How America looks from Sudan

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about proposed cuts in her budget, saying that more money was needed to improve the U.S. image overseas. But she didn’t say at least two other things:

One, even when then-President George W. Bush declared a “war of ideas” and increased the diplomatic budget, the United States wasn’t able to improve its reputation, particularly in the Muslim world.

Two, the damaged reputation doesn’t stem from the highly regarded American principles of freedom and justice, of the kindness of the American people, or of advances in science and technology, but from aspects of foreign policy.

Clinton should have accompanied me last year during my last visit to my village: Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in northern Sudan, south of the border with Egypt.

After 30 years in Washington and 20 years’ absence, I returned to my village because my father died. While I was there, I was curious about the U.S. reputation, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the beginning of the “war on terrorism.” Mixed attitudes about the United States in the larger Muslim world are reflected in polling.

In 2003, a survey by Pew Research Center found that the percentage of those holding a “favorable view” of the United States was as low as 1 percent in Jordan, 13 percent in Pakistan and 15 percent in Turkey.

However, those who admired U.S. technological achievements were 59 percent in Jordan and 42 percent in Pakistan. Opinion of U.S. popular culture was mixed, but more positive than one might expect. In Lebanon, 65 percent said they liked American music, movies and television, and in African countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Senegal and Nigeria, majorities said they liked American popular culture, although majorities in Jordan and Egypt said the opposite.

Pew didn’t poll in Sudan.

My village looks like one of those Afghan villages shown on TV, with mud houses, donkey carts and men in flowing garments. Sheep and goats are kept inside homes; dogs wander the streets; women cover their bodies and hair, but not their faces.

I visited my old “madrassa,” or Koranic school. There I, like the Afghan and Pakistani children seen on TV, would sit with other boys on the ground and recite verses from the Koran.

Back in the village after the long absence, I tried to be “normal”: Instead of suits, I wore the flowing white jalabiya; instead of dress shoes I wore footwear made from tiger skin. I ate with my hands, prayed five times a day, showered by squatting on the floor and scooping water from a bucket, and used a hole in the ground as a toilet.

Under a colorful tent set up to receive mourners, some of my nephews and their friends gathered around me, quietly asking about America: where Michael Jackson was buried (I didn’t know); when my children would visit (they want to); and if I would help in securing acceptances at American universities (I would do my best).

Noticing that some of the young men had laptops, I told them about my visit to the Dell headquarters in Austin. They were excited when I told them of my question to founder Michael Dell about the future of the laptop and of his answer that it would have no battery and could be “virtual,” a screen that appeared and disappeared in front of a person.

On the other hand, I didn’t expect the popularity among the villagers of the Lebanese Hezbollah party, the Palestinian Hamas movement, the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Some showed me videos from the Internet on their cellphones with what appeared to be U.S. military vehicles being blown up in Iraq while insurgents shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is the greatest), and videos of Osama bin Laden criticizing America.

One afternoon, while my family was receiving mourners under the tent, bitter black coffee was being served and some were reciting verses from the Koran, one of my brothers asked me about America. When I praised its freedom, my brother erupted. “What freedom? Freedom to kill Muslims all over the world? Freedom to side with Israel?” he shouted.

My brother’s stereotype of Muslims in America after the Sept. 11 attacks was that of fearful people who could be jailed, deported or sent to concentration camps. I looked around and saw the mourners murmuring or nodding in support of my brother. I changed the subject.

The day before I left, I went to Friday prayers in a nearby town. The imam’s sermon was as harsh as I remembered them being, with repeated threats of hellfire for people who disobey God. But, this time America was included for its “crimes” against Islam and Muslims.

Usually, worshippers don’t comment on the sermon. This time a farmer from a nearby village asked: “Why do we pray to God to destroy America? Why don’t we pray to God to guide America?”

A quiet debate followed, invoking verses from the Koran about, on one side, God’s anger and, on the other, God’s mercy. I, a foreigner in my own village and worried about my own reputation, just listened.

Back amid Washington’s politics of fear, anger, war, confusion and stress, every now and then I remember the farmer – and pray to God to calm America. I did that on Wednesday while watching Hillary Clinton ask Congress for more money to improve the U.S. image overseas – as if the U.S. reputation were based on how much we spend.

Mohammad Ali Salih, a Washington-based correspondent for Arabic magazines and newspapers in the Middle East.

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