Since I began teaching in Damascus six months ago, I have been continually surprised to find support and even admiration for Bush in that city, mixed in with the usual polemics about American imperialism. The presumed wildfire of anti-American and anti-Bush sentiment that has consumed much of Europe and Asia has apparently skipped over parts of the Arab world, where people often have more in common with Middle America than they do with the Middle East.
Two months into my stay, the issue of pro-Bush Syrians suddenly re-emerged when I began teaching English classes to several dozen students. The students were, almost without exception, from the upper echelons of Damascene society: well educated, financially comfortable, with many hailing from important Syrian families involved in high-level economic and governmental decision-making.
One afternoon I was explaining the passive tense of verbs, and I used an example that came to mind from American culture. I asked them if they knew who was nominated by the two main parties to run for president. "John Kerry was nominated by the Democratic Party, and George Bush was nominated by the Republicans," replied one of the brightest in the class, a veiled Muslim engineering student named Rahaf. "Very good," I said. "Now, who do you think will be elected?" "Bush," cried several of the students at once, smiling. Abandoning my lesson plan for the moment, but curious at this sudden display of interest in the election, I ventured: "Who do you want to win?" "Bush," said Rahaf, while a number of others nodded in solid agreement. I pressed them further for a few minutes, asking individual students why they liked Bush. The same ideas came up again and again: he is a strong leader, an honest man, and, most of all, a believer. Like the winning margin of American voters this year, these Middle Easterners related to Bush's sense of religious conviction and his confident steering of a nation and culture they admired.
"But doesn't he scare you?" I asked finally, unable to contain my personal feelings and throwing the lesson plan out the window. "Because of Bush's ideas many people in my country think that all of you are terrorists." Rahaf and most of the others just shrugged. Maybe that was all true, they said, but he was still a good president.