The View from Beirut

Not long ago, I received a DVD in the mail warning of the dangers of radical Islam.  I’m picky about my propaganda and chose not to view the report, even though I’m fully aware of the threat posed by religious extremists.  There are many dangerous people and places in the world.

This week, I’m making some presentations about community development in Zahle and Tripoli, Lebanon, on behalf of my professional association, the International City-County Management Association.  Many friends have asked me why I choose to work in the Middle East, given that there is so much hostility against Americans.  I’m sure my ego plays a part in the decision because I’m flattered that people are interested enough in what I have to say to invite me back to this part of the world.  I also like to travel and see what’s going on outside of Albany, Oregon, and the United States.  Finally, I think the best thing I can do to help change attitudes about my country is to be willing to talk with and get to know people who might have those attitudes.

Part of any visit is negotiating transportation systems which provide great opportunities to see people at their worst.  The flight from Frankfurt to Beirut included Lebanese families and relatively few Europeans or North Americans.  It should come as no great surprise that families look a lot alike no matter where they’re from.  Language, clothing, and customs may vary; but children and parents seem to share many similarities.  The parents I’ve seen on this trip have been concerned about how their children are behaving on long flights or in crowded airports.  Most of the children I’ve seen have been very good, and even the smallest ones were pretty quiet under circumstances that would try most people’s patience.  It occurred to me during the trip here that the nature of the traveling public does not seem to change much from place to place.

I have a nice room in a good hotel in Beirut.  I stayed here in March and have always been treated well. I’m meeting a friend this afternoon and will be doing workshops throughout the remainder of the week.  My friend and many of the people I will be working with are Muslim.  Being Muslim does no more to describe a person’s attitude toward me or the United States than being Mormon does to define how someone feels about the Middle East.

The “situation” in Beirut is much better now than when I was here a few months ago.  I’ve seen many more Americans and Europeans, and my friends tell me that there is far less anxiety over violence.  I’ve even heard that Lebanese banks followed a conservative course in recent years and have avoided many of the problems experienced in the U.S. and Europe.

I know that I do not see the whole picture as an occasional visitor to the Middle East; however, I think it’s a mistake to promote fear and misunderstanding about people here.  My experiences have generally been positive, and I’m grateful for the latest opportunity to be here.