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President Barack Obama may have come to Cairo to kick off a new beginning to relations with the Arab world, but in Lebanon, his speech had to contend with work, election campaigning and card games.
I watched Obama's speech at the “peace” cafe, a local spot where men can gather for tea, coffee and card playing (with a little gambling thrown in). It's in a neighborhood of Beirut known for its residents’ staunch anti-American political stance. The TV was tuned to Al Manar, the Hezbollah-owned satellite channel, and sure enough, they were broadcasting Obama's speech.
But most of the men, (they were all men in this cafe, by the way) weren't paying much attention, despite the speech's Arabic translation being turned up all the way. The men drank tea and played cards on tables covered with soft green tablecloths, yelling more about their card game than what Obama was saying.
Regardless, to these men, the simple act of engaging with the Arab and Muslim world seemed to mean more than what Obama said today.
Jamal Hussein, a retired cop who comes to the peace cafe every day, seemed tickled that he shared a name with the president of the United States. He'd been following Obama's trip from Saudi Arabia to Cairo, and his visit to a mosque there.
“Today we saw Obama enter the mosque with respect,” Hussein says. “This gives us a push to enter the church with respect also.”
Hussein’s friend, Hamad Gareeth, 56, says Obama is making headway by vowing to withdrawal troops from Iraq, and by looking to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Lebanon is home 400,00 Palestinian refugees, who both drain resources and have destabilized the country in the past.
“The thing that Obama must achieve is unified standards between Palestinians and Israelis, he should achieve a Palestinian country," Gareeth said. "Then the Palestinians in Lebanon will leave and go back to their country, we won’t have to handle them in Lebanon."
Hussein also said the U.S. should not take sides in Lebanon’s upcoming elections. For the last four years, America has firmly supported the so-called March 14 coalition against the March 8 coalition, which is partly made up of Hezbollah, the Islamist Shiite group the U.S. classifies as terrorist. The U.S. has given more than half a billion dollars in aid to Lebanon since 2005, but Vice President Joe Biden threatened to stop more aid should Hezbollah and its allies in March 8 win. Gareeth says that isn’t right.
"Obama should look at the Lebanese country as a unified country — there should be no March 14 and March 8 when he comes," he said. "Biden should not have come here and met with one side and not the other.”
Gareth says America should go back to its role of defending small, weak states from bigger ones, he said, and stop siding with bullies, in a reference to U.S. support for Israel.
Several men here today mentioned they like the fact that Obama is speaking to Muslims directly, rather than what they say was his predecessor’s aggressive and threatening rhetoric. And while acknowledging their dislike of U.S. policy in the Middle East, especially toward Israel ("it needs to be more fair" said one man), they seem to be genuinely charmed by Obama.
The men at the coffee house are political opponents of America’s allies in Lebanon. Still, they seem cautiously optimistic that Obama appears to seriously want to address problems that plague the entire region, causing tension and conflict. That means a lot for Lebanese from all political backgrounds, who, as a mirror image of the Middle East, have often suffered from regional conflicts that have largely been out of their control.