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Obama's speech: The view from Islamabad

"So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace ... ."

President Obama's words were best understood by the people in this country — literally. Pakistan is one of the largest English-speaking countries in the world, and English is one of the two official languages in Pakistan. I watched the speech this afternoon on CNN International at an older Pakistani couple's house in Islamabad. The husband is a retired university professor and the wife works in the Pakistani bureaucracy. We sipped on English tea in their living room.

"Americans are ready to join with citizens and governments; community organizations, religious leaders, and businesses in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life."

Just as the speech was closing though the clock struck 6 p.m. and the television and the living room went dark. It was disappointing but no one flinched. We just kept sipping our tea. Missing the great crescendo of a potentially historic experience — you don't get too worked up about these things when in a typical day these power outages happen at least half a dozen times. But also when you know that a few million refugees from a war are spending the summer outdoors, driven out of their homes by war.

"As the Holy Koran tells us, “Be conscious of God and speak always the truth.” That is what I will try to do — to speak the truth as best I can ... ."

In the faintly sunlit room, conversation centered around the truth. Did Obama tell the truth? The truth of America's intentions? The truth of his intentions? The truth about involvement in Pakistan?

"Is Osama bin Laden really hiding around here?" the wife asked. "Is that why the American army is here?"

"There can be no reconciliation until there is truth," the husband said quietly.

"No single speech can eradicate years of mistrust," the president continued.

Pakistanis have long been deeply suspicious of America. This suspicion is rooted in the Cold War as President Obama pointed out when Pakistan was used a proxy in the battle against Soviets "without regard to their own aspirations."

But in this latest war that Pakistan and the United States are fighting together, America has also become deeply suspicious of Pakistan and its army. It's become a relationship defined by deep interdependency and deep mutual distrust.

"As a boy, I spent several years in Indonesia and heard the call of the azaan at the break of dawn and the fall of dusk."

The azaan rang out a few moments after Obama's speech would have ended and I left and went to the local mosque to join a congregation in the afternoon prayer. Time in Pakistan, as in other parts of the Muslim world, is often measured by the azaan or the call to prayer.

"He started with 'aslamalaykum,'" the traditional Islamic greeting, a young man with a thick mustache told me. "And he quoted from the Koran... these are good things," he said with a shy smile.

The seven issues Obama raised didn't appear to have caught many people's attention at the mosque. It was the small gestures, his knowledge of Islamic culture and his willingness to put it on display, his speech peppered with Koranic words, his attention to detail that not only engaged many but also impressed a few.

"It is easier to start wars than to end them," the president went on.

I went to buy an orange juice after the prayer. "He understands us better," a shopkeeper in the mosque-market said as I was paying for my Minute Maid. "But that doesn't change reality. America is at war with us."
 

http://www.globalpost.com/notebook/pakistan/090604/obama-speech-pakistan-reaction