Arab Spring?

In 1989, I first became interested in what was going on in the world. In April of 1989, Mikhail Gorbachev was visiting the People's Republic of China. The world media descended on Beijing to get a glimpse of the introducer of glasnost and perestroika, who played the foil to Ronald Reagan. This charismatic Communist was proof that the International Left was the darling of the international press, and even then, with Solidarity already in full swing in Poland, the air was thick with anticipation that the year would be the most momentous in history. Indeeed, for Europe, it was.

I was just thirteen at the time, but I remember being swept up in the anticipation. That the Warsaw Pact would soon melt was not much in doubt. For me, as someone whose blood runs through Formosa and China, it was fascinating, it was exciting, to see that the people of a land that always appeared as a big, black spot in news broadcasts in Taiwan create a tent city in demonstration of their desire to have at least the beginnings of liberties taken for granted in the land that I had come to call home.

When the Communist Party seemed stunned, I was sure that victory was to be had. I was deluded then. When word that tanks from the People's Liberation Army were rolling into Beijing, I could not sleep. When pictures appeared on the nightly news of photographs of soldiers and protesters arguing peacefully, and when the picture of the lone man standing in front of a column of tanks appeared, hope resurged.

But in early June, all hope was dashed. For what seemed like days, photographs leaked out. I remember vividly the picture of a headless body in the street: Where the head should have been was a giant, dark red smear, with the impression of tank treads running through it. There could have been only one interpretation.

The late spring of 1989 was a very dark one, indeed, and was not relieved until almost half a year later with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Indeed, despite my jubilation at the prospect of a reunited, free Germany, the nagging question would not go away: Why not China?

In the waning days of the spring semester of 1989, I walked around school with a headband made of paper condemning the bloody crackdown in Tiananmen Square. It was in those days that I first felt the tug of liberal sympathies: All people deserved to speak their voices!

The two years after that were momentous ones indeed. Germany was reunited, the Soviet Union was dissolved, and the United States led a great Coalition to drive out the Butcher of Baghdad. The anticlimactic denouement of the Persian Gulf War left much to be desired, but it left me, as it left the world, convinced that a new age had come, with the world aligned around the ideals of liberty and justice for all, and the United States as the celebrated champion of those ideals. Yes, the world was imperfect, as Red China still turned its back to the world. But the trend seemed irreversible.

For a decade, it seemed safe to be silly and irrelevant again. Only the false sense of security of the '90s could have seen Americans so worked up over a playboy President. Even then, other than perjury, it all seemed so inconsequential. But it was as if we were back in the Roaring Twenties, ignoring the signs that harkened of dark days to come. We were so absorbed in the Rodney King incident, the LA riots, the Northridge earthquake, Hillarycare, and we shrugged off the World Trade Center bombing, the Oklahmoa City bombing, the attempted assassination of George H.W. Bush, the attack on the Khobar Towers, and so much more.

But at the close of the decade, the clouds gathered and began to menace. In the late '90s, al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in East Africa. Southeastern Europe proved that Europe's troubles were not yet over, and that her foremost nations were not ready to take on the leadership required to sort the place out. The Taliban destroyed the Buddha statues at Bamiyan. And yet all that CNN, which revolutionized information by bringing to us non-stop coverage of the Persian Gulf War, seemed to care about was, does Governor Bush have the gravitas to lead the United States?

Backtracking to the Arab World for a bit, and we see with hindsight that it was not just China that had been left behind in the Revolution of 1989. Arabs, too, must have wondered, with all these changes in the world, why is it that we instead get a war?

Now, fifteen years later, protesters are again setting up a tent city in a capital whose first three letters are "Bei-". The Presidency of the United States of America is again held by a George Bush. But this time, the city is one that is even more ancient than Beijing: This time, the city is Beirut, home of Canaanites, capital of Lebanon, the former Paris of the Middle East. But this time, the dictatorship is a foreign one. This time, the columns of tanks are not rolling into the city. If anything, preparations are under way to roll them out. This time, rather than stay aloof, the President George Bush is encouraging change and offering help. This time, the people may just triumph.

I don't want to see another bloody pulp on some foreign street with impressions of tank treads. I don't want another sudden frost, especially so soon on the tail of magnificent change in nations formerly held hostage to dictatorships and corruption. I want to see the people turn back those who would oppress them with gentle but firm hands. I want to see those ink-stained fingers again held up by a people in celebration of life, liberty, and the right to pursue happiness. I want to see ancient lands deliver on the potential of humanity.

Somewhere, there is a young Arab teen sitting at his computer, his eyes scanning the headlines coming out of the homeland that he only vaguely remembers. He is American, but his blood flows from Mesopotamia, or from the Levant. He speaks English with no trace of an accent, though his parents must revert to Arabic sometimes to express a thought that would take far too long in English. He has hopes and dreams, and they all involve his life here in America, his new home. But he is watching the happenings in Beirut, and he is dreaming of the day when it is taken for granted that representative government and a respect for individuals and individual liberty is the norm in that part of the world. In his dream, he is talking to his own children and grandchildren, who might know nothing of Arabic, and telling them exactly what he was doing when the first elections were held in Lebanon, and how he had dyed his finger in ink and walked around school for a whole month with an enormous grin and a happy heart, showing that finger, sometimes two, to anybody who would look his way.

Let us pray, each and every day, that this dream will come true, because it is truly the dream of all mankind.

[Cross-posted at Between Worlds]

Update: (2005.03.02.12:15 PST) Austin Bay has a similarly sentimental piece on the Cedar Revolution: The Angry Arab Meets the Texas Cowboy. Read it all.

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