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Al Ain

by Colin Mulligan | 2004

I had an interesting conversation last night. It was almost 7 in the evening, and I had just hailed a taxi to take me from Al Ain city—where I did some shopping and checked my email—to my campsite about 20 km from town. Like every other cabbie who I've hired for the trip, this man, who spoke only broken English, asked me where I was from. Since I was reasonably sure that he wasn't a terrorist, or an al Qaeda sympathizer, I answered truthfully and told him that I was American. He nodded without emotion, and told me that he was from Pakistan. "From where in Paksitan?" I asked, and to make sure he understood the question, I rattled off the four Pakistani cities that I knew: "Islamabad? Lahore? Karachi? Peshawar?"

"Near to Peshawar," he answered. "Waziristan," the remote, mountainous region of his country that borders Afghanistan. This is also the place where American "intelligence" seems to think that al Qaeda heavyweights like Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahari are hiding. "In my home," the cabbie continued, "there are no police." He was referring to Waziristan's traditional autonomy from the Pakistani government's meddling. Because of their location, unforgiving terrain and their tribal leaders' violent mistrust of outsiders, Islamabad has always (until very recently, anyway) been content to follow a policy of "live and let live" with its north-westernmost provinces.

"It must be nice," was all I could think to say in response.

It has been just short of nine months since I left home for my round-the-world adventure. In that time, I have almost completely lost my intellectual vanity; the part of my personality that wants everyone I meet to know just what a clever and enlightened American I am. But old habits die hard, and this part of my psyche that was responsible for my next question—a question whose answer I already knew. "They have Sharia'h there," I asked, using the Arabic term for the strict interpretation of Islamic Law that has gained worldwide notoriety since the fall of Afghanistan's Taliban regime.

"Yes," he said simply, nodding with pride. "Pakistan is a very big country. To have only one government is... (he was searching for the right words in English)...not good."

"One government in a big country means that one man is very powerful. And THAT is definitely not good," I observed, thinking bitterly of my own country's recent political and diplomatic mistakes—most of which could be traced to the whims of one ultra-powerful individual. Here I was, sitting next to a man that so many of my countrymen would be quick to dismiss as the enemy, or at least as a native from the land of the enemy, having a meaningful political discussion. He would probably not approve of my lifestyle, and I can think of few things that are less appealing to me than living under his ideal form of government. But we were agreeing.

Across Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Provinces, movie theatres and music shops have been forcibly shut down in compliance with Islamic Law, and women there are now obliged to cover themselves fully when they appear in public. As a student of history, it is my opinion that nearly every instance where religion and government have been combined has ultimately led to disaster—the only likely exception being the early Ottoman Empire, which, even today, stands as a model of scientific exploration, progressiveness and religious tolerance. Yet the people of Waziristan and the other Northwest Frontier Provinces have made their choice, and barring the establishment of a formal regime that protects and shelters terrorists like the Taliban did, it is they alone who must deal with the consequences.

I came to visit the Middle East because this ancient land's tumultuous and violent history has always fascinated me through art and literature, and I wanted to experience it for myself. In spite of the U.S. State Department's never-ending stream of travel advisories and proscriptions against journeying in the region, I came without fear; and I have been rewarded with gracious hospitality and respect as a traveler—two other requirements imposed by Islamic Law, incidentally. I came because of my faith that, in spite of what CNN and Fox News would have us believe, 99.9% of the world's population is essentially the same: aside from differences in dress, language and custom, they all just want the freedom to live in peace, to be treated with respect, to follow their dreams, to worship the God that they serve and to see their children inherit a world that is better than the one in which we currently live.

So why does the world continue to seem like such a dangerous and unforgiving place? As a student of life, I believe the cause is precisely those same big governments about which my taxi-driver friend spoke so eloquently. It is all the angry little men in suits who talk about "protecting our way of life," or "our values," yet stand ever-ready to let their policies, and the lives of countless individuals, be influenced by the whims of special interest groups, the promise of increased military aid, or a few points in the next Gallup poll. The problem, as I see it, is not that politics exist, but that it is dominated by politicians: men (for the most part) who create and nurture the potentially priceless notion of "us," and then keep their jobs by adding the always destructive notion of "them."

Traveling to three different continents over the last nine months has left me with the unshakable belief that people, regardless of nationality or color, are good. Not all people of course; but there are more than enough resources in the world to deal with terrorists like Osama bin Laden and tyrants like Saddam Hussein—individuals who truly deserve to be labeled as "them" by us. Unfortunately, until WE are willing to take control of our own destinies and decide for ourselves who we should fear, as well as what we can and can't say, watch or do with our bodies, there will always be big faceless governments and little men in suits who are more than happy to make these decisions for us.

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