Monday, April 4, 2011

Remembering a Difficult Conversation

Watching the remarkable events unfolding in North Africa and the Middle East, I am reminded of a stark encounter in the summer of 2006 when the Iraq war was at its height. 

A group of young Tunisians had come to the Initiatives of Change conference in Caux, Switzerland. One evening, they invited Susan and me to dinner. They were bright, engaging young men, keen soccer players; they reminded us of our own sons who were students at the time. The meal began pleasantly as we sat on the terrace, enjoying the evening sunset. Our host, a Tunisian friend who had organized the group, invited us to talk about our work in America.  

But the tone changed dramatically when someone touched on U.S. foreign policy.  At once, the group turned on us.  “All the problems in the world, without exception, are the fault of America.” said one. “If U.S. policy does not change there will be more 9/11s.” For the next hour they launched a relentless assault, urging each other on, seeming to enjoy the opportunity to wound.  One of them said, “We would like to go to Iraq and kill Americans.”

We attempted a rational discussion, to explain that most Americans did not see Muslims as enemies and that many longed to see their country take a more balanced approach, but it was futile. The pain and anger of the young Tunisians was too great. We left the dinner depressed, frustrated, and emotionally scarred.  

Our friend explained: “This is the first time they have been out of the country and you are the first Americans they have had a chance to speak with. At home we are living in a prison.  When we have meetings with our group a security man is outside the door.”

We understood their need to vent. But Susan was so shaken by the experience that she removed her name tag that identified her as an American for several days.

On the last day of the conference, we saw the young men at breakfast preparing to leave. I said, “We must at least go and say goodbye.” As we approached their table, several of them rose and greeted us with warmth and charm. “That was a great conversation!” said one.  I laughed, “It wasn’t so great for us!” We wished them well and we parted on good terms.

In recent days Susan and I have often thought of those young men. We rejoice in the new freedom that is coming to their nation. We regret that for so long America and other Western countries have supported dictators in that region who have terrorized their people. We hope that these young Tunisians are safe and that they can look forward to a brighter future in which they see America as a friend.


  1. Rob,
    Thanks for sharing. Their reactions was typical of the region: conspiracy mentality, blaming others, a wounded psychology from colonialism and post-colonialism scares, lack of freedoms, a religious construct that is need of "reconstruction" and many other issues. Add to this our not so strategic foreign policy that focused on shot term stability and access to resources.
    Well now, they tasted Freedom and they broke several barriers. The future is in their hands and they can decide on it.
    No nation will forsake its national interests and the search for prosperity. We citizens may differ on the interests and how to go about them, but that another issue.

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