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Jewish Journal

The Center of Obama’s Universe

by Mona Eltahawy

January 21, 2009 | 7:50 pm

I live in Harlem, New York City, which on election night was the center of the universe. I have never seen people so happy.

Four days later, I went to the Axis of Evil, or at least that’s how former (doesn’t it feel good to say that!) U.S. President George W. Bush described Syria. And there in the Damascus market I bought a T-shirt that said simply “Obama.” One line in Arabic. Another in English.

Two very different cities. One simple joy at the mere idea of Obama.

Three months later, I am back in the Middle East and there is little joy. But Obama isn’t the reason the region is heartsick and wary. Rather, it is the absence of an Obama in the region that has sucked all joy out of it.

This morning in Doha, Qatar, the main photo on the front page of one of the national dailies was of Palestinians in Gaza lifting the decomposing body of a man onto the back of a pickup truck.

I am writing this from Tel Aviv, Israel, where at the airport an Israeli friend told me she is finally smiling again because with the cease-fire in place, she no longer has to worry her son will be sent to Gaza to fight.

So, how do we become audaciously hopeful in the Middle East?

Forget our audaciously awful leaders — and when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict they are evenly spread on both sides. Focus instead on young people, who form the majority in the region.

That’s where U.S. President Barack Obama (doesn’t it feel good to say that?) comes in.

The realist in me reminds the foolish optimist that Obama will be preoccupied with the U.S. economy and won’t be as focused on the Middle East as those of us from the region would wish. The poor man, trim and fit physique notwithstanding, must be weighed down by a burden of expectations from everyone.

But he can be the leader the region lacks. He can be the leader that tells our young people — Arab, Israeli, Iranian and Kurdish, take your pick — “Yes you can!”

A young Egyptian blogger I met in Doha told me that while listening to Obama’s acceptance speech he felt he was listening to the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, known for his mesmerizing presence. The latter died long before the blogger was born, but that’s how far he must go back to point to an Arab leader with a charismatic ability to galvanize the public.

“The old leaders in the Middle East have stopped dreaming,” Professor Mira Tzoreff told me as she and her husband drove me to my hotel. “That’s a tragedy. Young people still dream.”

President Obama, you still dream. Talk to the young people here and tell them their dreams matter.

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