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A Tourist From the Middle East

A Tourist From the Middle East

Monday, 25 March, 2019 - 10:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
Sometimes a thread of empathy is tied between strangers. The hotel employee was nice. He thought I was a tourist looking for a beautiful view. He said there was a chance that a visitor could not afford to miss. He advised me to go up to the roof of the hotel to watch from there the sunset behind the tiny little mountain off the harbor. And because I came on a personal occasion, I decided to listen to his advice. I discovered how right he was.

The sun slid slowly, turning into a shy ball of fire and gradually disappearing. I felt for a while the pleasure of being a tourist… To discover, inspect, steal the most beautiful scenes, and hide them in your phone.

It is a pleasure to connect with the mountains, trees, and cities that wash their feet in the vast waters. I have a deep feeling that the journalist is a tourist with bad intentions. Every time he visits a country, he asks for its pains instead of enjoying its delights.

The employee volunteered and accompanied me to watch the sunset. He asked me where I lived. In London, I answered. He smiled; as if I were talking about the land of dreams.

I was impressed by the beauty of the country and I was surprised as he said that a country always looked nice to foreigners. I had to engage more in the discussion. He said that visitors were entering South Africa with a bright image, that of Nelson Mandela. He praised the historic leader who brought millions of citizens out of a long era of injustice and darkness on the basis of tolerance and reconciliation, suppressing the deep desire for revenge that could have plunged the country into total collapse and bloodshed.

He noted that an extraordinary leader comes, goes, and leaves the map in the custody of ordinary men. Men driven by a deep hunger to power and a terrible weakness before their temptations and misdeeds.

I said that the country has made significant progress; it is a member of the G20 and has a well-developed infrastructure. Its economy is the second in the Dark Continent after Nigeria.

He did not deny that this was actually true; but he remarked that the unemployment rate was almost 30 percent, which is really scary. I have noticed that the most serious problem is the enormous disparities between citizens; between those who have become richer and those who have become poorer, stacked into communities that lack everything, raising the rate of crime, theft, and violation of the law.

He pointed to water scarcity due to lack of rain in recent years added to the daily interruption of electricity even in a city such as Cape Town. I could not give any advice, especially since I was from a country where the problem of electricity has been considered a gold mine for corruption for decades. I felt that the problem in South Africa was the same as in many parts of the world: the question of building a modern state based on solid natural institutions capable of cooperation, correction, and change.

A state that can face the present and prepare for the future. A state that works so skillfully to provide modern education opportunities for its children that would give them the keys to this world witnessing daily revolutions in science and technology. A state that guarantees jobs and saves its children from the risk of embarking on death boats going to strange countries.

I felt deep gratitude for this gentleman and asked him what I could do to him. His replied: “If you could take me to London with you. The future is ambiguous here. I feel that living there is less difficult and more secure.”

The man’s words saddened me especially that his country sleeps on a major mining wealth. I thought about what he would say if he were from a country, the land of which lacks minerals, and its skies are thirsty for rain.

I recalled a similar incident in Khartoum years ago. Before I left, the hotel employee asked me if I could do a service he will never forget. He said that dreamed of escaping from his country and that he heard that Britain was spacious and accessible to expatriates.

These are our countries… our prisons, from which we are trying to escape so as not to hand over our children to the losers and the corrupt.

The journalist is a bad tourist. The sunset scene did not last long, especially after the hotel worker unveiled his ambitions. I had to go back to my phone. To the curse of the Middle East and the news coming from it.

The defeat of ISIS is good news. But the most important question is: Have we learned from the bitter and long experience? Or will the policies that gave birth to this terrible organization cause the production of a more atrocious descendent?

Moreover, it is undeniable that ISIS left its mark on the scene it invaded for years, and led to the emergence of militias and “small mobile armies” that took advantage of fighting ISIS to become permanent parallel armies.

The Middle East keeps chasing you no matter how far you go. To be born in that part of the world leaves you with a perpetual anxiety even if you try to wear the spirit of the tourist and enjoy the sunset in Mandela’s country. Another major news. President Donald Trump announced that his country had decided to recognize "Israeli sovereignty" over the Golan Heights.

The news certainly means a major change in US policy toward this issue, which Washington has been trying to mediate for decades. This decision has its consequences on the conflict that is rooted in the region and will entail jumping above the resolutions of international legitimacy.

The Middle East does not leave you no matter how far you go. The journalist is a bad tourist. He is a hunter, a hunter of sufferings, not of stunning scenes. Beautiful sunsets are not enough to get him out of the grip of painful news.

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