Monday, May 12, 2014

America the Savior

Growing up in war-torn Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, my family was on the side of Beirut that liked, or rather loved, America and Americans. (Yes, there is such a place in the Middle East, or at least there was.)

What we knew came from television and movies, but what we felt came from somewhere inexplicable. At least in my family, we always knew America, with its people, technology, culture and of course political clout, was an amazing place.

We felt there was little America and Americans couldn't do and we desperately needed them to do something to save us from our miserable, fearful existence.

In the dark, long days and nights of the Lebanese civil war, we longed for America to come to our aid. And America came twice. Once America came in the form of the US Marines. They were so welcomed, admired and truly adored (by many) until one fateful morning in 1983 when those doing the bidding of the Syrian and Iranian regimes killed 241 of them and put an end to their comforting, hope-inspiring presence.

Beirut Memorial at Camp LeJeune
Then America came again in 1984 when East Beirut was under attack. This time, the USS New Jersey came to Lebanon's coast and fired nearly 300 shells towards the hills above Beirut to stop our attackers. These were the loudest explosions of the entire war, but they gave us a perverse comfort since they were American and were directed at our enemies.

But as the war raged on, America stopped coming.

Then later in 1984, on a rare, quiet spring morning after a sleepless night of shelling, my parents woke me and my siblings to ask us one question: If we could leave for the United States, would you want to go? The answer was a quick and unanimous yes. After trips to the U.S. Embassy and the American University of Beirut Hospital, we were awarded visas and cleared for travel to the U.S. Little more than two months later, we had sold almost everything we owned, said our goodbyes and were on our way.

And so we came to America.

What we found in America was much more than what the world sees in movies and on television. We found a people with a generous spirit and unlimited kindness; we found endless potential for those who dare to dream and limitless results for those who work on their dreams. We found a place with plenty of bad and more of the good, a place always evolving to become a better version of itself, a place where the future holds enormous promise. Simply put, we fell in love with this amazing country.

I am so grateful for all that I found and I'm even more grateful for the freedom from the fear that dominated my childhood. Almost 30 years later, I believe now more than ever that there's little America and Americans can't do.

But as much as I love this country, I'm filled with sadness as I look at the devastation in Syria. I'm sad and appalled that America hasn't come for the Syrians as it came for us. I worry that Syrians who survive this insane war may never know the America I found. I worry that by walking away from the people of Syria and allowing hundreds of thousands to be killed and millions to be displaced, America itself is diminished. My America is better than that. I still have hope that she will live up to her own standard of greatness, and I pray the Syrian people will see and feel this greatness first hand.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Inhumanity and the Moral Limit in Syria

I wrote this piece for the Cleveland Plain Dealer about Syria. I welcome your feedback. 



Inhumanity and the moral limit in Syria

In this September 2013 photo, smoke rises after a TNT bomb was thrown from
a helicopter, hitting a rebel position during heavy fighting between troops loyal 
to president Bashar Assad and opposition fighters, in the neighbouring village 
of Kafr Nabuda, in the Idlib province countryside, Syria.(AP)

Guest Columnist/

 February 01, 2014

At the start of the “Arab Spring”, I was so optimistic about the prospect of democracy in the Middle East and heartened by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  On my mind was the oppression of millions of Syrians by the brutal Bashar Assad regime.  Also on my mind was my experience during Lebanon's civil war and the enormous damage the Syrian regime did there.

For 10 of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, my siblings and I outran bombs to reach home from school, took tests while watching sniper bullets bounce off of the building next-door, heard and felt that terrifyingly loud sound of exploding bombs, spent long days and nights in rat-infested shelters; and of course dealt with the poverty and degradation of being refugees—not to mention the repeated damage to our family's home and grocery store, navigating off-limits streets and intersections targeted by snipers and so much more.  These horrors probably make anyone who's had a normal childhood cringe.

But here's the bad news: What the Assad regime has done to its own people since March 2011 is far more brutal, destructive and degrading than the enormous damage it did in Lebanon. I never imagined this was possible, but it turns out there's no limit to the regime's inhumanity.

Syria's numbers today are astounding: 130,000 dead (including thousands of children), more than 575,000 injured, nearly three million refugees outside Syria, nearly five million refugees displaced inside Syria; 43,000 Syrians detained and thousands suffering from starvation and lack of shelter. Then there are the latest revelations of Holocaust-like torture of thousands.

