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Arabs Roped in West's Lasso

In poems, plays, and polemics, Arabs paint themselves as victims of Western conspiracy

IN a scene from a play running in Amman, Jordan, a George Bush character, dressed as a cowboy, gives all Arabs a stiff warning: Accept US terms for peace or face the same humiliation as Saddam Hussein.

The satirical play, ``Peace Oh Peace,'' draws packed audiences and, like much of popular political culture in the Arab world four years after Iraq's defeat, it resonates a sense of weakness and disillusionment.

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``The Gulf war, and the way it was fought and handled, has accentuated our sense of dependence and helplessness,'' says Ikbal Ahmed, a Pakistani Arab affairs expert.

A defeatist mood is also felt in an eerie poem entitled ``When Will They Announce The Death Of The Arabs?'' The poem, by prominent Syrian poet Nizar Qabani, has become so popular that it is banned by most Arab nations. It expresses despair at Arabs' inability to rid themselves of dictators viewed as subservient to the West and to revive the kind of Pan-Arabism that arose in the 1950s under Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

In auditoriums around the Mideast, thousands of Arabs crowd lectures by leading Egyptian commentator Mohammed Hasnein Haikal or recitals by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Both lambaste the US-led defeat of Iraq and the Mideast peace process.

Mr. Haikal describes Israeli-Arab peace talks as ``a pacifier,'' while Mr. Darwish describes Palestinian self-rule as a police ghetto controlled by Israel.

The articles of New York-based Palestinian intellectual Edward Said are another influential force. He says the Gulf war and the peace process have ``widened the gulf between the rulers and the people'' in the Arab world.

Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 drove a big wedge among Arabs, allowing the US to lead 30 nations - including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria - to drive Iraq back. But the war also brought millions of Arabs into the streets to show hostility toward both oil-producing Gulf states and the US.

Those Arabs who supported Saddam in the war now blame him for giving the US and Israel the opportunity to consolidate their influence in the region. And adding to Arab concerns is the perception that the West appears uncaring toward Muslims in Bosnia and Chechnya, while they try to suppress Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria and Sudan.

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But Arab analysts agree that for the Arab nations, it is the combination of the war, the end of Soviet support, and a lack of democracy that has contributed to the current decline in their international standing.

Arab leaders who fear Israel's dominance and militant Islamists are struggling to overcome their differences. At a December summit in Egypt, Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi leaders discussed ways to arrest Israel's integration in the region and how to curb Islamic opposition. Since the Gulf war, Islamic radicalism has gained ground in most countries - emerging as the leading opposition force in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, and most recently, to a lesser but pronounced level, in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and other Gulf states.

Much of it is driven by economic despair. An unequal distribution of wealth persists, while hundreds of thousands of Arabs have lost educational opportunities that were offered them by the universities of former socialist countries and Iraq.

Observers are skeptical that the divisions from the Gulf war and from what are perceived as Israeli conditions for peace will be easily mended.

In ``Peace Oh Peace,'' the play ends with Arab leaders performing a break dance around a President Clinton in order to receive his blessings. ``It is over for our generation. I have hope that in the long term the situation will change ... but the change will be brought about by future generations,'' says Arab-American playwright Mohammed Rabie.

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