Crowd loved Obama's 'Irabac,' even when he got it wrong

McClatchyJune 4, 2009 

CAIRO, Egypt — One of the Cairo cafe questions debated in the days leading up to the speech was: Would Obama say "salaam" to the Arabic-speaking world?

Some thought he would avoid speaking any Arabic so as not to provide more fodder for the fringe critics who still fear that the U.S. president is some kind of closet Muslim fanatic.

Others thought he was confident enough to use Arabic in his speech.

In the end, Obama gave a "salaam" shout out to the Arabic-speaking world — and more.

"I am also proud to carry with me the goodwill of the American people," Obama said at the start of the speech, "and a greeting of peace from Muslim communities in my country: as-salaamu alaykum."

Obama quoted from the Koran at key points in the speech, drawing loud applause.

"The Holy Quran teaches that whoever kills an innocent, it is as if he has killed all mankind; and whoever saves a person, it is as if he has saved all mankind," Obama said, in one of his biggest applause lines. "The enduring faith of over a billion people is so much bigger than the narrow hatred of a few. Islam is not part of the problem in combating violent extremism — it is an important part of promoting peace."

And, when he spoke of Mohammed, Moses and Jesus, he added the reverential term "peace be upon them" traditionally used by Muslims whenever they mention the prophet.

The audience itself was a unique Egyptian cross-section of society.

Teenage girls in colorful headscarves (one woman journalist wore a headscarf with Gucci logos all over it), mingled with young women in the balcony wearing skimpy dresses and mini skirts showing plenty of bare leg.

Members of the conservative Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt's largest opposition party — sat in the audience with Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and the heir apparent to the presidency.

Mubarak himself did not attend. There were rumors that he did not want to be in the hall with the opposition, though some thought that was a pretense for the aging 81-year-old leader whose health may become an increasing question as the country weighs who will take over when he is gone.

Egyptian political dissident Ayman Nour, who has been out of prison for about 100 days on electoral fraud charges, was in the crowd as was Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League.

Egyptian bloggers Sand Monkey, an irreverent critic of Mubarak, and Wael Abbas, who has exposed torture by Egyptian police, sat in the balcony where young Egyptians rolled their eyes at different points during the speech.

There was particular note of Obama flubbing the word "hijab" (headscarf) and instead saying "hajib."

"The hajib comment, never mind," said Sand Monkey, aka Mahmoud Salem. "It's a message to the Islamic world — and it was a success."

In all, Arabic speakers said, Obama went 4-for-6 on the trip in pronouncing his Arabic words.

Along with a good pronunciation of the greeting of peace, Obama pulled off a solid "shukran" (thank you) in Saudi Arabia, gave Quran the traditional emphasis and used the informal pronunciation of Adhan, the call to prayer.

Along with botching hijab, Obama also fumbled on Zakhat, the donations to the poor that Muslims are asked to make as one of the five pillars of Islam.

On more substantive matters, Salem dismissed talk of a "new beginning" and said it was more like a necessary reassurance.

"It's not really a new beginning as it was easing everybody's minds," he said. "It all depends on his actions."

Still, Salem, perhaps a bit begrudgingly, lauded Obama for delivering an inspirational address.

"His performance was perfect," said Salem.

Egyptian actress Youssra and Egyptian actor Adel Emam were swarmed by fans seeking autographs as they left the hall.

"I think it's one of the most wonderful speeches I have heard in a very long time," Youssra said as she left the hall. "He talked about every issue frankly, wonderfully and truthfully. He's our hope. He's our hope."

Abbas and Nour, though, were among those who were disappointed that Obama didn't speak out more forcefully about democracy in Egypt.

"I was hoping for more," said Abbas. "He was not really direct and he did not directly address democracy and human rights."

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