They speculate about consequences, too: what if the U.S. bombs Pakistan, which is a nuclear power; whether the attack will change U.S. policy toward Israel; or whether the U.S. government is too far under Israel's thumb. (The "Israeli conspiracy" guy tells me the United States is 25 percent Israeli-Americans. You mean Jews. Yes. Try 2.5 percent. He doesn't believe me, of course.) But underlying all the chatter, surfacing when they remember me in the room, is a strong desire to believe it was some "inside job," a group internal to the U.S., like Oklahoma City.
That is the line I hear most in the first week after the attacks; protesting too much, over-certain or slightly desperate. Basically every Egyptian I speak to, among both intellectuals and street vendors, spinning all possible wheels to identify Egypt with the "civilized world," against the crazies. (Indignation about Americans who are biased against Arabs: "Here in Egypt we can distinguish the innocent from the guilty." But horror at the name "Mohammad Atta," an unmistakably Egyptian name.) Several people also tell me Egyptians are kind and nonviolent people, suffering with the Americans. My cab driver takes offense that the American University in Cairo was closed for two days. "Do you feel unsafe here? We are peaceful people." On television, reports about Montana militia groups.
Around September 18 an Egyptian friend of mine tells his little sister, who is exactly my age (27) and a PhD student in Montreal, to take a leave of absence and "come home" for a while. Many Arabs studying in North America do just that. Suddenly all anyone can talk about is the negative image of Arabs in the American media, the dangers for them in American streets. The fear feeds partly on the good intentions of those very media, which have dutifully reported and described so many of the bias crimes. On television, dubbed-over footage of Arabs not allowed on American flights, etc.
In the late teens of September: "But how can the United States condemn terrorism against civilians if it keeps supporting Israel's killing of Palestinians?"
"I want to emigrate. Do you think they'll give me trouble if I come to the U.S. with this beard?"
By Sept. 28: Suddenly it's all about Israel. On television, special Intifada anniversary reports. Some include Stars of David dripping blood, etc. The nightly news alternates reports of American coalition-building against Afghanistan and the escalation of Israeli violence in Palestinian-controlled areas of the occupied West Bank. Israeli embassy employees, attending Yom Kippur services at a specially opened and very well-guarded synagogue in a leafy Cairo suburb, trade Mossad conspiracy rumors. Sympathy for the United States has evaporated. "It's the Palestinians, stupid," my Egyptian friends tell me — the rhetorical tripwire which all too often means, around here, that thinking has stopped altogether. And then: "Why are Americans so surprised that people hate their government?"
October 1: the catchphrase du jour is "thousands of Bin Ladens." On all lips, the idea that the United States can kill one but many more will sprout. Said with increasing admiration. Osama is becoming a kind of Arab Zorro.