I suspect these numbers are conservative and don't account for the destruction of entire villages and cities and the fear, pain and hopelessness millions of Syrians are enduring every day.

When the uprising began, I naively thought that once the world community sees the real Assad regime, something would happen to remove it from power and Syrians would finally have a dignified life. I thought what kept Western countries from looking into the atrocities committed by the regime for the past four decades was the nearly perfected, sophisticated, lying facade of the Assad family and their apologists. Once the truth was revealed, I was sure things would change.

Fast forward to January 2014. Thanks to traditional and social media, the world is aware of the massacres and we continue to see horrifying images of mutilated bodies, rows of dead children and so much more. My hat is off to saintly aid workers and journalists, but the rest of us do nothing to stop the madness. Where is our outrage?  Where is our humanity? Where is the world's conscience?  Have we become numb to the images of the suffering, torture and mutilation?

Forget the fiasco about red lines and chemical weapons. And, forget the peace talks in Geneva, which are unlikely to be productive as long as Assad is in power. The fact of the matter now is clear as day: The world knows Assad's brutality well and does not care.

I don’t claim to have the answers to the difficult and complicated geopolitical considerations, but I know two things must happen: The bloodshed must be stopped and the criminal regime must be removed and punished.

I understand the plight of Christian minority inside Syria. And, yes, Iran, Russia, Israel and the American public make military action difficult. But when does it all stop?  Teams of experts reviewing the recently released torture archives have made a direct comparison to the Holocaust.  Are we waiting until the number of dead Syrians reaches six million?  Has the world learned nothing from Holocaust?  Shame on every world leader and on every one of us for not doing more, for not caring more, and for not demanding the end to this holocaust.

In the words of the late journalist and author Christopher Hitchens (who was writing in 2010 about Henry Kissinger's reference to gas chambers on the Nixon tapes), "There has to be a moral limit, and either this has to be it or we must cease pretending to ourselves that we observe one." 

So, does my beloved country have a moral limit when it comes to Syria? Does the world? 

Boustani is a Lebanese-American who immigrated to the United States from Lebanon in the 1980s.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Rations, Wishes and the Syrian Regime

Photo is courtesy of the Facebook page  We are all Hamza Alkhateeb.
With Syria on my mind, I stopped at a local restaurant for takeout falafel for lunch yesterday. The owner, a Syrian immigrant, is usually happy to serve up a side of politics with my lunch. Yesterday's side was a little different. I asked her what she thought of the current talk of the U.S. attacking the Syrian regime. She expressed her concern for civilians but said it has to be done. She went on to tell me that she believes the Americans will aim for precise targets and do what they can to spare civilians' lives. As we waited for my falafel to cook, she leaned over the counter to tell me about food shortages and the financial struggles of her friends and family in Syria. I asked about water and electricity which she confirmed are scarce. I then shared that my family experienced very similar struggles courtesy of the Syrian regime during the Lebanese civil war. She shook her head in disgust. 

As she packed my pita bread, I shared the story of my mother and I waiting in line for many hours for flour in Beirut to bake our own bread (unheard of in a city the size of Beirut but bakeries were closed). This was one of the many occasions when the army of the first Assad shelled Lebanese roads and bridges closing supply routes and forcing the rationing of what little was available. She seemed a bit surprised but I realized that I was speaking to someone who's heard about but not experienced the realities of war. 

I should have stopped there, but I went on to share one more thing.  I told her that my wish as a child was for my parents to let me leave home so I can make my way to Syria and personally kill Assad. Yes, I said that. I personally wanted to kill Assad to put an end to the suffering of so many, particularly my family. I was confident (or foolish to think) I could reach Syria somehow and get close enough to kill him. Fortunately or not, my wise parents did not agree and I did not get my wish. The woman looked at me puzzled, shook her head and said, "I have never heard anything like this before." Her response bothered me but I'm not sure why. I suspect Syrian children living through their war now more easily identify with my childhood experiences and state of mind. 

But what if I did leave home, reached Damascus and made my wish come true? One thing is for sure; I wouldn't be here writing about it today.

