How America looks from Sudan

By Mohammad Ali Salih
Saturday, March 5, 2011

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton complained to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about proposed cuts in her budget, saying that more money was needed to improve the U.S. image overseas. But she didn't say at least two other things:

One, even when then-President George W. Bush declared a "war of ideas" and increased the diplomatic budget, the United States wasn't able to improve its reputation, particularly in the Muslim world.

Two, the damaged reputation doesn't stem from the highly regarded American principles of freedom and justice, of the kindness of the American people, or of advances in science and technology, but from aspects of foreign policy.

Clinton should have accompanied me last year during my last visit to my village: Wadi Haj, near the town of Argo, on the Nile River in northern Sudan, south of the border with Egypt.

After 30 years in Washington and 20 years' absence, I returned to my village because my father died. While I was there, I was curious about the U.S. reputation, nine years after the Sept. 11 attacks and the beginning of the "war on terrorism." Mixed attitudes about the United States in the larger Muslim world are reflected in polling.

In 2003, a survey by Pew Research Center found that the percentage of those holding a "favorable view" of the United States was as low as 1 percent in Jordan, 13 percent in Pakistan and 15 percent in Turkey.

However, those who admired U.S. technological achievements were 59 percent in Jordan and 42 percent in Pakistan. Opinion of U.S. popular culture was mixed, but more positive than one might expect. In Lebanon, 65 percent said they liked American music, movies and television, and in African countries with significant Muslim populations, such as Senegal and Nigeria, majorities said they liked American popular culture, although majorities in Jordan and Egypt said the opposite.

Pew didn't poll in Sudan.

My village looks like one of those Afghan villages shown on TV, with mud houses, donkey carts and men in flowing garments. Sheep and goats are kept inside homes; dogs wander the streets; women cover their bodies and hair, but not their faces.

I visited my old "madrassa," or Koranic school. There I, like the Afghan and Pakistani children seen on TV, would sit with other boys on the ground and recite verses from the Koran.

Back in the village after the long absence, I tried to be "normal": Instead of suits, I wore the flowing white jalabiya; instead of dress shoes I wore footwear made from tiger skin. I ate with my hands, prayed five times a day, showered by squatting on the floor and scooping water from a bucket, and used a hole in the ground as a toilet.

Under a colorful tent set up to receive mourners, some of my nephews and their friends gathered around me, quietly asking about America: where Michael Jackson was buried (I didn't know); when my children would visit (they want to); and if I would help in securing acceptances at American universities (I would do my best).

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