time permits, maybe I’ll go there,” I said to myself without giving the idea a second thought.

Commercial cities are plastic cities; they terrify me.

“No, you must visit New York City; there is no point of going to the US and not visiting the Big Apple,” insisted my colleagues at Arab News. “It is like Pakistan without Karachi, India without Bombay or UAE without Dubai. You’ll get bored in Washington after three days.”

There was quite a gap between the time I applied for the visa and the actual visit. Just 10 days before the journey that would completely change my perception of the United States and its people, I got an e-mail from a certain Jalil Khan with “Compliments from San Francisco” as its subject line.

Khan, who identified himself as a senior airline executive, had read an article of mine on the web, and the e-mail was in response to that piece. “If you ever happen to pass through San Francisco, it would be great to meet you,” he wrote while signing off.

“Where is San Francisco?” I asked him while informing him about my impending visit. “San Francisco is on the West Coast of America. It is a five-hour flight from D.C.,” he wrote back. “If you depart D.C. in the evening (say on Thursday) 7 p.m., arrive about 10:30 p.m. same evening (taking into account the three-hour time difference; California is three hours behind), spend Thursday night here, Friday and Saturday in San Francisco, return to D.C. on Sunday anytime. We have about 10 flights a day — to and from — D.C.”

He invited me to visit him and his family in San Francisco and e-mailed me some interesting aspects of his family and about their connections with the Nizam of Hyderabad. His story seemed compelling and irresistible.

“Yes,” I said. “Welcome,” he replied.

“Hurray, no New York for me,” I said. “Even though it is just an hour’s flight from D.C., and I could very well have taken a train or bus, which usually takes three to four hours.”

The World Is Indeed Flat

It was 10 p.m. local time when a packed United Airlines flight landed at San Jose Airport. It is a small airport and resembled the old airport in Dhahran. San Jose is the third-largest city in California and the 11th largest city in the United States. It has a large Muslim population. As the hub of Silicon Valley, it is a popular destination for business people and computer engineers. The term Silicon Valley originally referred to the region’s large number of silicon chip innovators and manufacturers, but it eventually came to refer to all the high-tech businesses in the area. Despite the development of other high-tech economic centers throughout the United States, Silicon Valley continues to be the leading hub because of its large number of IT engineers.

I saw a number of typically-dressed Indians at food joints and hotel lobbies and was immediately reminded of that famous quote in New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s best-selling book, The World Is Flat: “I tell my girls, when I was growing up in the 1950s my parents used to say to me, ‘Tom, finish your dinner. Don’t you understand people in India and China are starving!’ And I tell my girls, ‘Girls, finish your homework because people in India and China are starving for your jobs.’ And in a flat world, they can have them.” Indeed, Indians were everywhere in Silicon Valley as I discovered in the few days that I spent there.

‘Silicon Valley’s Top Doc’

When I landed at San Jose Airport the air was distinctly different from the one in Washington. It was still crisp in D.C.; San Jose was warm but very pleasant. And so was Jalil Khan — who was at the airport playing the perfect host. A man of cheerful disposition and impeccable manners, he had an air of aristocracy around him. He certainly seemed like he belonged to some royal family.

Khan’s Pakistani wife is a highly accomplished person. A dentist by profession and a graduate of the prestigious University of Texas, Dr. Fowzia Khan is described as “Silicon Valley’s Top Doc” and runs a popular clinic called Tranquility Dental ( in one of the most prominent and elite shopping areas of San Francisco Bay called Santana Row. Their accomplishments were mind-boggling but what hooked the journalist in me were the stories that surrounded the parents and relatives of Mr. and Mrs. Khan.

The Philippine Connection

Dr. Fowzia Khan spent a number of years in Manila, the Philippine capital. Her father, Mohammed Abdul Hakym, was posted there at the Asian Development Bank headquarters. A well-known Pakistani of his time, he graduated from Vanderbilt University in the US and worked with the Planning Commission of Pakistan before he was appointed as a top ADB economist. He retired in the mid-1980s and made Texas his home. Mrs. Khan went to the well-known International School in Metro Manila and earned her dental degree from University of the Philippines. She moved with her father and brothers to the US and then earned a second degree in dentistry from the University of Texas in Houston. She made San Francisco her home after she married Jalil Khan.

