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Friday, November 29, 2002
Tim Appleby
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Straight Street in Damascus bustles with shoppers and traffic.
Photo: Bassem Tellawi/AP

Customers purchase "awama" sweets in Damascus. The sweets are hot sellers during the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims fast all day and then feast after sunset.
Photo: Bassem Tellawi/AP

Muslims head into the Sayyida Ruqayya Mosque for the first prayers of the day before sunrise in Damascus.
Photo: John Moore/AP

It's after midnight and you find yourself walking alone through the ancient stone streets of the old city. Better watch out, you might think. This is, after all, the Middle East, often regarded as volatile and hostile to foreigners. Tension in the region is high and Syria is a police state whose human-rights record is among the worst in the world.

But, although you may be lost in the twisting back alleys of the oldest continuously inhabited city on the planet you are probably safer here than in downtown Toronto, London, Moscow or Mexico City. The same applies almost everywhere else in the Arab world where street crime is extremely rare and stranger-on-stranger assaults are almost unknown.

That doesn't much square with common Western perceptions. Part of the tragedy of Sept. 11 and subsequent events such as Thursday's terrorist onslaught in Kenya is that Osama bin Laden and his ilk have propagated a picture of Arab nastiness and enmity that, for the most part, is utterly false. Display a little respect, learn a few words of Arabic, and even the few American tourists swiftly discover that they are genuinely welcome in the Middle East. The tradition of Arab hospitality, rooted in Islam, translates into a code of personal conduct that includes being helpful to strangers.

"Why do they hate us?" seemed to be the cliché du jour in the aftermath of Sept. 11 as pundits-many of whom had never actually been to the Middle East-struggled to comprehend Arab sentiment.

The truth is that "they," meaning roughly 280 million Arabs, don't hate "us" at all, at least not as individuals.

Hating Western interference in the Middle East is another matter.

There is acute awareness of the region's colonial past and the arbitrary borders that were left behind. There is yearning for the days of the Cold War when the two competing superpowers kept each other in check. There is also a lot of resentment toward Washington's pro-Israel policies, currently compounded by widespread dismay at the U.S. confrontation with Iraq, which most Arabs will tell you is about control of the world's oil supply. And there is a feeling that the U.S. is making millions of Arabs pay for the actions of a tiny number of fanatics.

But, competing with these sentiments is the tug of Western culture. While satellite television, cell phones, fax machines and the Internet reach just a fraction of the Arab population, it is an influential urban, middle-class minority.

A decade ago, it was hard to find a Syrian who spoke much English; French, a relic from colonialism, was far more prevalent. Now things are the other way around, reflecting not just a shift in educational priorities but also the satellite TV dishes that have sprouted on Damascus rooftops. Among Syria's 18 million people, there are about 40,000 Internet connections, but there seems to be no restriction to access. Cell phones are everywhere and foreign publications are freely available, if hard to find.

Most striking of all is Syrians' evident willingness to criticize the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Syria is an authoritarian dictatorship run by a Baath Party elite, which is ready to crush dissent in a heartbeat. "The red lines are clear," said a foreign diplomat. "You are free, sort of, to be rude about the government providing that's as far as you go. What's not tolerated is any sort of organized opposition." The same holds true in much of the Middle East. As with many other parts of the developing world, Arabs have one foot in the beckoning future and another deeply rooted in the conservative past.

This year the United Nations released The Arab Human Development Report, a landmark, Arab-authored survey that disclosed Arab countries have a lower average GNP than Spain, and that given the chance, more than half their young people would emigrate to the West. The report also concluded that Arabs are among the least free people in the world.

But, they are also among the most friendly, and that courtesy touches all walks of life - even Iraqi officialdom, which is notoriously difficult. I was recently involved in a heated discussion at the Iraq Embassy in Amman. The consul repeatedly said there was no sign of a long-promised visa and that it was not possible to check with Baghdad. As for using an embassy telephone, that too was out of the question. "But let me offer you some tea," he said.

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Why did the magician's inquiry get nowhere? Too much smoke and mirrors. Jerry Kitich, Hamilton, Ont.