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'Bill Clinton is Syrian' and Other Tales of Obama's Speech From Damascus

Posted: 06/10/09 11:35 AM ET

The traffic flowed through Damascus last Thursday, peaking as always in the early afternoon. There was little buzz about President Obama in Cairo, and given all the packed taxis and microbuses clogging the street, it was a typical day in Damascus - and no special arrangements to watch the speech.

"Of course I know," taxi driver Adnan replied when asked about Obama's visit to Cairo University. "He was in Saudi yesterday."

The oil-rich kingdom is hardly popular here, owing to its mass accumulation of crude cash, its support for Sunni fundamentalism, and its closeness with America.

"Obama goes to Saudi, he goes to Egypt. He goes to Turkey and soon enough he'll go to Israel," Adnan complained. "But he doesn't come here."

Before an American ambassador returns to Damascus, before US sanctions are lifted, average Syrians will likely continue to ignore gestures of American oratory and reconciliation.

"Christian, Muslim, there's no issue," said another taxi driver, waving his hand toward a neighboring car in traffic. "If that driver needs water, and I am Muslim and he is Christian, I give it. There's a long history of that here."

And Obama?

"He needs to understand this compassion, among Arabs. All America says about Syria is 'violent', or 'terrorist.' He needs to understand more."

Taxi adages can often be contradictory, confusing certain assumptions of foreigner and local alike. Syrians may talk of the crimes of Zionism and the need for Palestinian resistance, but on a personal level, the insults often levied against Palestinians - and the million and a half Iraqi refugees here - betray any so-called Arab unity.

You can hear plenty of damning words for American foreign policy but rarely encounter hostility in conversation about being American. Only once have I been confronted for my nationality - by an Iraqi women, a former Baathist.

"You're American?" she exclaimed and launched into a litany of American crimes against Iraq going back to 1990. I tried to cool things by saying I was also British.

"Half English?" she replied. "Oh God, even worse. You must be Jewish."

I said I was not and, barely nodding her head, all she said was, "In sha' Allah." God willing.

Obama's condemnation of anti-Semitism has implications here, as people talk about religious mixing and tolerance while reiterating stereotypes about Jews and Israel.

Adnan ended a long talk in which he compared George Mitchell and Condoleezza Rice - quietly calling her a devil as be puffed on an imitation Marlboro - by rehashing the line about 400 Jews who skipped work in the Twin Towers on 9/11.

But a moment earlier he was listing his favorite American presidents, underlining the twists of politics and opinion here.

"Obama might be better than Bush, but he's no Bill Clinton yet. He was the best president. Bill Clinton is Syrian. His wife, Hillary Clinton, she is Syrian."

Obama is still only American in this equation. His use of Arabic might have been hailed in the American press - apparently saying "thank you" means speaking the language - but people mostly laugh here.

"What is a hajeeb? Maybe Obama can open a dialogue and tell me," said a grocer with a grin on my street in the Old City. Obama of course meant to say hijab, the female headscarf.

Still if Obama acts on the height of his words and on what he did not say - for one the need to evacuate all illegal Israeli colonies on the West Bank, the clearest block to a viable Palestine - maybe one day a cab driver in the Middle East will call him Syrian, or Egyptian, or even Palestinian.