In the narrow, crowded alleyways of Doha's old souq, shoppers can find anything their hearts desire-provided they don't desire an American flag. From Barbie to Madonna and Rambo to Reagan, bits of Americana are inescapable and yet somehow inappropriate at the same time, crowded on shelves next to worry beads and black veils. Afternoon prayers waft from a nearby minaret like Gregorian chants in an open-air cathedral, but the mournful notes are practically drowned out by the latest 'N Sync playing on a boom box.
Hassan Sabeh roots around under his counter in search of the Stars and Stripes. His shop sells a bit of everything, including the flags of obscure little countries that most Westerners couldn't spell, much less find on a map. He did a brisk business in Iraqi flags before the war started-sold out, in fact, despite the Qatari government's close ties with the United States.
He admits that overdemand can't explain the absence of American flags from his shop, however.
"No one wants to buy this flag," he says with a shrug. "Already America is everywhere in this country. I think people don't need a flag to remind them."
Indeed, the reminders are ubiquitous. If the souq attests to the relatively benign influence of American culture, the rest of the country-like the entire Gulf region-bears more ominous signs of American military might. Giant U.S. transport planes lumber constantly in and out of Doha's international airport, supplying the nearby base where thousands of Americans direct the war against an Arab neighbor. Hotels and restaurants swarm with Americans either involved in the war or covering it. And over and over again, the Qatari news channel broadcasts a long, wordless montage of images from the war: American jets, missiles, ships, tanks, and soldiers burrow their way into the public consciousness as if Qatar itself were under occupation.
It's that sense of being overwhelmed that may explain the mixed emotions of many Arabs toward the war in Iraq.
Even the friendliest governments and the staunchest opponents of Saddam Hussein can't help feeling impotent or insignificant when America flexes her military muscle. The quick, decisive war has proven that America can have her way in the Middle East, that nothing but her own goodwill can restrain her. Americans expect the world to be grateful for that goodwill, and after the fall of a brutal dictator, many in the region are grateful.
Still, there's a nagging sense of diminishment, a feeling of lost autonomy. Goodwill, from the receiving end, feels a lot like charity, and it's hard to maintain a sense of pride when living off the charity of others.
In short, while the Arab world is a better place with Saddam out of the way, to many people here it seems a little less Arab, a little less their own.
No one can fault the Qatari government if the man on the street is less than enthusiastic about the war in Iraq. The emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, is one of the most progressive, pro-Western rulers in the Muslim world. Even in the midst of the conflict next door, he convened the Third Annual Conference on Democracy and Free Trade, importing U.S. and British lawmakers to lecture Arab leaders on the connection between freedom and wealth. His government permits women to work, vote, and drive cars. The press is relatively outspoken, while the Shariah religious courts are relatively subdued. Foreigners can drink alcohol and worship as they choose. Golf is a national obsession, and KFC is nearly as popular as kebabs.
The emir's devotion to Western ways has won him powerful enemies as well as friends. Osama bin Laden has singled out Qatar by name, urging Muslims to rise up against rulers like Sheikh Hamad who betrayed their religion by befriending America. That's caused jitters in this rich little state with no natural enemies and a crime rate near zero. Police are everywhere, their weapons on prominent display. At the Doha airport, visitors' bags are screened as they get off the plane, not just when they get on. Visa applications, once a quick formality in the arrivals hall, now seem to bear much closer scrutiny. Lines can stretch for hours.
Even outside its own borders, Qatar has paid a price for its public identification with the United States. At Frankfurt's sprawling airport, one of Europe's busiest, U.S. airlines have been relegated to just five gates, far from the airport's hub, where travelers are subjected to an extra search even after they've cleared the main security checkpoint. Carriers like American and United, the weapons of choice on 9/11, seem logical enough at this distant outpost, but next to them sits tiny Qatar Airways, now perceived as just as likely a terrorist target.
Given their ideological and political ties and their common enemies, the residents of Qatar might be expected to serve as America's most vocal cheerleaders in the Persian Gulf.
