August 25, 2014

1954. A Short Trip to the Middle East

Nothing But Tradition to Fight Over
Bill Downs during an interview with Gamel Abdel Nasser in late 1954

Bill Downs was CBS' Rome correspondent from 1953 to 1956. In this letter he describes his two week trip to the Middle East in June 1954 and offers his opinions on the state of the region.

June 10, 1954

Dear Folks,

Finally have gotten out from under the canonization and a host of visiting firemen to drop a line about my recent trip. The toughest part about it was making out the expense accounts, which involved at least six currencies and a long and doubtful memory.

I went to Lebanon, Jordan, Cairo, Cyprus, and Israel in something like 13 days -- it was too fast, but I did get a lot of contacts made, picked up a few stories, and was able to get back in time to go to Paris for the big correspondents meeting.

The Middle East is fascinating -- but they haven't quite discovered the 20th century as yet. In fact, I don't think the Arabs are particularly interested in it. Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is a beautiful place loaded with American cars which everyone drives at breakneck speed down the narrow streets with a thumb on the horn. It's one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, with a perfect seashore and mountains in the background. They have a big American University there, which makes it the intellectual center of the Arab world...but that's about all.

I next flew down to Arab Jerusalem in Jordan. Jerusalem is cut in half by the war with a kind of no man's land perhaps a block wide separating the Arab and Jewish sections of the city. The Arabs have the old part with all the Christian and Moslem shrines. I went to the Mount of Olives, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and over to Bethlehem. Most of the roads are under military observation, and every night there is some kind of shooting incident. It's a beautiful but barren country...but there's nothing there but tradition to fight over.

The next hop was down to Cairo where I spent five fruitless days trying to get a filmed interview with the new head of the Egyptian revolutionary government, Colonel Nasser. The trouble was that it was Ramadan, the Moslem religious holiday, which forbids Moslems from touching food or drink during the daylight hours. In other words, nothing much got done. However, the CBS stringer, Frank Kearns, did finally get the Nasser interview a couple of weeks later.

Traveling from the Arab world to Israel is a touchy business. There's a war on, and if you have an Israeli visa in your passport the Moslems won't let you in the country. Consequently the Jews, understanding the problem and hot after tourists, give visitors a kind of separate passport which you carry hidden and use when you fly to the island of Cyprus. There you pick up another plane to go to the Israeli airport at Lydda.

Where the Arab world is still struggling with wooden plows, nomad Bedouins, and ancient superstitions, the Jews are creating a 20th century society in the Mid-East. The spirit is tremendous...a little like our early Western days of expansion. They have a long way to go before they make the desert bloom, but they are making progress. Whether you approve of the Zionists or not, you have to hand it to them. For these were the same people, a lot of them, who came out of Hitler's concentration camps. I did get a film interview with the Prime Minister, Moshe Sharrett. You remember the Zinders from Washington -- I believe we went over there for drinks one night when Herblock the cartoonist was there. Well, Harry and Hamdah are in Jewish Jerusalem now. He's public relations adviser to the government. They asked that I send you their regards.

I got back to Rome around the 16th and Roz and I left immediately for Paris for a few days. The conference with Frank Stanton concerned splitting up radio and TV news -- which it was agreed is practically impossible in the foreign field. So I will continue to wear two hats here. The TV work is getting heavier all the time -- but no additional money as yet.

Paris is about twice as expensive as Rome -- but it still turns out the best food and wine in the world.

I've got to go to Greece and Turkey next -- perhaps next week. But right now things are quiet and I hope it remains that way.
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