Questions for Clinton

May 5, 1999

From the insights of Abu Tayeb

These are hard times! We don't live near Kosovo. We live in a camp near Nablus. But our little satellite dish broke anyway just when NATO was starting to bomb over there, and my children have not been able to watch the press conferences on the CNN.

This is a very hard disappointment for them. They love press conferences, and they all want to be reporters.

We didn't know what to do, but then our oldest, Tayeb, thought that we should make our own press conference, and I should be Clinton. Now this was a great embarrassment for me, because I am not very good at Clinton. I am very short and squat and I have a stumbling mouth.

The children asked very hard questions, and finally I had to throw up my hands and say, "Write them down! We'll continue this afternoon. I have to go to a crisis." Then I took their questions and I went down the alley to my friend Abu Salem, who knows about these things.

I found Abu Salem smoking a nargileh. I said, "I didn't know you smoke, Abu Salem".

"I don't usually", he said. "I am trying to warm up inside. I am very cold, Abu Tayeb. I froze all night, and look, I am still shivering."

"Why did you freeze all night?" I asked him. "Did you not have blankets?"

"I gave them to the Albanians", he said.

"Indeed, their plight is very moving", I said. "But to give them all your blankets! That was a very noble deed, Abu Salem."

"It was the least I could do", he said. "First of all, they are Muslims like us. Secondly, Abu Tayeb, they are indeed in a terrible plight, just as we have been for the last 51 years. Thirdly, even the Israelis are giving them blankets. As I said to Um Salem, shall we be outdone in generosity by the Israelis, who are not even Muslims?

"How noble and generous the Israeli heart is, Abu Tayeb! After I snuck around their checkpoint with my blankets, I found a huge blanket-collecting enterprise going on in Tel Aviv. It gave me a warm feeling inside to participate in this great humanitarian endeavour with our Jewish cousins.

"Unfortunately, I got caught near the checkpoint on the way back and I was jailed for several nights and I had to pay a fine of $175."

I told Abu Salem that I grieved for his loss, but he dismissed it with a wave of his hand. Indeed, things have not been going well for him. He worked for the Israelis for many years and learned politics from them, but then came the checkpoints and he could not get in anymore and now a Rumanian is learning the politics.

Fortunately, though, Abu Salem already knew plenty, so I was able to place my children's questions before him. He removed the nargileh from his mouth and read the first one aloud: "Mr Clinton, sir, before you started bombing, there was no humanitarian catastrophe. After you started bombing, hundreds of thousands of people became refugees, and we don't yet know what other atrocities may be occurring. Do you think that your bombing might have helped bring this horror about?"

Abu Salem smiled. "Well, that's very easy to answer", he said. "Milosevic is a very bad man, and he is doing terrible things. He has to be stopped."

"I told them that, Abu Salem", I said, "but then there was something called a follow-up question". And I gave him the next.

"In that case, why weren't you prepared for the enormous flow of refugees? Why did all those days go by before you got help to the spot? Why did you do something that brought disaster on the Albanians of Kosovo? Did you fail to foresee it? If you knew that Milosevic was such a bad guy, then you should have foreseen it, no? In short, sir, were you stupid or were you evil?"

Abu Salem made a face. "This is a very impolite question to ask the President of the United States."

"I tried to tell them that, Abu Salem, but they said it was a free country."

"Of course it is a free country", he said, "but questions like this are not allowed. Here, listen." He leaned forward and turned on his TV, and there was indeed a press conference going on. The questions were all about ground troops.

"Now those are questions", he said. "Those are real reporters."

"I wish my kids could see that", I said. "But until I get my satellite dish fixed, I need to know what to say." Abu Salem puffed from the nargileh and leaned back and rubbed his chin.

"Here's another", I said. "Look at this monster. This is from my Nadia. She's a rising Christian Ampere."

"Consider the enormous human cost, Mr Clinton, sir. We haven't yet begun to ask about the way you've been pulverizing Serbia, destroying its infrastructure, ruining the lives of all those people, causing them to unite around Milosevic, whom many of them once detested. We see the Serbs sleeping on the bridges to keep you from bombing them! This is the same people that fought against the Nazis, and now for the first time since World War II, here are the Germans, joining you in the bombing of Belgrade.

"We have reports that your planes bombed a plant that produces a carcinogenic gas, and intense concentrations were released, and the people of Serbia may be reaping the cancers for generations to come. And what about the depleted uranium coating your weapons? That's the same stuff that gave cancer to your own troops in the Gulf War! Are these not crimes against humanity, sir?"

"Abu Tayeb", he said, "I see that your children do not understand what all real reporters do, the secret principle of this war". At last! I thought. "What's that, Abu Salem?"

"Don't you see", he said, "these are all the enlightened liberal leaders who are waging it. Clinton, Blair, Schroeder. The secret principle of this war is strictly humanitarian."

Abu Salem leaned forward, glancing around, and whispered. "If they didn't bomb, there wouldn't be the refugees, and if there weren't the refugees, no one would know just how evil Milosevic is, and then there wouldn't be any reason to bomb."

I thought about this. Then I grabbed my hair, which is not very much, and started pulling my head around. "I'm confused, Abu Salem!"

"Be calm, my friend", he said. "I will try to explain. It is very important that everyone should see how evil Milosevic is and admire NATO for the bombing, because ..." — he leaned forward even more and whispered even lower — "this is just the first stage".

"First stage?"

"After this comes Turkey."


"Shh! Freedom for the Kurds."



"Excuse me, Abu Salem, but do I not seem to recall that Turkey belongs to NATO?"

A light came into his eyes. "You recall correctly, Abu Tayeb. That is why it is so necessary that everybody should be convinced of NATO's righteousness when it bombs its own member."

I was silent for a moment. A new thought came into my mind. I said, "And after Turkey?"

More light came into his eyes. "No!" I cried. He put a finger to his lips and leaned forward even more, till his belly came up and touched his chin. I too leaned forward. We were nose to nose. "This is humanitarian thinking, Abu Tayeb", he whispered. "This is humanitarian bombing."

"I can't believe it!", I whispered. "After 51 years!"

He leaned back and spoke normally. "A tremendous humanitarian spirit has overwhelmed these great leaders. It is a miracle. It is the millennium. They are determined as never before to set right the wrongs of this world."

"But how can we know this? How can we be sure?"

"Very simple", he answered. "It is the only explanation for this bombing in Yugoslavia. For we really can't believe that men like Clinton, Blair and Schroeder are evil or stupid, can we?"

"No, of course not."

"So then." Abu Salem leaned back and sucked on his nargileh, but it had gone out. Patiently he re-lit it, while I pondered the miracle. What happiness for the Kurds! What happiness for us Palestinians! What happiness for the world, to be in the hands of such leaders!

"I can't wait to tell my children!", I said.

"Don't tell them", he warned. "They'll blab. We must keep it quiet, Abu Tayeb. Just cancel the press conference."

I thanked him. At last I understood why real reporters don't ask such questions. I rose to go, but then a new thought troubled me. "Abu Salem", I said, "what if they bomb ... you know what, and the same thing happens to us as is happening to the Albanians from Kosovo?"

He finished lighting the nargileh. He leaned back and said, "Why, that's very simple, Abu Tayeb. In that case, I get back my blankets."

[Reprinted from the forthcoming issue #55 of Challenge. Challenge is a bimonthly journal of investigative reporting and in-depth analysis of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Oslo process. To subscribe, e-mail <>.]

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