On the Road from Doha to Damascus

An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. DAMASCUS: As a Cairene who grew up in London and now lives in New York City, my standards for what constitutes a "real city" are high. It's difficult to get my attention unless we're talking about at least 8 million inhabitants or a long history, the more convoluted and troubled the better. Jerusalem might be small but it makes up for it with bucketfuls of trouble. Cairo has a daytime population of around 18 million people so I had to raise my hat to Mumbai during a visit there in June, jam-packed as it is with 24 million. It was Cairo on cocaine - frenetic, bursting at every seam and nook and disarmingly high. With Damascus, which I first visited in 1999 on a reporting assignment for the British paper The Guardian, it was love at first traffic jam, even before I'd been to the Old City or learned that it's the longest-inhabited city in the world. And here I am back again for the fourth time, staying at the same hotel as I did in 1999 and the view from my room and the dinner in the Old City last night is just the same as it was back then. More restaurants, perhaps, but no rush for reinvention here. Two weeks ago, I was in Doha, Qatar, and although it was also my fourth visit to that capital, I drew back the curtains of my hotel room there and recognized nothing. On the surface at least, Doha has changed more since I first started to visit in 2006 than Damascus has over the past nine years since our first introduction. Neither Syria nor Qatar is a democracy. They also share a love of maverick political alliances that distinguish them from powerful neighbors. Syria's neighbors are not just Israel and Turkey, but an Arab world where the powerhouses such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have Sunni Muslim majorities. Another neighbor, Iraq, until the invasion and war, was ruled by a leader of the Sunni Muslim minority. Syria is Iraq's mirror reflection - made up of several religious and ethnic groups and ruled by the son of the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam. When you look around at those Sunni-led powerhouses, you can see why Syria is Iran's best friend in the Arab world. For Qatar, the powerful neighbor is Saudi Arabia with which it shares being richer than is possible to imagine but also the ultra-conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam. Saudi Arabia is the biggest and most powerful of the Arab Gulf countries and emirates, home to the two holiest sites of Islam and it sits upon the largest oil reserves in the world. So how does Qatar, tiny in geography and even smaller in population but with an abundance of natural gas and supersize ambitions, maintain a separate identity? It talks to everyone and it keeps its Wahhabism in the background. I call Qatar the Bermuda Triangle of the Middle East. Whatever you think "common sense" is in the rest of the Arab Middle East vanishes in Qatar, home to the outspoken Al Jazeera TV network, as well as the largest U.S. airbase in the Arab world and an Israeli trade interest office. I wonder sometimes if the points of that triangle think of the other points. Are Al Jazeera viewers aware of those two other points, for example? I've taken you on this journey with me on the road from Damascus to Doha with one destination in mind - debunking the myth of the "Arab street." What a reductive and insulting concept to think that 300+ million people think alike just because they speak the same language. Imagine some journalist citing "the American street." You would hear howls of protest from every corner of the United States. Would such an imaginary street be in New York or Los Angeles - the only two cities jokingly acknowledged in a New Yorker cartoon map of the United States? Or would it lie somewhere along the Midwest and its claims to represent the backbone of all that is "American?" Or is it somewhere in the South, amid the churches and troubled history of the Bible Belt? Or, in the stubborn independence of the Pacific Northwest? And yet we hear again and again of the "Arab street." It doesn't help of course that many media outlets have closed their offices in Arab cities. And it certainly doesn't help that some parachute writers into the region and when those writers find people with ideas that don't fit the ones they flew in with, they simply dismiss them as irrelevant or out of touch. There are multitudes of Arab streets and - my snobbery aside - cities that span the spectrum from the megalopolis to the eerily empty. The entire population of Qatar - around 800,000 could fit into a corner of the Cairo neighborhood of Shubra, population 7 million. Here's one thing you can generalize on when it comes to the Arab world - it is very young. The majority of people in the region are younger than 30. Like Qatar, they are trying on new hair colors and trying to figure out what they want to be. There's another street where you can find those young people - it ain't the "Arab street" but the "information super highway" - i.e. the Internet. More on that next time. • Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. She is based in New York. An article in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.