For H. T., an Iraqi studying business at an area college, watching his country's troops surrender to allied forces this week has been heart-wrenching -- but not surprising.
"They've been in a combat position and bombarded for a whole month," said the 30-year-old, who has friends and relatives in the Iraqi army. "It's terrible. It works to knock down morale. And now, since they heard that Iraq is willing to give up Kuwait, they'd
rather surrender than fight for something that would be given up anyway."
H. T., who asked to be identified only by his initials, came to the United States last April to pursue a master's degree and work at a local investment firm. He is one of 37,000-plus Arab students now studying at American colleges and universities, who have watched with anguish as the war unfolded.
Though these students' opinions are as diverse as their personalities and the countries they come from, interviews with several Arab students in the Baltimore area found a strong consensus on these issues:
*They think war could have been avoided and wish the United States had never sent troops to the gulf.
*They feel U.S. policy ignores the pivotal role of Israel and the
Palestinian issue in Middle East politics.
*They are quick to point out that the Kuwaiti government, which the United States has pledged to restore, never even pretended to be democratic.
*And even though they may deplore the actions of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, they cannot deny a grudging respect for the man who has dared to stand up to the armies of the United States and the Western world.
Many Arab students, fearful of reprisals, are reluctant to express their feelings. Many declined requests for interviews. But those who did speak talked of the pain of divided loyalties. They pleaded with Americans to see this crisis in human terms.
"I'd like to see Americans understand the Arabs," said Shukri Abdallah, a 29-year-old Palestinian graduate student who is studying computer sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "We are not just men with camels. We are well-educated, multilingual."
Mr. Abdallah emphasized that few Americans have much insight into the Arab psyche, and that leads to breakdowns in communications.
"Saddam is saying he will make the Americans swim in their own blood," he said. "The American mind sees that as violent and threatening. But you have to understand the Arabic language is very expressive. We are a very passionate people. . . . One has to spend time in the Middle East to understand what makes us tick."
Firas Raad, a Jordanian who is a senior at Johns Hopkins University, agreed there are things Americans need to know about Arabs -- particularly the feelings Arabs have about U.S. troops waging war in the Middle East.
"When Western troops came in, it rekindled subdued feelings about colonialism and imperialism," said Mr. Raad, 21. "The West is here to kick us around and keep a cheap flow of oil."
Added Mohammed, a Syrian sophomore at Loyola College (who asked that his last name not be used), "A lot of Arabs feel all this could have been solved by Arabs and really resent the intervention of the U.S."
"It's scary, it's getting worse," Hala Kfouri, a Towson State University freshman, thought this week as she watched coverage of the ground war. All autumn she could think only of death as she watched the U.S. troops build-up.
"No one will back up until they are crushed," was the sad assessment of this 18-year-old Lebanese-French woman, whose family lives in Jordan.
None of these Arab students said they had experienced discrimination in the United States because of their nationality. But the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, a Washington-based group, has reports of 10 incidents against Arab students around the country since August. "They range from threatening phone calls, to offensive things printed by student newspapers, to assault," said Scott Easton, director of media for the committee.
H. T. -- who grew up in Baghdad with an Iraqi father and American mother, and moved here with his wife and baby -- said that on an individual basis he has found Americans to be "magnificent, very understanding." But he added, "I don't go screaming in the streets, 'I'm Iraqi.' "
And, as far as he could tell, the positive feelings were once mutual. "Before this mess started, Iraqis had absolutely nothing against the U.S.," he said.
But H. T. grows bitter when speaking about the war.
"I feel bitter, angry, terrible about all this," he said. "Americans didn't know where Iraq or Kuwait were prior to Aug. 2. Now they're on TV acting like experts."
H. T. and the other students also remind Americans that the U.S. alliance with most of the Arab world is an uneasy one.
"Forget what the Arab governments say, look at the Arab in the street," said Ahed Sukhon, 23, a Jordanian graduate student at Towson State University. He points to recent anti-American demonstrations in Algeria, Morocco, Syria and Egypt, and adds that popular sentiment in his own country is clearly pro-Saddam, despite his government's officially neutral stance.
Although Mr. Sukhon says he doesn't support Saddam, he has no problem understanding the Iraqi leader's appeal.
"It's the Arab dream to be united," he said. "Saddam has the better chance than anyone to unite us. Maybe it's possible that the end could justify the means. Let him unite the Arabs, then we'll deal with him."
The Arab people "forget his personality, the problems he's made in his country," said Sammy, 33, a Loyola College graduate student from Egypt who asked that his last name not be used. "They only see that, like [former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel] Nasser, he is the person who had the nerve to stand up to the Americans."
The students also were critical of U.S. motives in entering this war. "People are saying to the U.S., 'Cut the crap and look at your own double standards. You're here for the oil. If one African state gobbled up another, you wouldn't be there,' " Mr. Raad charged.
"Where was the U.S. when Israel hit Egypt?" Sammy asked cynically. "They [Americans] clapped. They never said stop."
Mr. Abdallah, who grew up in the West Bank, now occupied by Israel, and the other students also dismissed the idea that the current problems in the Middle East can be solved without confronting the Palestinian issue, as President Bush has insisted must be the case.
"It is very important to look at the Middle East as a whole," Mr. Abdallah said. "Peace is achieved in the Middle East only if the Palestinian issue is solved."
He fears, he added, "that if Iraq is destroyed militarily, it will leave Israel the strongest in the area. Israel is unwilling to come to the negotiating table, and that leaves Palestine out in the cold yet again."
"People in the U.S. don't know the meaning of war. Just the feeling when the sirens go off, running for a place to hide. No one here knows what that feels like." SAMMY,
"I think support for the war in the U.S. is more of a fad than genuine. It's hip, it's cool, everybody's doing it."
AHED SUKHON, from Jordan
"When Arabs look back, this whole century has been a mess. We've had wars, we've had Israel, we've never been able to get our act together. Now we have the West coming in telling us what to do." FIRAS RAAD, from Jordan
"However this ends, it will be a disaster. Both sides will suffer a lot and the gains will be much less important than the losses." MOHAMMED,