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Lebanese greet Obama with skepticism, Americans celebrate

The first person I talked to on this inauguration day was a Palestinian, 62 year old Ahmed Khashan. He sells cigarettes, candy and soda from his little shop just down the street. He's been watching the coverage of the Gaza conflict on his little TV for weeks now. But today, when I walked into his shop he was watching an Arabic political talk show, and I heard the word "Obama."

I asked him what he thought of the new president.

"It's like someone says they want to eat fish, and you go to the ocean to find one," Khashan said.  "You don’t' know if  you'll catch a fish. You don't know what kind of fish you'll catch. This is how I feel about Obama. We don't know anything about him."

"But if he can help the Palestinians, I think he will be good," he said.

With American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and American support for Israel during the Gaza conflict that many in the Arab world see as unfair, the majority of people in Lebanon I spoke with view the peaceful transition of power in the White House as not making much difference on U.S. policy in the Middle East.

"White or black, what is the difference?" said my Syrian shopkeeper neighbor, as he watched  pre-inauguration coverage on Al Jazeera Arabic.

There was a bit more excitement for Obama's presidency at the neighborhood pub, where more than 50 people of various nationalities gathered to watch the inauguration on two small wall-mounted TVs.  An Australian woman played a drinking game with the broadcast — drinking every time the cameras panned to show an African American in the crowd. Two French women laughed as CNN's anchors commented on inauguration day fashion.  But the majority of those present were American, Lebanese, or Lebanese American. As cheers erupted after Obama finished his speech, Lebanese American Louisa Ajami said  she  was "inspired."

"We're there!  We made it," she said. "I'm so happy because he's such a great unifier, and an honest, decent and good man."

Nick Lowery, an American expat, said he came to watch the speech because he never expected to be this excited about a presidential inauguration again. "For the first time in my adult life I'm proud to be an American," he said.

Bassem Noujaim, a Lebanese citizen, had pretty low expectations for the new president. But he was happy about the lack of one word in Obama's speech.

"Obama didn't use the word 'terrorist,'" he said.  "That's a nice change." 

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