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Yesterday evening my time, as Americans went to the polls, news broke of the death of Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al-Nahayan, the Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the United Arab Emirates. Jordan immediately declared a National Day of Mourning, closing all government offices and schools (returning a gesture Sheikh Zayed made when Jordan's King Hussein died in 1999).
Last week in London everyone, and I really do mean everyone, asked me if I'd voted. I don't just mean my friends, I'm including taxi drivers, the woman next to me at the theater, the old colleague I bumped into at the airport and the new acquaintances at a dinner party. It seemed that for Brits hearing an American accent it was the first question to surface, usually accompanied by a remark like 'and I hope you ticked the right box,' there being utterly no doubt about which one that would be.
Planning this visit to London I emailed a friend from my time in Iraq, a British civil servant, suggesting we see "Stuff Happens". David Hare's new play takes its title from Donald Rumsfeld's infamous reaction to the looting of Baghdad. It is routinely selling out the 1100-seat Olivier, the largest of the three halls that make up Britain's National Theater complex.
"I'm mid-boycott of things like Stuff Happens", my friend replied, adding a few words about how annoying cultural assessments of Iraq can be. I understand this.
Marc sat in the lobby of Amman's Grand Hyatt hotel drinking coffee and discussing Iraq's elections, planned for sometime in January. A Canadian with wire glasses and a quiet, businesslike manner he wore a gray polo shirt with a blue UN logo stitched over the heart, a souvenir of an earlier assignment.
Jan Morris once wrote that there are only three true 'World' cities: New York, London and Paris. That is easy to remember as one passes through here. Last night in a bar off the Champs Elysees, I listened to a French acoustic duo mangle a generation's worth of American folk-rock. The music didn't much matter, though. The crowd was a pleasant mix of French, Americans, Germans and a bunch of Spanish-speakers who, from the snatches of conversation I overheard, appeared to be from Argentina. It was a good crowd for a Saturday night.
If you are an American living overseas – particularly in the Middle East – coming back to the United States for a visit inevitably entails a single question, one you will encounter from seemingly every person you meet: Is it safe over there?
Do you feel secure?
Can you go out?
Aren’t you worried?