Dr. Fowzia has a large circle of relatives spread across the length and breadth of the United States. All of her brothers and cousins (there are 30 of them!) are physicians and surgeons. “I am the only dentist,” she says and explains why. “I did two years of pre-medicine before opting out. I couldn’t stand the idea of delivering babies!” The whole family was naturally shocked because in her family it was a given that everybody would become a doctor or a surgeon. Her opting out came as a shock. “I am an artist, you see,” she said pointing at bright pictures of Americans with “Hollywood smiles” that adorn her posh clinic.

Mrs. Khan’s clientele includes CEOs and innovators and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley. She was one among dozens of highly successful Americans of Arab, Indian and Pakistani origin that I encountered in the United States. Her story mirrors the story of most immigrants who make it big in the United States.

‘Father of Veterinary Education’

Jalil Khan’s father, Dr. Mohammed Habib Khan, was a noted veterinarian, a pioneering giant in the field of veterinary education in India’s erstwhile Hyderabad State. He was awarded the Nizam’s Scholarship to pursue veterinary science in London; he then returned to Hyderabad and, complying with the wishes of the state’s ruler, founded under Osmania University the first veterinary medical college in the Indian subcontinent. He wrote the curriculum in long hand, which is now followed by all veterinary colleges in India and Pakistan. He subsequently served the United Nations for more than 15 years as an adviser to several governments and world leaders, having left Hyderabad with the entire family in the late 1950s.

Nizam’s Agent General

Jalil Khan’s uncle, Nawab Mir Nawaz Jung (Mohammed Mir Khan), was even more accomplished. He was the Nizam’s Agent General in London. Nawaz Jung was the only person, other than Moin Nawaz Jung, the Nizam’s finance minister, who could operate the secret bank account that the Nizam’s government opened in London in the turbulent 1940s ostensibly to buy arms to defend Hyderabad State. This bank account at the National Westminster Bank in London, in which a million pounds were deposited, is in the news these days because India and Pakistan finally decided to share the “frozen money” which has now grown to 30 million pounds. Nawab Mir Nawaz Jung, Jalil Khan’s paternal uncle, served as Pakistan’s permanent representative to the United Nations in New York in the 1960s.

Stanford University and KAUST

“There’s Stanford University,” said Khan while taking me around for a tour of the region one morning. I literally jumped with joy in the passenger seat. This was the university whose name I would hear frequently while covering the foundation-laying ceremony of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST).

The academics and experts who visited Saudi Arabia then would repeatedly cite the opposition and cynicism that surrounded the creation of Stanford more than 100 years ago. “‘Why create this monster in the middle of nowhere?’ was the question that Americans asked in 1890 when the university was being established,” said one knowledge-economy expert. “Now the whole Silicon Valley exists because of this university.” For a moment, I was mentally back in the village of Thuwal, 100 km north of Jeddah, where KAUST is rising. Who knows? A century from now, KAUST may be the Stanford of the Middle East.

Stanford is among the world’s top five universities. It has more than a dozen Nobel laureates on its faculty. The university has pioneered research in unimaginable areas. It attracts the best of the best in the world. And it is these universities that make America the superpower it is. It is this knowledge economy that makes it No. 1 — not those Abrams tanks, Apache gunships and F-16 fighter jets that we see in action in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan raining death and destruction. And it is precisely because of these universities and such fine institutions that you see long queues of young men and women at US embassies and consulates across the world.

Fair Share of Riffraff

One Friday afternoon I found myself in San Francisco’s biggest mosque. It was full with the faithful from all over the world — mostly young men and women. In my conversations with them, they would tell me of how they admire the United States, and how they face no difficulty at all. “This is a wonderful society. I have had no problem at all. In every society you have riffraff. This society, too, has its fair share of riffraff,” said an American citizen of 30 years. “I came here from Tunisia and, Alhamdulillah, I have had no problems.”

What are the things that appeal to him about American society? “They are honest. They know no other way. They have been taught that way. I like this society’s honesty, and this country has a great legal system. There were times when I thought I would be discriminated against in certain legal cases. But no, an all-white bench of judges ruled in my favor against the white Americans. This is what I call ‘adl’ (justice). This is what this society has given me. Why wouldn’t I love this country? I travel a lot, and I have a typical Islamic name. When I come back, the airport officials greet me with: ‘Welcome back, Mr. Ahmed.’ It is such a nice feeling.”