Today, as a Lebanese American, I'm praying that my country delivers decisive, definitive and devastating strikes to the son of Assad and his lieutenants. I'm also praying that Syrian children will live to write and talk about it. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fidelity and Betrayal

Boston Marathon bombing - April 15, 2013
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings and related events, I can't help but feel outrage toward the members of the Tsarnaev family who were directly and indirectly responsible for the bombings. They were naturalized American citizens who chose this country and took an oath to "bear true faith and allegiance" to it, and then they betrayed it. I'm finding no room for understanding or empathy whatsoever.

I posted the piece below a while back but I thought to share it again for obvious reasons. It is by no means a putdown of immigrants' loyalty to the United States. (I dare anyone to take me up on that point.) Rather, it's my story and my way of expressing my anger toward those who pledged their loyalty to this great country and then proved themselves unworthy of the privilege of American citizenship. Unforgivable.

Beirut's Green Line
Living on Beirut's Green Line for 10 years of the 15-year Lebanese civil war was no picnic.  The constant fear, uncertainty and disappointment had worn my parents down, so they finally took advantage of something most Lebanese coveted--the opportunity to legally immigrate to the United States and start a new life.  From learning the language, to finding work and adjusting to a new culture and way of life, our family's early years here were difficult to say the least.

But we were grateful to be in America.  We were grateful for a full night's sleep, safe streets, law and order, open schools and what we felt was a clear path to a real future.  I'm grateful to be alive and here today to write this blog.  I know I speak for each family member when I say we simply fell in love with this country--its ideals, its history and its people.  The kindness of countless Americans helped us through so many challenges, and it didn't take long for us to feel we were home.

A US Naturalization Ceremony
Then on a sunny day in May 1990, nearly six years after we landed on American soil, my father, sister and I raised our hands and took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. (My mother and brother followed a few years later.) We were finally Americans and we couldn't be prouder. To us, becoming American was a privilege and an honor. The oath we recited that day was not casual or optional.  It was a serious commitment to our new home, the one that welcomed us with open arms and held so much promise.

I know our story is essentially the same as that of countless immigrants from every corner of the globe who chose this country and have become (or are in the process of becoming) woven into its glorious fabric. It's probably safe to say that throughout America's history, immigrants have returned every bit of kindness and every ounce of opportunity offered to them by this great country. They have paid back with hard work, ingenuity and fidelity.

Yes, fidelity is really what's on my mind today. As I learn more about two naturalized American citizens--Mansour Arbabsiar, the man at the center of an alleged Iranian plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington, and Mohamad Soueid, who was indicted yesterday for acting as an agent of the Syrian government and spying on Syrian protesters in America, I'm outraged and disgusted. We don't quite know either man's motivation yet, but we do know they were both lured by foreign governments to put American lives in danger and undermine the very basic rights and liberties guaranteed to all in this country.

I am grateful that law enforcement officials found these two individuals and that they're now in the hands of our justice system, but the words of that oath are haunting me. Did they mean anything they said the day they raised their hands and became American citizens? Clearly not.

Below is the actual Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States of America. Whether you're a naturalized or native American citizen, please read it carefully and renew your commitment. Let's all return every bit of kindness and every ounce of opportunity offered to us by this great country.

"I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God."


Thursday, March 21, 2013

A New Middle East

As President Obama visits Israel, I have more thoughts and blog posts brewing in my head than I have time to write, but it occurred to me that I should have titled the piece below "A Modest Proposal for a New Middle East". Scroll down under for the November 2011 post. 

Israeli President Shimon Peres shows President Obama
   an olive tree at the presidential palace on March 20, 2013.
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

(And here's the transcript of the speech the President gave in Israel today.  Brilliant!)

November 15, 2011

A Modest Proposal for a New Arab World
The Voice of America's new Middle East site today published this piece I wrote. Take a look and let me know what you think.  Click HERE for the VOA site or see the text below.

A Modest Proposal for a New Arab World

By Laura Boustani

There are so many unspoken rules, ancient prejudices, historical tipping points and complicated allegiances in Arab politics. Most of them have a great deal to do with religion and little to do with human rights, equality or freedom.  In fact, hating and oppressing all the “others” is a time-honored Arab tradition.

