Until my family and I landed in New Jersey in August 2007, I had lost touch with what it meant to be a US citizen. I had arrived in Jersey City in 1969 as a 14 year old boy with my family who immigrated from the Palestinian areas. In 1980 after college and a few jobs, I returned to east Jerusalem and worked in journalism since. Since then, I have not spent any extended period in the US. My appointment as a Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton brought my own family and I back to New Jersey. Although many of my family members couldn't vote, we hungrily consumed the US presidential elections, religiously following the primary season with all its ups and downs.
My wife, Salam, a proud Jordanian and a preacher's daughter, quickly took a liking to the Arkansas governor. His own background, as well as his easy style of communicating, won her over. While he was a former Baptist preacher, initially he didn't seem to push his religious beliefs. But one day, Salam, who had just gotten her green card, watched in anger as Huckabee publicly called for denying Jordanians and Saudis immigration to the US as well as opposing dual citizenship. Furthermore, his outrageous claim that Saddam's WMDs were hidden in Jordan (he later claimed he mistook Syria for Jordan) lost it for the former minister in my wife's eyes.
Our nine year old Dina was a much more serious consumer of the elections, bombarding me and everyone she met with hundreds of questions. Her third grade teachers at Princeton's Riverside School seem to have done a good job in convincing her that taxes are necessary to provide public service and run a government. However, she was curious as to who would of the candidates raise taxes and to which economic class. She figured out that our family is middle class and that made her inclined to support a Democrat, because they will not raise taxes on people like us, she argued. However, she didn't understand why Republican candidates wanted to reduce taxes on the rich. Dina liked Hillary and followed her speeches and her performances during debates. Hillary's support for universal health insurance become real to us when my uninsured father in law fell and broke his shoulder.
For me this was the first time in decades that I took the issue of US elections seriously. Although I have been a US citizen since 1974, the only presidential election I had voted in was in 1976. I liked Carter for what he stood for in the area of human rights and felt vindicated for my vote when he shepherded the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement and his genuine support since for peace and human rights. As a first time voter, Carter, to me, was the clean politician who had come after the scandalous Nixon years. I saw similar traits in Obama, who was the only serious candidate who had opposed the criminal war on Iraq and had a clean and ethically sound reputation. His multinational upbringing was very comforting for me, having been born a Palestinian, an Israeli permanent resident, naturalized as an American, and working in both Palestine and Jordan.
Obama wasn't the natural choice of some of our Arab-American relatives and friends. I could feel a slight sense of racism whenever his name would come up. Americans would never elect a abeed my relatives in Philadelphia or Bakersfield California would repeatedly say. Arab Americans use a derogatory word when referring to blacks in America. Blacks are often referred to as abeed, a term that literally means slaves rather than the more politically correct term su'd -- black. I also noticed another source of racism. My oldest daughter Tamara, who had just graduated from BLUFFTON.EDUBluffton University in Ohio, a Mennonite liberal arts school, liked Obama's anti-war positions. But when she mentioned his name at a choir practice with a local Christian Arab church in Jersey City, New Jersey, she was rebuffed. "Don't you know he is Muslim?", the ill-educated choir members would tell her. Even after she exposed these rumors, some of her Arab Christian colleagues still rejected Obama because of his Muslim father. Many were still unconvinced even after Obama spoke passionately about his Christian faith in April during the Compassion Forum at my alma matter, MessMESSIAH.EDUiah College in Grantham, PA.
I was elated when Barack Obama won the primaries in Iowa and started raking up the lead in delegates. I told friends that it reminded me of the sensation we felt growing up as Muhammad Ali became a world boxing champion. Obama's "Yes we Can" reminded me of Ali's "dance like a butterfly sting like a bee" rhetoric. I also thought his policies of talking to your enemies and rejecting powerful lobbyists was exactly the policies that America needed in the 21st century world. He seemed to fit the title of a global prhttp://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/postglobal/daoud_kuttab/2008/01/elect_a_truly_global_president.htmlesident and not just an American one.
My excitement and others like me was short-lived, however, when Obama gave one of the most pro-Israeli speeches ever given by a candidate. In one talk he erased almost all the issues that had made him so attractive. I wrote an angry arhttp://www.huffingtonpost.com/daoud-kuttab/so-sad-to-see-obama-surre_b_105604.htmlticle in the Huffington Post that began with this paragraph: It was so sad. To see a grown tower of a man come to his knees. The presumptive Democratic nominee followed the suit of all US political leaders before him and bowed down at the footsteps of the pro-Israel lobby. What happened to the anti-lobby nominee?"
By the middle of the summer of 2008 my visiting professorship at Princeton had come to an end. My family and I returned to the Middle East still reeling from the tumultuous primaries. Unlike what I expected, the enthusiasm for my favorite candidate and the US elections was cool. Was it his speech at AIPAC or was it simply the conviction that US foreign policy will not dramatically change no matter who is the resident of the White House?
My family and I continue to follow the elections, though not religiously. After it became clear that Obama and McCain would be the respective nominee of their party, I had thought that the age of religious zealotry was over in US presidential politics. I had argued that whoever takes over after Bush will not cram Christianity or God into foreign policy. But even on that account, I seem to have been wrong as the Republican candidate choose a running mate who believed that the war in Iraq was somehow God-ordained and that my homeland was promised to the Jews by the Almighty.
As our family and the world follows the upcoming elections, I can't help but hope and pray that the coming years of US policy will bring peace and freedom to our beloved Middle East instead of the wars and suffering that we have seen in the last years.