When Mr. Ahmed was talking about “adl” and justice, I was thinking about the hundreds of Arabs and Muslims who were arrested in the aftermath of 9/11 and deported for flimsy reasons. “Are you aware as to how much America is despised outside for what it has done and doing?” I asked Mr. Ahmed. “Look, every country on this planet is a self-serving nation. Rightly or wrongly, the government of this country thinks what it is doing is to protect its interests. Well, what can we say? We have the power to vote this administration out, and we will. Like all justice- and peace-loving people in other parts of the world, we are not happy with what is happening in our name. But please don’t confuse this administration’s policy with the people of the United States.”

“Yes, this is the land of the immigrants,” said Mr. Ahmed’s Lebanese colleague joining the informal discussion. “Mr. Ahmed told you about riffraff in society. Once at college, somebody made a racist remark against me saying, ‘You damn foreigner,’ and my reply to him was: ‘The only difference between you and me, Buddy, is I flew in with legal documents and in a plane, whereas you came in as a refugee in a boat.’ Everybody has come from outside here. Everybody has dreams and, therefore, they live their dream.”

Public Education vs. Private Education

Dr. Khaled Obeid is the principal of Granada Islamic School, which is fully accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in the United States. The school is run by the Muslim Community Association (MCA). He is originally from Palestine and came to the US in 1989 as a student with a bachelor’s degree in Arabic language and literature. He later earned a master’s degree in public administration from Notre Dame University and did his Ph.D. from the University of San Francisco.

The MCA-run school has a large number of Muslim students, both girls and boys. The mosque, where I met Mr. Ahmed and his Lebanese colleague, is run by this association.

When asked about the school, the soft-speaking Dr. Obeid provided all the interesting details. “A lot of parents want their children to know their values and their roots. In a public school, they think they may forget about their culture and their values because of the secular education. So here in this school, we teach all that is being taught at public institutions in addition to Islamic courses and traditional subjects. Our students have gone on to win some of the most prestigious scholarships available at American universities,” he added.

“Let me give you an example of how we connect the present with the past. The other day our children were being taught about medieval Europe; we immediately reminded them about what was happening at that time in the Islamic world. We told them how the Muslim world was way, way ahead while Europe was in the dark.... The whole idea is to make them feel proud of their roots, of their culture.”

The school currently has youngsters of 33 different nationalities.

Cricket in California

The best part of any journey often is that which is unplanned. I discovered this when I missed the flight to D.C. from Logan Airport in Boston. That incident caused me to meet an elderly but energetic Faizul Hasan, who — I was soon to discover — is the president of California Cricket League (CCL).

A Pakistani by birth, he made US his home by arriving there in the 1970s. He told me he was on his way to New York to take part in elections that day for the US Cricket Board. There has been a lot of infighting in the board, he says, and goes on to narrate in detail how different cricket clubs and associations are jockeying for power. It seems there are 700 cricket clubs and 37 associations in the US. The United States of America Cricket Association (USACA), which is the governing body for the game in the United States, is an associate member of the International Cricket Council (ICC).

The problems in the United States are not dissimilar to what we have in Saudi Arabia. The ICC has tied up with one group, and the clubs are affiliated with another. And, just as in Saudi Arabia where there are hardly any Saudis playing cricket, there are no Americans playing there, either. It is basically confined to the Indians and Pakistanis and certain other nationalities.

According to Hasan, the concept of the now-popular Twenty20 format was first introduced by them. “We organized a Twenty20 American Cricket World Cup in 2000. The ICC immediately took notice and wondered what this format was like. We explained it to them as to how people in America do not have the time and patience for 50-over matches. We had eight teams: Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, West Indies, Canada, USA, World XI and Asia XI. It was a huge success. And it was this success that drew the attention of ICC to organize similar tournament on the world stage. Yes, you can safely write that we are the pioneers of Twenty20 cricket.”

Now that I am back, and having exchanged my business card with Hasan, my inbox is filled with US cricket politics just as it is with Saudi cricket.

Unalterable Damage

America is a land of many contrasts, many different interests, and it seems to have room for many different people provided they are willing to work hard and both respect and tolerate differing viewpoints and beliefs. Perhaps, as all the immigrants that I met told me, the United States’ greatest monuments aren’t the ancient stone edifices of Washington, D.C., or the towering ironworks of San Francisco’s magnificent Golden Gate Bridge but those pieces of paper written so long ago that have guided this country of six time zones toward a more-balanced society for all of its inhabitants. It is the government of George W. Bush and his neoconservative cohorts that have unalterably damaged its reputation. The world is eager to see what the upcoming US presidential elections will bring us.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Journey Into America - Part 1

By Siraj Wahab

Published in Arab News on Thursday, April 24, 2008

These are certainly not the best of times between the Muslim world and the United States. The world's only superpower is seen by an overwhelming majority of Muslims as a brute and arrogant force on earth. Here, in the Muslim world, the US is seen as the source of all corruption; it is blamed for all the ills in the world. Muslims tend to identify George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld with some of the world's worst dictators.

