OPINION

Bridges

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away – in Athens in the summer before the Fall of 2001 – I attended a lunch at the US Embassy in honor of Thomas Friedman, the New York Times’ foreign affairs columnist. Friedman, a mix between an evangelist and a senator on a «listening tour,» was here to promote the Greek edition of his book «The Lexus and the Olive Tree.» Starting off his paean to globalization, he declared, «I have the best job in the world.» He gets to travel anywhere, anytime and write two columns each week in what are unquestionably among the most influential pages in the world. Friedman’s memorable declaration was part of a well-worked routine and a sign of the great self-confidence and candor that, when mixed with hard work and inspiration, has made so many Americans excel at what they do. Other journalists might look at Friedman’s job the way horses tied to a plough would stare at a race horse visiting their farm. And then, sometimes, the whole world just comes to you. Without going any further than two hotels in Athens and Kathimerini’s offices at Neo Faliron, last Thursday, purely by chance, I had three meetings with three people who are completely different in themselves and in what they do, but are all connected by the strange dynamics of our new world and each provides a fascinating look into the currents of our time. The first was Asne Seierstad, a Norwegian journalist who has gained international fame for her book about life in an Afghan household after the fall of the Taleban. The second was with Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, whose wisdom and understanding should be the paradigm of a religious leader, and whose simple and yet so uncommon spirituality opens up roads where there are only obstacles. («Where there is a dead end, God’s door opens,» he says). The third was with an adviser of the American president. Tim Goeglein is special assistant to President George W. Bush and deputy director of the White House Office of Public Liaison. His boss is Karl Rove, who is Bush’s top strategist. Goeglein is traveling through Europe to hear what people think of the United States. At the most basic level, all three of these visitors to Athens have one thing in common – they are all affected directly by US policy. Goeglein is involved in explaining if not always shaping policy. Seierstad, as a foreign correspondent, sees the results of some of those policies from close up when they involve war, as in Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. Archbishop Anastasios, as the leader of the Orthodox Christian Church in an area where there are many Muslims – in Albania and adjacent Kosovo – and through his keen involvement in a dialogue between religions, has both a close view and an overview of the effects of US policy. Seierstad’s job is to report on what she sees. She has done this as a correspondent in some of the world’s conflicts and she has also written about her experiences in books. The most famous of these is «The Bookseller of Kabul,» which presents, in merciless detail, the dynamics of the family of a well-to-do intellectual and merchant in Afghanistan and the way in which he dominates and rules over his extended family. The bookseller, Shah Mohammed Rais, was outraged at this breach in hospitality. He had suffered through the decades of civil war and Taleban rule to protect his beloved books and part of his country’s intellectual history and, being an urbane and gracious man, had invited Seierstad into his home in Kabul for several weeks in the spring of 2002. What ensued was a direct clash of cultures. Seierstad’s detailed description of the lives and thoughts of Rais, his wives, his mother, his sisters and his children presented a picture of inequality and repression. Some critics in the West accused her of being patronizing, while Rais himself declared that he would sue Seierstad in Norway. But, aside from the sometimes excruciatingly embarrassing violation of the Rais family’s privacy, the book does present an insight into a family at a particularly interesting time in a particularly interesting country. And the story may have hurt Rais (who has since dropped his case) but it also exposed hundreds of thousands of readers in the West to a sense of life in Afghanistan. If we had such an intimate portrait from, say, the 1840s, would we not show interest in it because the author, like all journalists to some extent, violated someone’s trust or expectations? In 150 years’ time, the essence of Seierstad’s tale is what will matter. In Athens for the world congress of the International Federation of Journalists, she threw the same unsparing light on her colleagues with regard to the runup to the Iraq war. «If we had done the job then that we do now – and I’m mainly talking about the American journalists because the European journalists did – maybe there wouldn’t have been the war because it wouldn’t have been possible for Bush, because all his arguments would have been taken to pieces… as they are being now. So I think the Americans really didn’t do their job – to criticize the government,» she said. But now there is danger on another front. Journalists have become targets in war – especially in Iraq, Afghanistan and Chechnya. «We are being kidnapped, we are being killed, we are being beaten up. And we’re kind of looked upon as the enemy or biased. And maybe we are biased, some of us, but now the journalist is being attacked as a third force in the war. That is a huge difference. And when it’s too dangerous, at some point journalists will stop going, like Chechnya for instance,» Seierstad said. If journalists stop going, the dark corners of the world will grow even darker. It is the brave reporters, photographers and television technicians – most of whose names we never hear unless something terrible happens to them – who try to show the world what is happening. Then we must judge the situation and hold to account those who are responsible for it. These people are an invaluable part of our civilization. Everyone – especially Tim Goeglein – knows what journalists have to say because they make a point of saying it. It appears that all over Europe the public and news media are almost unanimous in their criticism of the Iraq war. If there are any variations of opinion, these are among the elites. That is why Goeglein, at a small dinner organized by the Greek Association for Atlantic and European Cooperation, was particularly interested in hearing the views of politicians, diplomats, historians and professors of international relations. Among the points raised by the Greeks were American unilateralism, the inexplicable rush to invade Iraq, the unstinting support of the Sharon government in Israel, the lack of a plan in Iraq, the fact that America had swept aside the world order that had existed since the end of World War II and had not only failed to stamp out terrorism with the invasion of Iraq but had, instead, created a greater risk of instability. It may seem strange to Washington, but a lot of the anger directed at it is not because the world is full of anti-American radicals but because most people are conservative and do not like instability. No one questions America’s right to defend itself against terrorism, but few were convinced that invading Iraq, despite the despotic Saddam Hussein, was worth destroying the old world order. What is clear is that it is time for Washington to make an effort to bring the world on board and close the black hole in Iraq. And it has to do whatever it takes to do this, employing the patience and humility that it did not when it rushed into this adventure. Also, European and other governments have to make clear to their people that there is no more time to waste, they have to work with the United States both to bring peace to Iraq and give its new government legitimacy after June 30. A black hole can suck everything into it, without exception. Archbishop Anastasios walked straight into the black hole that was Albania after the collapse of the most rigid communist system the world has known. He went in 1991 as the envoy of Ecumenical Patriarch Vartholomaios and, without knowing when he would be forced to leave, has been there since, helping the country pull itself back together. Through social collapse, unchecked violence and rampant nationalism, this mild-mannered, white-bearded man in his long black robes has worked tirelessly to rebuild a church which had been left with 15 defrocked and elderly former priests when the long night of extremist atheism had ended. He brought together all ethnic groups, not turning the Orthodox Church of Albania into a Greek society. He has tried to be friends with all sides and always supports the underdog. He has managed to cultivate friendly relations with Muslims and other Christians. As a professor in Athens, he wrote a seminal book on Islam. Now he watches as religious passions are fanned dangerously across the world. «For good or ill, the issue of faith and of the inter-faith dialogue has come to the fore again,» he said. He noted that there are 19 living religions and 240 religious groupings in the world and they have to work together. «We have common points and we must see what unites us,» Anastasios said. «However difficult the road, we must keep walking it.» He noted that the downtrodden of the world need to see justice. «We must not just talk about justice, we must be seen to be just,» he said. Anastasios has lived and worked in places, like Africa, where the Greek Orthodox are a tiny minority reliant on the kindness of strangers – unlike the experience of most senior clerics in Greece, who form part of the power structure. «Wisdom is in humility,» he said. «Only the devil cannot feel love, repentance and humility.» When someone commented on his calm, beatific demeanor, Anastasios smiled, «I am calm because I believe in miracles.» Perhaps the biggest miracle is that of offering hope – and hope depends on those who build bridges across the world.