The U.S. is more than guns and butter

At one point earlier this month when I was in the backseat of a car working its way through Beirut traffic, the driver told me, “This is a Hezbollah neighborhood. I don’t think they’ll be burning tires to block traffic tonight, but you never know.”

Indeed, there was a tent at the corner with hundreds of tires for sale. I imagined them fuel for a very smoky, very toxic, very black bonfire. Beside those tires, however, was a McDonald’s. Down the block was a KFC. And near that KFC was a Dunkin’ Donuts. Along the highway that runs through the city and skirts the Mediterranean Sea, I counted half a dozen billboards for lingerie, including one for Victoria’s Secret.

I was traveling with my good friend, Khatchig Mouradian, a Lebanese-Armenian who grew up in Beirut. He is the editor of the “Armenian Weekly” here in the United States and a genocide scholar. I was visiting Lebanon and Armenia to ground myself emotionally as the publication neared for my next novel, a love story set in the midst of the Armenian Genocide in the First World War.

Khatchig had told me that I would find Beirut a very Western city, but still I was unprepared for the prevalence of Western brands. And while I saw plenty of cultural icons that made me proud as an American, I saw many that left me wondering about the priorities of what we export.

Exhibit A? Breakfast. I ate unbelievably well in Lebanon: In some ways, it’s a cuisine designed for a vegetarian. Among my favorite meals was a simple manqoushe (pronounced man-a-eshe) Khatchig bought me one morning: A piece of flatbread baked in a wood-fired oven and filled with vegetables and cheese. I understand that exoticism was a part of its appeal, just as an Egg McMuffin is attractively alien to someone who didn’t grow up underneath those golden arches. But speaking objectively, that basic manqoushe was healthier than the breakfast fare at the American fast food franchises that now litter the Lebanese landscape.

This is, however, merely the most obvious, blinking neon sign of Western influence. On my second day in Beirut, Khatchig took me to his alma mater, Haigazian University. The day before, “New York Times” columnist Thomas Friedman had cited Haigazian as the sort of place in the Middle East where the United States should be investing. The U.S., he wrote, had just given $1.3 billion in military hardware to Egypt and $13.5 million in college scholarship programs to Lebanon – including some to Haigazian. “I can safely report,” Friedman wrote, “the $13.5 million in full scholarships has already bought America so much more friendship and stability than the $1.3 billion in tanks and fighter jets ever will.”

Khatchig and I visited Rev. Paul Haidostian, President of Haigazian, and he told us precisely that.

Right now, many Lebanese worry that Syrian unrest will jeopardize their tenuous calm. Just this week three people were killed in Tripoli when fighting broke out between supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and those who oppose him. Moreover, this remains a nation where Khatchig’s car was routinely checked for explosives when he brought me back to my hotel. I passed a vigilant tank near the Syrian border. When I was trying to find the Armavia Airlines gate at Beirut airport one evening near midnight, it was a group of traveling U.N. peacekeepers in camouflage fatigues who knew the secret. (“See that gate for Middle East Airlines? It’s Armavia in the middle of the night.”) And Khatchig’s sister works in a beautiful, modern building beside one that is still cratered and empty from the nation’s civil war.

Lebanon doesn’t need bread. That manqoushe was delectable. Nor do the Lebanese need more donuts, fried food, or lingerie. When we export Western culture, we need to share more than our obsessions with empty calories and the push-up bra. We’re better than that; we’re more than that.

Likewise, the last thing the Middle East needs is more guns. Friedman was astute, his analysis spot-on. Lebanon is a learned country and education is respected there: A little schooling will build a lot of goodwill.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on May 20, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Sandcastle Girls,” arrives on July 17. You can learn more about it here.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.