Looking at the East looking at the West

Sometimes, the things I read converge in thought-provoking ways. Recently, I’ve found several items relating to the lives of women in the Middle East. Two are news pieces about the travels of Karen P. Hughes, the U.S. Under Secretary of State. The other two are pieces of creative nonfiction by Lisa Ohlen Harris about the time she spent living in the Syrian city of Damascus. (See below for links.)

The two news articles are informative. More importantly, however, I think they invite the reader to think more deeply about what the U.S.’s cultural role in the Middle East should be. Ms. Hughes and the administration she represents are offering to the women of the Middle East what from a Western point of view is freedom and autonomy. At first glance, it seems bizarre that these women, who can’t drive or vote, say they are already as free as they wish to be.

From the quotes in the article, it sounds like Ms. Hughes is listening and is trying to understand where these women are coming from. I don’t think that either these women or Ms. Hughes (or the administration she represents) will change their minds. I hope, however, that both parties are really listening, that they are approaching this situation with respect for the autonomy, opinions, and values of the people of these Middle Eastern countries.

There’s too little in these articles to draw any conclusions about Ms. Hughes’s performance. I do, however, like her strategy of presenting the ways in which Americans and Middle Easterners are similar and have similar values. I’d like it if everyone could see that for, all their differences, most people are a lot alike. Of course, I need to take my own advice more.

This brings me to Ms. Harris’s works of creative nonfiction. I think they serve well to show these differences and similarities. They’re colorful presentations of the Middle East through a pair of blue eyes from the U.S., and if nothing else, I found them enjoyable to read. That I say little about them here should by no means be seen as a reflection of their merit.

This post refers to:

Harris, Lisa Ohlen. “The Pied Piper of Damascus.” Eclectica. July/August 2005.

Harris, Lisa Ohlen. “Through the Looking Glass.” Eclectica. July/August 2005.

Weisman, Steven R. Saudi Women Have Message for U.S. Envoy. New York Times. September 28, 2005

Weisman, Steven R. Turkish Women, Too, Have Words With U.S. Envoy (on Iraq War). New York Times. September 29, 2005

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