Seeing The Arab World For Himself

New York Jewish Week, 26 May 2000

Ivan Ciment, a graduate of the New York University Journalism School, has spent a good bit of time traveling to the Mideast, including Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. On these trips, he engages contemporaries in conversation about the prospects for business and peace, then comes home to write analyses of the situation. But he doesn’t write for a newspaper or magazine. He writes for his own edification, posting long, observational pieces on his Web site, www.globalthoughts.com

“I have a personal need to be ahead on the vision curve,” explains Ciment, 34, an Upper West Sider who just left the practice of law to pursue his own business and personal interests, which include the Mideast.

Exuding self-confidence, Ciment says his views on the region are sharper and more informative than those of State Department officials and professional pundits, many of whom he claims write from their armchairs rather than from first-hand experience. What they are missing, he says, are the personal views of what he calls “Next Generation leaders” in the region who tend to be more pragmatic and less ideological than their parents’ generation.

Ciment has made a habit of “meeting future leaders” of the Arab world, establishing personal friendships with many of them and “keeping open the lines of communication.”

He says a comment by someone he met in Jordan had a profound effect on him. “He told me I was the first Jew he’d met who wasn’t carrying a gun,” Ciment recalls. “That’s the value of talking to real people,” he says, noting that he does not hide his Jewishness and enjoys raising difficult issues in his conversations.

Based on his Mideast travels, at his own expense, Ciment says he is optimistic about peace prospects because “there are reasonable people on the other side.

“I talk to the wealthy elite, not the rock throwers,” he points out, adding, “the world will not be decided by the rock throwers.”

He believes that with the exception of the Palestinians, most Arabs have little interest in the peace process or the Palestinians, but are concerned, as Muslims, that the Arabs have rights to the holy places. “The best prospects from the Arab world’s Next Generation,” he wrote recently, “are for proper business relationships and straightforward information exchanges with talented Western-educated elites who are broadminded and pragmatic in nature.”

Ciment says his predictions are usually accurate, noting that he forecast a major win for Ehud Barak several months before Israel’s national elections last year, and said a year ago that Israel would give over the village of Abu Dis to the Palestinians. That happened last week.

“I have a lot of good, solid information,” he says, acknowledging he is frustrated his views are not read by a wide audience. “I would love to play Tom Friedman,” he says of The New York Times columnist who travels the globe. “I think I could do the job, and do it well. I don’t have a big profile, but I have the contacts.”

Ciment mentions his friend Alex in Moscow, Chen in China, and Moustafa in Saudi Arabia, part of an extensive network of contacts in some 50 countries. “I call them for the inside scoop on things,” he says. “We share common interests in education, family and business,” noting that he and his Arab friends are more interested in dialogue than trying to change each other’s minds on “the rightness of our cause.”

Ciment has always taken pride in doing his own thing. As an undergrad at Yeshiva University in the mid-1980s, he resented that the school newspaper and the most active campus organizations were run by a small clique, so he started his own. His annual newspaper, published during his junior and senior years, featured articles by students at YU and Stern, its sister school, on a wide range of arts, literature and culture. He sponsored his own delegation to the mock United Nations at Harvard, began several clubs and put on a series of lectures and discussions featuring faculty members. All at his own expense.

“I was a house rebel at YU,” he says now with a chuckle, noting that the environment was not conducive to liberal arts.

After college, he continued to write, but was rarely published. It was during law school at the University of Pennsylvania that he says he found his niche, forming friendships with students from around the world that he has maintained and expanded ever since, through e-mail correspondence, phone calls and travels abroad.

These visits have taken him to 35 countries, including a spur-of-the-moment visit from Israel to Jordan in 1994, just after the two countries made peace, and an eight-hour foray into Beirut in 1997, where he met with a prominent Christian family. “My friend in Lebanon was the director of a stock exchange,” he says. “I wanted to do some fast checking on the climate for business.”

Ciment travels abroad an average of two to five times a year, usually visiting several countries for one to three days each. “I am good at parachuting in, surveying, comparing, looking for opportunities, and making judgments.”

He would like to work for a Jewish philanthropic foundation one day and has any number of ideas about improving Jewish life, from creating an annual Jewish Pride Festival to giving worshippers a common Jewish text when they leave the synagogue on Yom Kippur, asking them to study a page a day for the next year so that all Jews would be on the same page every day. He would also like to create a kind of Chamber of Commerce program to bring American Jewish, Arab and Israeli professionals in their 30s together to meet and establish business and personal contacts.

In the meantime, Ciment is looking forward to his next overseas adventure. He had planned to make an extensive trip next month, including a first visit to Damascus, but is tied up with business here so he may not go abroad until December, when he will attend a five-day wedding in Bombay and, hopefully, visit Tehran for the first time. “Iran is a dynamic country,” he says, “and it’s time to evaluate.”

 

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