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Taxi Driver Wisdom

What revelations does a ride in a Washington cab offer about the Middle East conflict?

July 7, 2002

What revelations does a ride in a Washington cab offer about the Middle East conflict?

When I lived in Washington in the early 1980s, many cabdrivers in D.C. were Ethiopians. They had escaped the 1974 communist takeover of their country.

Meanwhile, cabdrivers back in New York at the same time tended to be Russian-Jewish émigrés. They had fled the Soviet Union. This turned a trip between the two cities with cab rides on both ends into an interesting political experience.

After all, this was the time when the Soviet Union was still expanding its influence around the globe. And the world view you got from your cab drivers was nothing short of a doomsday scenario.

Although Russians have been replaced at the wheel of New York yellow cabs by Pakistanis, Bangladeshis or Afghans, I assumed that my cabdriver on a recent trip to D.C. was still an Ethiopian.

He surely reminded me of many Ethiopian cabbies whose services I had enjoyed before — and had that wonderful sing-song African accent. He also was more than eager to launch into a political discussion. Yet, it quickly transpired that the man was not from Ethiopia, but neighboring Somalia.

Like almost all Somalis, he was a Muslim. Although our conversation first touched on race relations in the United States, he was utterly uninterested in taking sides on the issue. He didn't really identify with American blacks but literally thought of himself as an African-American.

What he did want to talk about instead was the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. And he showed himself remarkably well-informed on the issue. He knew about Israel Prime Minister Sharon's plans to invite a million Jews, mainly from Russia and Argentina, to settle parts of the occupied territories.

He also had a ready collection of anecdotes about Israeli soldiers' mistreatment of Palestinians. He was up on Archbishop Desmond Tutu's comments comparing Israel's policies to South Africa's apartheid. In fact, he noted wryly that he found those comments on BBC, but not in the American media.

In short, my cabbie not only made no secret of his deeply felt sympathy for the Palestinians, but he was quite passionate about the issue. But not because of some deeply rooted anti-Americanism. On the contrary, like so many first-generation immigrants, he was a patriotic American — and a loyal citizen.

In some two decades since immigrating he has never been back to the "old" country. And during the Clinton Administration's disastrous foray into Somalia, his sympathies lay squarely on the U.S. side.

But all that would change the moment he returned to the discussion of the Bush Administration's stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There, his opinion was remarkable in its uncompromising simplicity.

In his view, the U.S. government is so completely dominated by the Jewish lobby that it has given Ariel Sharon a carte blanche. According to my cabdriver, President Bush's conditional support for a Palestinian state, predicated upon the removal of Yasser Arafat, fit into the same pattern of pleasing Mr. Sharon.

Throughout their history, Muslims have been a particularly contentious bunch as far as religious issues are concerned. Tensions between Muslim Sunnis and Shiites are similar to bloody disputes between Catholics and Protestants — such as the conflict in Ireland and the 30 years war.

These two dominant creeds of Islam persecute one another whenever they get a chance. Add to that Arab leaders, who go to great trouble to display Pan-Arab unity in public — but tend to constantly plot and scheme behind each other's backs — and the picture of disunity is clear.

Yet, the hands-off policy of the Bush Administration toward Israel seems to have finally succeeded in unifying public opinion all over the Muslim world. It has focused on Israel — and the liberation of the West Bank has become its rallying cry.

True, one conversation with a Somali cabdriver in Washington, D.C. — or for that matter with a Pakistani cabdriver in New York — may not be an accurate gauge of public opinion in Muslim countries.

That is until you realize that similar conversations can be heard right now in cabs all over the world — from Lagos to London and from Jakarta to Paris. It is the kind of verdict Al Qaeda will be very happy with.