But the picture that emerges after dozens of interviews throughout the capital city is considerably more complex than that. Saddam Hussein was clearly an enemy, and that made his threat roughly calculable. What no one seems to know is just how to calculate the risks of a friendship based on inequality-and more than a little fear.
"Saddam had to go," says a man walking at sunset on the corniche, the wide pedestrian avenue that stretches some five miles along the rim of Doha's horseshoe-shaped bay. "I'm glad for the Iraqi people, that they are free now. Without America, this could not be possible."
Even as he heaps on the praise, however, it's obvious that a "but" is on the way. "But we feel ashamed," he continues. "For Arab people, for Muslim people, it is a shame to need this help from the outside. It is a shame to be beaten so quickly, like a kind of little fly. And we wonder what will happen when we are the fly. Maybe America will be tired of our buzzing. What will happen to us then?"
It's a refrain that's heard again and again, this uncomfortable mixture of gratitude, shame, and uncertainty. Another man, watching his young daughter play on a nearly empty beach, tries to make sense of the contradictions: "We are glad for America, because we know that we need her. But we don't understand her, and we wish not to need her anymore.... If we feel angry, I think it is because we feel small. We are tired of feeling this way."
Wounded pride and a sense of vulnerability go far in explaining the Arab reaction to the war. Overt hostility is relatively rare in a friendly country like Qatar, yet suspicion lingers. After watching a major Muslim power utterly prostrated in just three weeks, Arabs are eager to see Iraq get back on its feet-preferably without a hand from Uncle Sam. "Iraq has oil and grain," says a woman choosing bananas in the souq. "Without Saddam Hussein, Iraq can be rich like Qatar. America can go now. Or maybe America wants to get rich in Iraq, yes?"
The man on the beach is more generous: "Once we were great, but now America is the only great power," he says with a tone of nostalgic resignation. "We hope we can learn to solve our own problems, as Arabs, with no help from the outside."
Over and over again, solutions are phrased in terms of "we Arabs" or "we Muslims," a conception that clearly leaves little room for a hyperpower. This pan-Islamic identity would be strange to most Americans, who tend to think in more strictly nationalistic terms. If Iraq was widely regarded as a pariah state, why should anyone be sorry to see it go? "We don't cry for Iraq," explains a Tunisian cab driver who has lived in five different Muslim countries. "We cry for Islam."
The driver, who gives his name only as Selam, is typical of the mobile work force in the Middle East. Countries like Qatar don't have the population to staff up a service economy, and citizens already earning a handsome stipend from the government's oil revenues have little incentive to flip burgers or repair roads. That means guest workers have to be imported, mostly from poorer Muslim nations like Pakistan and Sudan. In Qatar's case, of the 600,000 people living on the little peninsula, fewer than 40 percent are Qatari nationals with a stake in the oil and gas that lies beneath the sand.
The constant flow of workers across national boundaries helps to create a sense of unity throughout the Islamic world. "I am Muslim," Selam says proudly. "Qatar is not my home, but I feel like home here. We are all brothers. We all worship Allah."
The familial feelings of the Middle East made the war scenes in Iraq that much more painful to watch. Pictures of children begging for water may have made Americans sad, but only in a remote, intellectual way. For people in Qatar, however, the impact was more visceral. They saw children on TV who looked like their own children. They could understand the cries that were gibberish to American ears. And most of all, perhaps, they knew the desperate thirst that comes with living in a desert.
Watching the war on television, many Arabs could easily imagine an invasion of their own countries. The very symbols that spoke to Americans of tyranny and oppression-the lavish palaces, the ubiquitous photos of Saddam Hussein, and so forth-are largely taken for granted in this part of the world. Qatar's own benevolent emir has a sprawling palace of white marble at the center of town, and his pudgy face smiles down from the walls of countless hotels and office buildings and shops.
"We are not Iraq, but we know how the Iraqis feel," says a veiled woman in a shopping mall. "We are not so different here."
Indeed, it's the liberators who are different in language and skin tone and religion. America isn't viewed as evil, for the most part, just unknowable, outside, other. While their motives were right, they attacked a country that was familiar and a culture that was shared. If India bombed Toronto-even for the best of reasons-Americans might begin to understand the gut reaction on the Arab street.