I just returned from 10 days of traveling that took me to a media conference in Dubai, then on to Paris, and finally to south Louisiana to visit my folks. Among the things I learned:
1. The Sunni Arabs are worried about Shiite Iran. Really, really worried.
2. A lot of Arab investment capital is rushing to China and India, and away from the West.
3. The Assad regime in Syria is not going to fall anytime soon. As fed up as the Syrian people are with their government, they fear the chaos and violence of Lebanon and Iraq, which bookend their country. Americans don’t pay nearly enough attention to the fear of anarchy as a force driving Arab politics.
4. Television on offer to Arabs veers wildly from the completely vulgar to the religiously fanatical. Said one Western analyst living in an Arab capital, “The weird thing about it is the same young Muslim who is watching the slutty girl on Lebanese TV on Monday is watching a radical sheik on some other channel by Friday, and is thinking about strapping a bomb on.
5. One of the best meals of your life can be had for a virtual song in a tiny Left Bank cafe called La Table de Perigord French conservative and longtime NRO reader Fred Gion took me there for the cassoulet. I’m going to be thinking about that place for a very long time.
6. Paris has now become Manhattan: a theme park lived in by the wealthy. But France is a magnificent place all the same (sorry JJM).
7. I am living way large, because I sneaked in several rounds of extremely delicious raw-milk Camembert past US customs. Haha! Come and get me, coppers!
8. In Paris, you don’t see signs wishing you “Joyeux Noel” (“Merry Christmas”) in shops. It’s all “Bonnes fetes” (“Happy Holidays”). After early morning mass at Notre Dame cathedral, I talked to a couple of young French Catholics, both adult converts/reverts. They said that yes, the faith is flat on its back in Europe, but they were both hopeful, and strikingly unsentimental. They said that sooner or later, Europeans would realize that materialism and consumerism cannot satisfy their deepest longings, and they would return to their spiritual patrimony. In the meantime, said one, it’s a good time to be a Christian because for the first time in a very long time, it really means something (that is, it’s not just social).
9. If you want to make people in Louisiana laugh, ask them what they think about Gov. Kathleen Blanco running for re-election.
10. Post-Katrina Louisiana is in a much bigger mess than most Americans realize. Nobody seems to know what the hell is going on.
11. Perhaps the worst fried catfish on the North American continent is to be had at a catfish shack just off I-20 in Marshall, Texas. I don’t mention its name to protect the guilty, but let me just say that the 8-piece catfish dinner, which ought to have had a miniature oil derrick atop it, lit a little votive candle in my chest that still burns today. But it did make me wonder: why is it that there are no chains that offer fast food for travelers who don’t want to eat fried crap, or crap at all?