"Why do they hate us?" is a question that has bedeviled a myriad of Western analysts since September 2001, but Middle Eastern humor may have the best answer to it yet.
No one is better at poking fun at the dysfunctional obsessions of Arabs than the brilliant Egyptian playwright Ali Salem — the Arab world's equivalent to Neil Simon. In a cute essay the other day, he answered the question by showing how Arabs are programmed to oppose anything America says or does.
His funny tale is set at a fictitious press conference held somewhere in the perpetually angry Middle East by a very exasperated Secretary of State Rice, who ends the encounter by sighing that, when all is said and done, "The sun shall again rise in the east."
A crisis immediately ensues.
A talk show host at an Arab network launches an instant survey inviting viewers to respond to the question, "Does the sun indeed rise in the east as the Americans assert? Please e-mail us your answer — yes or no."
Within minutes, the network reports that 89% have responded with an assertive "no," and 5% of the viewers said "yes." Another 2 % agreed only " with reservations," and a few felt the sun never rose in the east or anywhere else.
In the following days, airwaves from Cairo to Riyadh buzz with weightier analyses of Ms. Rice's true intent: American politicians, many note, never speak of the sun nor the moon nor the weather without ulterior motives. Why now? And why did she not mention this before going on her Middle East tour?
Enterprising reporters chase Arab foreign ministers and senior officials for comment, with most saying only, "The matter is currently under study."
One very senior Arab official, speaking anonymously, tells the editor of an influential Arab daily that he is "not allowed to expand on Condi's comments because the matter is indeed grave. No further comments."
The evening television and radio commentary light up with all-encompassing theories about American conspiracies.
Syrian television notes that "Condi's sun" refers to a new "crusade" — perhaps an American invasion of Syria. Al-Jazeera speculates that Ms. Rice is hinting at a new American invention that would substitute the power of the sun for "our Arab oil."
The religious television channels of Saudi Arabia invite noted imams to peer into the matter. One bearded, sandaled, and disheveled-looking blind sage opines that the American infidels are planning to block the sun from ever again rising from the "Muslim East." With mounting emotion, he calls for jihad against "all American science."
Popular Arab talks shows take their cameras to question the quintessential man-in-the-street — who is perpetually watched by the quintessential cop-in-the-street. One citizen, who looks like a deer caught in headlights, hesitantly answers the question of whether Ms. Rice was right in saying the sun rises in the east. His reply: "Frankly, I work the night-shift, so I cannot tell you because I never see the sun."
Another will only say, "The American official may be right, and maybe she is wrong. Thank you very much, I have to go now." Egyptian TV takes its cameras to t h e boisterous Egyptian Parliament, where all representatives from the ruling party, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood opposition, agree on only one thing: America is awful. One enterprising member of the President Mubarak's majority National Assembly Party says, "Just because the Americans give us a couple of billion dollars a year does not mean they can tell us where the sun rises."
A member of the Muslim Brotherhood adds that "whether the sun rises in the east or not is not the concern of the Americans, who can take their money and go to hell. We will always have the sun."
Ali Salem's opposition to Arab dictators, rotten regimes, and faux militancy has long been a hallmark of his humorous plays and film scripts. It has not earned him friends in high places, but to judge from his immense commercial success, it seems he speaks for a silent majority.
And his explanation for mindless anti-Americanism among Arabs resonates: Not too long ago, an Arab anchorman and former Al-Jazeera superstar television presenter, Hafez Al-Mirazi, invited other TV anchor superstars to discuss what makes a program a success on Arab networks. One cut to chase: "Frankly," he said, "the more anti-American, the bigger the audience."
Sad? Maybe, but no one in the panel disagreed.