Just switch on your television and take a look at any footage of any demonstration in the Muslim world. There you will come across people holding placards bearing caricatures of Bush, Cheney and Rice drawn in the least favorable way. Take a look at political cartoons in newspapers in the Middle East, and you'll get a sense of the depth of Muslim anger. Discuss America in any Muslim household these days, and you will invariably hear the choicest invectives hurled at Uncle Sam. Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib are immediately mentioned to make the root of such anger even clearer. The death and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq and its blind support to Israel are pointed out as proof of America's colonial ambitions and lust for oil.

To cut a long story short, a large majority of Muslims see America as their Public Enemy No. 1. It was perhaps or rather for this reason that a colleague of mine remarked casually, "So you are going to America? Is the FBI funding the trip?" According to this person, no Muslim with "Abdul Wahab" as his family name would take the risk of undertaking a journey into America at this point in history unless it was funded by the FBI! That remark haunted me for much of the two weeks that I spent in the United States last month.

Go, Change Your Passport

The easiest part of undertaking a journey into America is the decision itself. The difficult part is the trip to the US Embassy in Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter on the assigned day of the interview. The US Consulate in Jeddah no longer issues visas, so everybody now has to go to Riyadh in person. Being a journalist and working for the Middle East's leading English language daily and having a letter of recommendation from the editor in chief is certainly a huge advantage - but no guarantee that you will get the visa. You will still be subjected to all kinds of questions by the visa officer.

"Why should you go to America?" "Because my editor in chief thinks that as a journalist I should know about your country and that I should familiarize myself with it. Plus, I have an invitation to speak on Middle Eastern affairs at one of your universities."

The visa officer remained unconvinced simply because if you are in your 30s you are seen as a potential immigrant. All questions are geared toward ascertaining what the chances of you coming back are. "Do you have relatives in the States? Who will you stay with? Which places do you plan to travel to?" And then, "What do you think will make you come back?" "My wife of 10 years and three lovely kids in Jeddah," I said and that perhaps clinched the deal for me. Or so I believed.

"All right, we need you to get your passport changed." "Changed? Why?" "We don't accept manual passports (the ones in which all details are filled in hand by passport officers) anymore. We need a machine-readable passport. Just go to your embassy, and they know what we want." "So I have to come back to Riyadh again with a new passport?" (I dreaded the thought of having to go through all that I have been all over again.) "You can just courier it," was the reply.

I wonder if the visa officer noticed my sigh of relief. All right! Back in Jeddah, getting a new biometric passport was not much of a task. And it took less than 48 hours for it to come back from Riyadh with the US visa duly affixed on it. (For those who may not know, a visa on your passport is no guarantee that you will be allowed into the country. It is the immigration officers who have the power to decide whether to let you in. You can still be turned away after having reached a US airport.)

A Tale of Two Brothers

On flight SV0035 from Jeddah's King Abdul Aziz International Airport to Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., I sit next to Syed Sajid Rahmani, a 60-year-old American national of Indian origin. He lives in the Beltway and retired in 2006 as a senior manager in one of America's top retail giants. He is accompanied by his wife, Fahmida Begum. Both are from Hyderabad in India.

"We keep coming to Saudi Arabia every two years to perform Umrah or minor pilgrimage and to visit the Prophet's Mosque in Madinah. I have a brother in Jeddah; he works as an engineer at a construction company headquartered in Jeddah. It is always good to touch base with him," he says.

Rahmani tells me about his long-dead father in Hyderabad. He owned a printing press, and they had a roaring business in the 1950s and 1960s. "We were only two brothers," he tells me. By the early 1970s, Rahmani's father decided to send his two sons abroad. "He had saved enough and wanted us to go to the States. For those who had money, it wasn't difficult then. A lot of Muslims were migrating to US in those days but many others were also heading to Saudi Arabia where the oil boom had just begun.

"Because Hyderabadis had a special connection with the holy cities thanks to the Nizam of Hyderabad, Saudi Arabia was the first destination of choice for anybody wanting to move out of the historic Indian city," he said.