Shiites oppress Sunnis and Sunnis oppress Shiites.  Christians are oppressed in most Arab countries and arguably oppressive in one.  Palestinians are personae non gratae just about everywhere, but their cause is front and center for militants who use it to justify attacking Israel.  Most al-Qaida and Hamas members appear to be Sunni.   Hezbollah members and Iranians are Shiites.  Jews seem to be everyone’s enemy.
Are you confused yet?  You’re not alone.  It’s maddening, but those of us from that part of the world have no problem keeping all this straight.  Much of it explains our past, defines our present and shapes our future.  In fact, much of the current unrest in Arab countries is a direct result of the connection between religious identity and power.  And, let me be clear:  Probably all religions and sects are guilty of exploiting their faith to commit countless atrocities – if not currently, then it is likely to have happened at some point in history.

I began this piece wanting to argue that Christians in Syria and Lebanon should wholeheartedly support the Syrian revolution and stand on the side of human rights, freedom and dignity for all, regardless of their fears.  But I realized that any such argument will fall on deaf ears if religious affiliation, oppression of the “others”, and fear always come first.
So, to borrow from Jonathan Swift, here’s my modest proposal for a new Arab world that rejects the modus operandi of past centuries:

1.    Separate religion from all affairs of a nation and grant everyone the right to worship as they wish.

2.    Recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person and grant all citizens the same rights regardless of their religious beliefs, gender, political affiliation or family history.

3.    Give everyone equal say on who they trust to serve them at every level of government. Yes, free and fair elections are a must.

4.    Value and protect everyone’s right to express their opinions and associate with whomever they please.

5.    Administer equal justice to all according to fair laws approved by citizens.

Perhaps what I’m suggesting is simply for Arab countries to weave into the fabric of their new nations a universal teaching of all the world’s great religions, the Golden Rule, or the ethic that we are to treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

Can it be that simple? 

As the American revolutionary Thomas Paine once said, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”  So, why don’t we?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Dreaming on Election Eve

On this election eve, I am filled with hope and anxiety over what may happen tomorrow.  I've decided to let hope win as I contemplate going to bed.  I pray my glorious country's future will be better than its past in every way imaginable. This poem by Langston Hughes says it best.   

Dream A World

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn,
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its paths adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way,
Where greed no longer saps the soul
Nor avarice blights our day.
A world I dream where black or white,
Whatever race you be,
Will share the bounties of the earth
And every man is free,
Where wretchedness will hang its head
And joy, like a pearl,
Attends the needs of all mankind-
Of such I dream, my world! 

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Note to the Syrian Opposition

As violence in Syria escalates, I am haunted by my memories of Beirut during Lebanon's civil war. For a number of reasons, chief among them the weak and self-interested so-called leaders, armed groups on all sides of the conflict forgot what they were fighting for. Life for most became "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short" to quote Hobbes. 

Back to Syria... I am by no means advocating the return to an unjust peace. Assad 's reign must end quickly and a new democratic Syria must emerge. But until that happens, I hope the armed opposition does not lose sight of the goals of the uprising--freedom, dignity and democracy. Yes, war is messy and atrocities are committed by all sides, but I have high hopes for the good Syrian people. Be better than Assad and his thugs. Be kinder. Be more honest, more authentic, more decent.  Be more human.  

Below is a poem I wrote a while ago about the militia boys in Beirut.  Please don't forget like they did.  

For the Boys

Stores are closed; buildings seem empty.
Streets are deserted, littered, silent and dusty.
Where in the world have they gone?
The children’s voices, the birds, the crickets,
The street vendors, the car horns, the school buses.
They've all gone away, scattered like terrified prey.
But the boys--they are here to stay.
Yes, the boys with their AK47s, RPGs and grenades.
Their jeeps speed through the city, patrolling they say.
But there’s no one to watch over; no living soul needs care.
The tanks roll through with nothing leading the way,
No purpose, no ideal, no moral or value to spare.
Fighting for a cause long forgotten, an enemy without a face.
There are no laws, no reverence and no grace.
I pray for this country—Lord, for the boys I pray.
Born into war, darkness, hate and despair.
I pray they know the sweet scent of roses and jasmine past, before death and decay.
I pray they find love, hope, joy, a future --and peace if they dare. 
For the boys, Lord I pray.