Beirut, Lebanon
Sunday, June 25, 2006

Bridge for Relations Between Washington and Beirut


Beirut - Mazen Abboud

“It suffices for me that Lebanon shall remain eternal, Amen.”

With these words, the Director of Public Diplomacy for Middle Eastern Affairs in the US Agency for International Development, Walid Maalouf, began his message at a ceremony to honor him in his mother’s hometown, Douma.

The US diplomat went on to say that he has known Lebanese democracy at its best and has engaged in political activity through his family’s involvement in politics in his mother’s hometown, when the village was a haven coursing with political activity.

His grandmother’s political orientation was at odds with the orientation of his grandfather, who felt no embarrassment about this (the family was divided between John Harb and Manuelle Yunis), even though his grandfather was a young sheikh and a well known strong-arm in the district. He then continued: Lebanon has sacrificed outside the framework of deals as a model for democratic change. The revolution of the cedar has restored the country to the international map and has shown the country’s true face, which was submerged for long periods.

The young diplomat reiterated—to the people in his audience, whom he has known personally after spending 26 years away from his homeland—what his maternal grandmother Atina said: “Do not forget my son that you are one of us. The world starts here and stops here.” Those participating in the reception felt that the man had returned to say to his grandmother (or to her spirit)—this grandmother, who, he says, “never left her home district her entire life”—that “the world is much bigger than that, but it is not more splendid, healthy, and beautiful than her world, which he knew from his childhood, and for which he has yearned and is therefore here.

The diplomat’s eyes were clearly bathed in tears as he delivered his extemporaneous remarks in Lebanese Arabic. He then continued: I have come today to the Mashraq, bearing for its peoples a message of affection and peace from the American people.

The man concluded his visit to Lebanon by meeting with his people in Kfarkatra in the Chouf region, most notably the members of the Druze community, who gave him an outstanding reception at Bayt-al-Ta’ifah. This was an intensely sentimental experience for the American diplomat, who is originally from the Chouf region and who has an extraordinary new feeling, a feeling that can be understood only by one who understands the horrors of war and has tasted bitterness as well as experiencing the elation of success.

The diplomat informed those whom he met that his new core mission is to close the distance between the “the American giant” and the peoples of the region. He noted that the diplomatic mission assigned to him this time is focused not on the countries of the region, but on its peoples—a mission that he wanted to be a heart-to-heart mission, performed with an Arab heart in an Arab mold. The essence of the diplomatic mission of this American of Lebanese extraction is to draw a picture of the Middle East for the “new Rome” in the region by reconnecting what has been severed by politics and wars. It is an impossible but meritorious mission given what is happening in Iraq and Palestine. It is a mission that definitely requires greater resources, broader efforts, and a clearer desire on the part of the “emperor.”

The diplomat did not meet with the political authorities officially. His mission was not focused on them this time. That was perhaps the form of the message. The content of the message is that the administration of President George Bush has actually begun to be aware that “if politics are alienating, development and lasting relations between peoples alone guarantee the closing of the distances that may have grown because of the practices of countries and governments at times.”

In any case, the United States is apparently in growing need, especially after the events of September 11, for people with the constitution of Walid Maalouf, who know the Arab mind and have mastered the oddities of American action and thought, to begin working on bridging the growing gap between the great power and the peoples of the region. American needs people who know how to address the Arabs and Middle Easterners in their language according to their dispositions.

However this American step does not have to be singular or nominal. Rather, it should be accompanied by a change in the essence of US foreign policy and the United States’ dealings with the countries and peoples of the Arab Mashraq. The boosting of the budget of the US Agency for International Development may be the other part of this orientation. Such a move would provide a different image of the “Great Giant” (one that is more radiant and exemplary) in view of what has been portrayed and what has happened and is happening today.

The sending of Walid Maalouf—a young Lebanese American, who represented the international giant as Alternate Representative to the 58th General Assembly for a significant short time period—on a mission to the Middle East is an important step in closing the gaps between the United States and the peoples of the Mashraq.

His visit has provoked a storm despite the media blackout surrounding it. The New TV television station accused him of being a traitor, denying his Lebanese identity, enmity toward the Arabs, and obedience to Israel. During his short visit, I did not discover this about him or was completely unaware of it.

All that I learned or uncovered about him was his love for his country and his desire for its liberation from all fetters and directives, but without hostility toward Syria or others. Was the television report a response to a new type of diplomatic mission? Was it a message that brings to mind the campaigns to impeach the loyalty of the martyred President Rafiq al-Hariri and the journalist, parliamentary deputy, and friend Gebran Tueni shortly before they were assassinated?

I hope that the sinister television report has no such connection. I also hope that the support of persons like Walid Maalouf will not be sought without engaging him in dialogue to benefit from his energies in serving the country and Arab causes.

We came to know Walid Maalouf during his brief visit to Lebanon as man who is proud of his Lebanese identity, a lover of peace, and zealous for the rightful causes of Lebanon and the Arabs. He surprised his family and friends by not forgetting the joy of sitting on the chair made for him by his grandfather—“Bou-Salih, the carpenter of Douma of Choueiri ancestry”—even though he has sat, completely at ease, as the alternate representative of the international giant on the greatest chair in the hall of Nations, representing the great empire!

I truly do not know why the people of my country are not proficient in the language of dialogue and the art of using their expatriate skills to serve their rightful causes!