travel

Being the Bad American at The Bohemian’s Café

“I figure it out,” he told me. “Your next president is Britney Spears.”

He’d asked me, the day before, whether I thought Hilary or Obama would win. After explaining that they were both on the same side and that, in my opinion, neither could win a national election due to the American culture of repressed racism and sexism (not to mention the Electoral College), I’d refused to hazard a guess as to the next American president.

“Your next president is Britney Spears, no? This is why I see her so much on the news? She is winning, no?”

I didn’t hear him correctly at first. It took a moment. And then there was nothing to do but put my head in my hands and groan.

Gal, along with his girlfriend Sai, owns and runs The Bohemian’s Café and Bars (yes, its plural) in Chiang Mai. I’d wandered by the day before, sat down to journal, stayed for a few hours and been invited over to join a large table of his friends. The conversation had drifted, like all long conversations amidst large groups, in and out of topics, politics having been one of them. As an Israeli, Gal had a particular interested in American politics: the interest that America continue to support the interests of Israel. I’d known that the alliance between America and Israel was incredibly important to Israel, but I’d never before realized how seriously Israel took the relationship, nor with what fervor they followed American news and politics. American headlines are flown beside Israeli and they hold their breaths for our elections.

“We do your work,” he said in explanation.

“You mean we do yours,” I replied.

We conceded to both.

And I threw the gauntlet. “I do not think,” I was trying to choose my words carefully, “that we should support Israel the way that we do. And I don’t think that we can continue to do so. America writes the checks,” I said “but not for long. Twenty years, thirty years – we are done.” I may have been a bit presumptive with my estimate, but I know the economists and historians and armchair political scientists would agree: empires can only last so long, our reputation is bankrupt and our economy is following. “We will be history, textbooks – and then what will Israel do? Better if you didn’t depend on us.”

“Yes, yes, America dies, is already dying – but it would die faster without Israel. We are your shield – they hurt us when they cannot hurt you –” He was referring the Arab nations, no doubt, and I took us off on a tangent until he agreed that the Arab nations did have personal reasons to attack Israel.

“You are right but that is not what I talk about. Listen,” he said and, abashed, I set my hands in my lap and made eye contact. “America is nothing without the Middle East. Without oil. That is what you are based on yet you have none.” He wagged a finger and stretched one side of his mouth into what was almost a grin as he chided: “Very foolish.”

He was serious again. “And to get, you must fight. You must take. Or your leaders must make deals, make friends with Arab leaders.” He made a face and spat out an epithet in Hebrew. “And Israel – we muddy the waters for you. We make distraction. We give you reason – and we make Arabs angry, so you can sneak in. We give them problems so they cannot defend and you sneak in your companies and you take the oil, take the money.”

We were close enough friends by now that I didn’t hesitate to challenge. “But why should America take the oil? It is not ours – it’s far from us, there is no reason. No fair reason.”

“No should,” he began, as I began to realize that, while I was arguing moral philosophy, he was arguing realpolitik; I’ve never had the stomach for realpolitik. “It is too late for should. You are already caught, you have already taken. What do you do now, stop? You cannot afford to stop. Already your dollar drops. Israel knows this. Israel watches this. We watch and we worry. Besides – more important – here is the should: you stop and Israel dies. We cannot fight Hezbollah, Hamas, not all on our own.”

“So you think that America, a separate nation, should keep giving you money to kill? That we should simply keep helping people die by the hundreds and thousands, in a struggle that is not ours?” I stopped just short of blaming Zionism. We were becoming friends, but we were not that close yet.

“Americans die too,” he said with a frown.

I had already established myself as a Bad American, and if realpolitik was to be the game, I decided to go for broke.

“Not many. Not enough. If more Americans died then maybe we would stop fighting, maybe we’d pull out. How many Americans die for each Iraqi we kill, or each Afghani who died? What’s the difference, how skewed is the ratio? How many thousands?” If I’m going to continue discussing politics abroad, I realized, I’d really better look up some hard statistics. I made a note for the next time I went to an internet café. Numbers or not, he agreed – completely. We spent a while bashing the myopia of American media (a return to Britney Spears, unfortunately, when he wanted to know why the American people were so obsessed with her) and the skewed reportage of the Iraq War.