"My brother - I suggest you don't mention his name to protect his identity to save him any possible embarrassment - came here to Saudi Arabia, and I went to the States. That was 1971. I joined a US university and earned an MBA before taking up all kinds of jobs and eventually settling down with a retail establishment. I rose up the ranks to become a senior manager in the firm."

Rahmani's brother in Jeddah did well as a civil engineer. "We went back to Hyderabad after some time, married and got busy in our family and professional lives. In between our father died, and we basically lost touch with the city we grew up in."

Now, more than three decades later, Rahmani says he is a full-fledged and completely integrated American citizen. "My kids are grown. They have graduated from some of the best universities in the United States. They are on their own and are completely independent." The same, however, cannot be said of his brother in Jeddah. "Yes, he has the money but no citizenship. His kids, like all other children of expatriates, were not allowed in local universities. They had to go to Malaysia and Dubai for higher studies. Every two years, he still has to beg his employers to renew his residency permit or iqama. There is no difference between him and a newly hired foreign worker in Saudi Arabia. His kids have separate iqamas, but they have to keep coming to Saudi Arabia to renew them. Do you see the difference?" he asks.

"Being a blood relative, you could always have gotten him into the States, couldn't you?" I ask him. "Well, despite everything, he says, he loves being in Jeddah because it is the gateway to Makkah and Madinah." I am reminded of that classic first line of Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Airport Security

Rahmani's tale was certainly more interesting than Tariq Ali's novel, "The Book of Saladin," that I had planned to read on the plane. Before I could take a short nap and talk to a large group of Saudi students on board, the plane was hovering over Dulles International Airport about to make its descent. Down below was a breathtaking view of Washington, D.C., the seat of American government. We could see America's most famous manmade landmark - the Capitol Dome - the one that we see on television and in newspapers all the time. As the plane descended further, the view became even clearer. We were confronted with stirring icons and marbled monuments, and the wide Potomac River sparkled in the afternoon sun. The landscape seemed just beautiful.

"So this is America," I said to myself with a sudden rush of adrenaline. The plane had taken off at 9 a.m. (Saudi time) and landed at around 1 p.m. (US time). If you calculate the time difference it was 11 midnight in Jeddah, meaning we were onboard for nearly 14 hours nonstop.

Dulles International Airport is considered to be one of the world's busiest. And it seems there are always long queues at the immigration counters. The day I arrived was no exception. There were large numbers of people streaming in from all corners of the globe. At the immigration counter, people had to give their fingerprints and face the camera. The immigration officer would ask a question or two, and then one was out the door. For me, it took less than five minutes at the counter; the immigration officer asked me just one question, a weird one though: "Are you carrying any alcohol?" "No," I said, wondering where he thought I could have obtained alcohol on a direct flight from Saudi Arabia. "Thank you. Enjoy yourself," he said.

That was pretty easy and simple, I said to myself. I collected my bags and was out and was greeted by the crisp Washington air. I felt relaxed and exhilarated. The sight of the blooming cherry blossoms was a sight to behold - beautiful.

War in Iraq or Recession?

Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the recession what are Americans more worried about? And how are newspapers and news channels treating the two stories? Arab News' well-informed and Sorbonne-educated Washington Bureau Chief, Barbara Ferguson, had an interesting point of view. "Recession is the most important issue for most Americans at the moment," she said and explained why. "The events in Iraq were being closely followed until the credit crisis or subprime loan scandal burst onto the scene. Then the scenario changed. Iraq concerns a specific section of Americans - those who are in the armed forces. And in the US, it is not compulsory to join the army; it is voluntary. So the people who are in it know the risks involved, and only one percent of the American population joins the armed forces. But recession has hit everybody. It has directly affected everybody's pockets. Gasoline prices have gone up and many Americans are being laid off. The stock market is no longer bullish, and the dollar is - as my husband says - in the toilet. The mood in this country is bad, very bad."

What Barbara said was also reflected in the newspapers. They mentioned "stagflation," which occurs when overall prices are rising with little or no economic growth. Everyday there were big stories on recession on the front pages of major newspapers. The Iraq story would be on Page 1, too, but that was precisely because Moqtada Sadr's men were back in action on the streets of Baghdad and Basra.

In the Middle East, we have often been told that the media in the US never talks about American deaths in Baghdad and Afghanistan. That turns out to be a complete lie. The center spreads of leading American newspapers were filled with pictures of those who had died in action in Iraq and Afghanistan. The media was not hiding anything from the public. Having said that the general impression I got from the Americans with whom I had an opportunity to talk was that they really think they are in Iraq and Afghanistan for the good of those countries. Why they think so is very difficult to comprehend. Americans are indeed easy-going and good-natured people.

