Thursday, July 25, 2002

Summer Among the Swiss and the “Muslim Street”

So what does a Swiss summer have to do with Muslims? Well, quite a bit actually. You see August 1 is the Swiss national holiday. Like most nations, this involves various festivities and celebrations. In Geneva, this means the Fete de Geneve. This particular “fete” lasts for about ten days and includes a techno-parade by Lake Geneva, carnival rides and other festivities.

One of the main contributors to the event is the brother of Osama bin Laden. Now this Mr. bin Laden has come out strongly against his notorious brother, condemning his actions. But if you’re wondering why Osama’s brother is such a big supporter of a Swiss national festival, you have to look at who comes to the festival for the answer.

Geneva has various notable “communities.” Among these are: the locals, the internationals who work at one of the various multi-national corporate offices or with the UN, large numbers of foreign workers and quite a few Arabs. Switzerland, and especially Swiss banks, are attractive to Middle Eastern investors, and Arabs constitute a significant source of foreign financial input here in Geneva. There’s also the simple attraction of Switzerland as a safe haven for people with large sums of money who prefer to keep a low profile for one reason or another.

And with so many Arabs already living here, it’s not surprising that Geneva would serve as a summer retreat. So, when the Fete de Geneve rolls around, wealthy Arabs from the richer Gulf States flock to Geneva to play, to shop and to relax. It’s not uncommon to see security guards with wires dangling from their ears patrolling the lakeside as young Arab princes enjoy themselves among the carnival rides and game booths. And on the avenues running by the lake, the luxury hotels are full as rented E class Mercedes crowd the side streets.

Just up the lake from all these festivities is the Palais Wilson. That would be the building named for American President Woodrow Wilson now housing the UN Human Rights Commission which just a few days ago issued another of its numerous condemnations of Israel in the wake of its attacks in Gaza. The upper crust at the Commission don’t necessarily drive Mercedes, but they do get those fancy diplomatic license plates that allow them to park anywhere they want.

So here along these quiet shores, the wealthier Arabs come to enjoy themselves while the UN safely registers its moral complaints against Israel. Now what about that Muslim street? Well, if you head a few blocks in from the lakeshore you enter the region of Geneva known as the Paquis. This is the liveliest part of the city, home of immigrants, ethnic restaurants, sex shops and my apartment.

The other day after work I stopped by my favorite Middle Eastern restaurant to grab a quick chawarma. As I waited, the fellow behind the counter started chatting with me in French. For some reason he thought I might be Tunisian. When I said I was actually Canadian, he immediately began talking in English which he prefers to French. I asked him where he came from and he replied that he was a Palestinian from Syria. I then asked if he liked Geneva and he said he didn’t like it very much. Things were too expensive (which they are) and it was too hard to find a decent apartment (which it is). So I assumed he probably wanted to return to Syria, but he said no. When I asked where he wanted to go, his response: America. He told me he’d lived in New York for two years prior to September 11. He left after the attacks fearing a backlash, but he said he wanted to go back now and that he missed it.

Returning to my apartment, a convoy of Mercedes carrying the wealthy of Arabia passed by. For them, life was easy in Geneva with its banks and its expensive stores and its diplomatic securities. For a Palestinian from Syria making his living slapping together chawarma for some average Joe from Canada, getting back to the US was his only goal. I don’t know if that’s the “Muslim Street” we hear so much about, but it was one guy without a Mercedes or special diplomatic privileges trying to get to America.

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