“Iraq,” he sighed. “Iraq was not for Israel. Iraq was a mistake. Iraq is – how you say – your undoing.”

With no Dutchman around, I took it upon myself to raise my glass for a somber toast.

“A complete mistake. But what do we do now?” We laughed bitterly, knowing there was no answer.

“It is not your fault, though,” he said as if to reassure. “It is not your fault and not America’s fault and not even Bush’s fault.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Really? Somehow I thought it was little of everyone’s. A little Bush, a little Israel, a little America.”

I suddenly realized I was talking like a non-native speaker. I’d lapsed into pidgin. The dropped articles, the missing prepositions, the infinitives – it was entirely unintentional. My sense of grammar has always been more intuitive than academic and, like accents, syntax and style enter my ear and are immediately recycled out as I speak. I even pick up people’s rhythms, sometimes; it’s subtle but I always kick myself when I realize. At least, I told myself, I hadn’t slipped into the poli-sci legalese of my days as a debater; at least he could understand me. Communication has always appealed to me over style and I’d be consoled, a few days later, when he would begin to ask me to “translate” the English of other travelers. “Tell her,” Gal would tell an Australian or Norwegian who came up to the bar and tried to chat, while I was sitting there, “and she tell me. I you no understand.” (His own English, I’d noticed, would get suspiciously poor for the more annoying customers.) As a native English speaker, with a head start on what has become the international lingua franca, I figured it’s only fair that I make an effort to speak slowly and simply – I just hadn’t planned on speaking pidgin, but it seemed to be working.

“No, no, no,” Gal was saying. “It is Arab leaders fault. They are all bad. Evil. They sit on wealth, on the world’s wealth, the oil – and they do not use it to build schools. Saudi Arabia. Kuwait. It is the leaders, not the countries, that are evil.” I hadn’t blamed him of prejudice – at least not in so many words – but he was defensive anyway. Perhaps it didn’t need to be said. “The leaders are at fault. Why do they not build schools and hospitals? And why do their people not demand it?”

As I sat straighter and began to answer, I was hit by the utter appropriateness of the setting. We were seated on hand carved wooden stools beneath the shade of a banyan tree, the area lit by Chinese lanterns and colorful wax “volcanoes” of candles; reggae music streamed in from the bar behind us, managing to blend with the European trance that was playing at our bar. A French couple at one table, a Muslim-Chinese family at another, and a loud group of Italians to our right. Even the café’s name couldn’t have been better.

“Because,” I said, “because the money isn’t in the Middle East – even the Arab leaders don’t have that much. The princes, sure, in bank accounts in Europe and America – but little of it goes into the Middle Eastern economies, anymore, and even if they did – even if the evil Arab leaders attempted to spend the money at home and improve their citizens’ quality of life,” I was soapboxing my way out of pidgin, “America would make sure, like it has before, that they don’t. Mossadegh in 1953, overthrown because he was a threat only to the foreign business interests, Afghanistan, time and again, now Iraq – Venezuala, Nicaragua, Cuba, Korea and Vietnam – America’s one and only foreign policy has been the safeguarding of our economic interests. Our wealth is not only seized from others’ hands, but we return time and again to crush them and keep them weak. And we let their princes play to keep them happy. The problem isn’t even capitalism, not entirely – its imperialism. It is the fact that America sends its weapons and its army into other countries and supports disaster. Which is why I think we have to stop all involvement in the Middle East – including support of Israel. I know, I know – Hamas, Hezbollah, the regimes you worry will attack Israel… the thing is, all of the American intervention is making it worse, not better, and I think if we just left it alone, just left them alone… they will die off. It may not be pretty but it is better than the carnage, the growing infection, that is now.”

I blinked to a stop. He gave me an odd look. “You,” he said, “are a very strange American. The things you say. Very strange. No one says these to me before. No American. All others like – no not like, but support – Bush and Iraq because they say no option. “

I probably shrugged. Took a sip of my drink.

“Bad American,” he said with a broad smile. “You are a very Bad American.”

Photos

Bohemian’s & Others

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