Calvin Klein beneath a veil

Observations on Arabs and America

All over Syria, and in many parts of the Arab world, you can see a rather striking poster. It depicts a huge and appetising Big Mac. Instead of the meat, though, there is a dead Palestinian baby dressed in a martyr's shroud. Underneath, is the motto: "Boycott US goods." On Straight Street, in the Syrian capital Damascus, a shop-keeper named Ahmed Basr, 48, explained why he was happy to see this image displayed opposite his shop. "What are we meant to think, except that America hates the Arab world? They give millions to the criminal Sharon, and as he murders Arabs they call him a man of peace. They are about to recolonise Iraq. Who knows, maybe Syria will be next? I will not buy American goods ever again."

However, Basr's shop was well-stocked with Pepsi and sold the International Herald Tribune, and when I bought these he pointed out with no apparent irony that he preferred to be paid in US dollars. One expensively dressed (and veiled) woman in her late twenties - who asked not be named - was keenly aware of this hypocrisy and scathing about the practicality of a boycott. "How can we boycott the US? We might as well try to boycott the air. Almost all good things to buy here are American. There are no Arab products which are of such high quality. I do not like American policy towards Palestine, but I will only boycott their goods when there is a proper alternative. Have you seen a Syrian film? Try one, and then tell me I should boycott Hollywood."

The tensions she described are visible everywhere in the Arab world. Even in Iraq, I saw women who were veiled everywhere except their eyes - which were covered by Calvin Klein sunglasses. The Iraqi dinar is now almost worthless, with the highest denomination note (250 dinars) worth a paltry 60p.

For purchases of any substantial value, the US dollar has become the de facto Iraqi currency. US films dominate late-night Iraqi TV and its cinemas. Everywhere, Arabs profess to loathe the US even as they accept its percolation into every corner of their lives.

There is even some playful, ironic commentary to be found on this contorted relationship. One shop on Straight Street sells troll dolls - the kind every US kid owns at one time or another - dressed in Arab robes, kufis and even burqas.

The boycott - organised by grassroots campaigners without government help, except some tacit support in Saudi Arabia - has not been entirely ineffective, however. Fast food outlets have been badly hit.

Managers at Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald's branches in the Omani capital Muscat claim that sales have fallen by 45 and 65 per cent respectively since January. Of the six McDonald's restaurants in Jordan, two have closed this year because of poor business.

McDonald's Jordanian marketing manager Nadia al Dairi has been so shaken that he now loudly boasts that the franchise donated 10 percent of all sales in the first half of April to the Hashemite Relief Fund, a Jordanian government charity that gives aid to Palestinians.

The Arab world, which remains overwhelmingly poor, cannot substantially dent US commercial interests, even if it could unite behind a boycott. But even if the economic challenge is insubstantial, the Arab world is sending a powerful political message about Palestine in particular. As we become more vulnerable than ever to retaliations against violence directed at the Palestinians, we might be well-advised to start listening.