Hillary or Obama?

America is in the grip of election mania. Bush's party, the Republicans, took little time to decide on their candidate - McCain. But all eyes are on Democratic Party - the party that everybody expects to win the presidency. Bush has made a mess of himself and the country. Most Americans blame him for everything. The conventional wisdom, therefore, is that the Republicans will lose this time after having misruled for eight bad years after the good eight years from Bill Clinton. Some say, the Democrats have hurt their chances because of the bruising fight between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"The contest between the two shouldn't have gone this far," said Nigel Fernando, a Washington tourist guide. "They have confused us all. They have fought a bitter war and have left a bad taste among Americans," he said. Hillary, he felt, should have withdrawn in the larger interest of the party.

"That is not possible," said Clarence Wilbur, an international relations student at American University. "The Clintons are very, very ambitious. They will never go without a fight. They don't care for anything. Their eyes are fixed firmly on the next presidency," she added.

I found the momentum to be in Obama's favor. His slogan for change has really caught on with the average American, but Americans are divided on whether they are ready for the first black president. "This is a very racist society," said Boston-based Abdul Wahed Aziz, an American citizen of Somali origin. "They will never allow a black man to become president. McCain who aims to succeed Bush would like to see Obama as a rival because that will make his task easier. It will then be a black-and-white issue, and McCain will win easily." Abdul Wahed's views were not shared by many others that I met across Washington and California. "Barack O, Barack O, Barack O," they would tell me. "He is the man."

Requiem for the American Newspaper

The newspaper industry in the US, I discovered, is facing a huge crisis. Newspaper revenues have gone into a tailspin because more and more Americans are reading their news on the Internet. Journalists are being laid off in huge numbers. Special correspondents, who would go on overseas assignments or out on the campaign trail with presidential candidates, are being told to stay at home. That is one way of cutting costs. Instead, agency stories are being run. Writing in the March issue of The New Yorker, Eric Alterman says few believe that newspapers in their current printed form will survive. "Newspaper companies are losing advertisers, readers, market value and, in some cases, their sense of mission at a pace that would have been barely imaginable just four years ago."

Alterman's words were confirmed by New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller who said during a recent speech in London that at places where editors and publishers gather, the mood these days is "funereal." "Editors ask one another, 'How are you?' in that sober tone one employs with friends who have just emerged from rehab or a messy divorce."

According to Alterman, the rise of the Internet has made the daily newspaper appear dated and unresponsive. Independent, publicly traded American newspapers have lost 42 percent of their market value in the past three years.

Hamas or Fatah?

The one person who is doing a tremendous job in the field of interfaith dialogue in the United States is Professor Akbar S. Ahmed. A prolific writer, his recent book "Journey Into Islam: The Crisis of Globalization" is getting good reviews in the US media. Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. He has taught at Princeton, Harvard and Cambridge Universities and once served as high commissioner of Pakistan to United Kingdom. He also directed the film "Jinnah," which was recently shown at the Asian Film Festival in Jeddah.

After Sept. 11, 2001, he became one of the most sought-after scholars on Islam. The highly articulate intellectual that he is, Ahmed is fully aware of his Muslim roots and knows what he is talking about. Through his efforts, he has created a bridge between Islam and other faiths. Small wonder then that he has been described by the BBC as the world's leading authority on contemporary Islam.

I was particularly fascinated in 1990s with his book called "Post-Modernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise." It left a deep imprint on my mind and I have been his fan ever since. In a meeting in his office at American University, I tell him about the book and compliment him profusely. "Oh you remember that book?" he says. "Yes, of course," I tell him. Ahmed is an unassuming man who wants to see young people of all faiths come together and build bridges. He is full of life, and academics is his passion.

Ahmed then takes me to deliver a lecture on issues dominating the Middle East. I talk about why it is important to talk to Hamas and how it should be seen as a national liberation movement just as the IRA is seen now. Ahmed's bright students bombard me with all kinds of questions. One of them asks me about Arab News' stand on Iraq, and I give him an honest opinion. Unbeknown to me was the fact that he was checking our online edition at on his laptop even as I was answering his question. I found that very interesting and alarming as well. It is not like in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East where whatever the professor or expert says is the last word. "Here in America, students are taught to think critically. This is a questioning society. It keeps asking questions of itself," says Ahmed. "This is what makes them pioneers. They think out of the box and come up with amazing solutions." Indeed.

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