The Vermont Cynic: Where are They Now?

The Vermont Cynic is proud to have produced some excellent staff members over the past 120 years. Some have gone on to become distinguished journalists while others have journeyed into investment banking or sports marketing.

This week we are fortunate enough to have the 2000-2001 Cynic News and Managing Editor, Devin Foxall featured in our paper once again.

Devin travelled to Iran, Qatar, Turkey and Egypt last Fall as a freelance journalist to cover a side of the U.S.-Iraq war that couldn’t be found on CNN.

The Iranians invited me into their carpet shop to chat over tea. Then they locked the door to tell their secret.

A man in his twenties with serene eyes spoke first. “There is no hope,” he said. “There is no hope. There is no hope.”

Iran was the end of my month long journey through the Middle East. I went there to talk to young people about how they envisioned their future and what they thought of America. I wanted to know whether they still loved our freedoms, or, as I often found, whether we had broken their hearts.

The Iranian man, who was in his 20s, rested his head on the blood-red carpet hung on the wall. His friend chain-smoked. Two boys in their teens sat by a metal urn filled with tea. Every few minutes they asked if I would like more sugar, if I found my drink too bitter.

They described a future they had long given up on, and a generation of young people whose eyes were filled with sadness. They blamed the clerics that ruled the country for denying the thousands of small freedoms and emotions that create a human.

They could not kiss a pretty girl. They could not read a book deemed inappropriate. They could not listen to the Beatles. It seemed, they said, that they weren’t even allowed to be happy.

To do anything like this, they were told, was not simply illegal but an offense to God.

“Our government says, ‘You must go to paradise,'” the man explained. “We should be able to choose whether we want to go to paradise or hell.”

My friends kidded me when I told them where I was going. They said I would be killed. The joke followed me. In each country, Iran especially, young people joked that I must be very brave for coming to visit. Didn’t I know that they were violent and fanatic people, intent on killing Americans?

Then they would laugh. But it was obvious that shame was hiding in their humor.

Young people in the Middle East worry that the U.S. has declared them their enemy and now engages with them through paranoia and violence.

Yet, as people across the region would insist to me, they love America: the freedoms it represents, the hope it offers, the dreams it allows.

They have grown up needing hope and dreams. Their lives are defined by dismal job opportunities and corrupt governments; by war and terrorism; by a feeling of being walled out of the future. For them, America represented proof that good could survive this world.

Now things are very different. The Iraq war has transformed how people see us; over and over again people told me that the U.S. now appears to them as bent on war with all Muslims. Omorose Asharf, a student at Cairo University, told me that when she saw the bombs scream into Baghdad, “America changed.”

She cautioned that she still loved Americans, but that everyone hates President Bush. They blame him for corrupting those parts of America that once offered hope.

I met these emotions in Luxor on the rooftop of a four-story building built of mud and straw. There I watched the stars melt into the Nile River and spoke of dreams and fears with three young brothers. The youngest, Sayeed Mustafa, was the most passionate.

He told me that America was once something “beautiful for humanity,” but it had become hard for him to see what he once loved.

“The first four bodies they took from the World Trade Center were democracy, human rights, liberty and a good view of Arab people,” he said. “You used to be an example. Now, no more.”

Ahmed, who has visited New Hampshire twice and told me he would “die for my American friends,” wanted to know which country President Bush was about to invade. “People are frightened of Bush,” he said. “They don’t know where he will send troops next.”

Muhammad, the most soft spoken of the three, told me he could no longer listen to the television talk about the bloodshed in Israel and Palestine. People were beginning to believe that it would always be this way, he worried, and they blamed America for not helping to bring peace.

“All people are looking for is a little hope,” he said. “If they have hope, then the view of America will be 100 percent different.”

I expected to meet anger in the Middle East. Instead, when people talked about America, the first emotion after love was sorrow. They worried that the relationship between America and Muslims had become like two planets drifting apart. No one was talking to each other, and so both groups had become suspicious about what hatred festered within people they had never met.

In Doha, Qatar, I met a man named Hassn l’Unwafluh, a Jordanian in town to raise money to buy medicine for a friend’s sick family in Baghdad. When he had completed his mission, he said, he wanted me to visit his home.

“You must come to Amman,” he said. “Your government has told you that Arabs are inhuman, that we are animals. You must see the Arab world with your own eyes.” He smiled. “The faces of the Arab people shine like the sun.” He gestured to my pale-face. “The moon must meet the sun.”

America so represented their dreams that I often found myself acting as a vessel for a stranger’s wishes. In Turkey, the young man Devrim Onen wanted to know if it were true that the horses in Kentucky were the most beautiful. In Egypt, they asked when America would bring peace between Israel and Palestine, just as Jimmy Carter won peace between Egypt and Israel.

In a caf?© in Shiraz, a southern Iranian city known for its nightingales and tombs to Persian poets, two girls saw in me the revolution born when strangers realize that something wonderful lives in the other.

I remember that we ate chocolate sundaes. The brown hair of Yasaman spilled from beneath her scarf onto the front of her shoulders. Every few minutes Nazila would liberate a strand of hair-the color of moonless night-and let it fall across her cheek.

When it was time to go, they offered to shake my hand. If the wrong people were watching, they could be put in jail. It was simply not allowed. But to be human at that moment seemed like a brave and noble gesture, and I joined the rebellion.

Devin Foxall is from Lee, New Hampshire.