Travel: De-mystifying the Middle East

A friend in Cairo

Sitting in my Tokyo apartment 2 years ago, planning this round-the -world trip, I was only considered traveling through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as a means getting from Turkey to Egypt. The thought of traveling the Middle East terrified, yet intrigued me. The majority of the news that reached my ears from Tel- Aviv, Damascus or Beirut concerned terrorism, civil war, kidnappings, and suicide bombings. I couldn’t help but wonder if it really was an angry sandbox full of radical Muslims, repressed women, and terror like it seemed to be on TV. I was sure that I was going to experience hatred towards my country and towards me as an American.

So why go? I wanted to see with my own eyes, and to listen first-hand to what life in the Middle East is really like here from those who are living it, and to somehow humanize the headlines and get a grasp of the regional politics that effect us all. I suppose in my own naïve and idealistic way I wanted to build a greater understanding between Western and Muslim worlds, starting with my own knowledge, ignorance, and preconceptions. I was genuinely and repeatedly surprised by what found. No matter how open-minded I thought I had been, I quickly realized that there were still some deeply seeded notions I had about the Middle East:

1: The Middle East is a hot, barren desert

When picturing the Middle East, I imagined searing hot deserts, lonely lunar landscapes, and grey colorless cities of dingy cement sprawl. True, there were several places like this, but I was surprised when I also laid eyes on quaint red roofed villages perched on towering mountain precipices, lush valleys, plunging canyons, climbing terraced orchards, and snowy mountain ranges tumbling into the Mediterranean.

Another surprise was to find this “hot” desert could be snowy and freezing cold! In the Syrian desert I found myself wearing every layer I had to fight off frostbite, and I even went snowboarding in Lebanon, although it was still too cold to live the Lebanese cliché: hit the slopes and take a dip in the Mediterranean in the same day. “This is the Middle East?” I kept asking myself. Not only the beauty, but the diversity of this small area astounded me. No wonder the people of this land feel so deeply and proudly connected to the earth, and are so willing to fight for it.

2: The Middle East is full of Koran-wielding radical Muslims

There are many areas in the Middle East where Muslims are angry, and I honestly believe that they have the right to be so (I am neither endorsing terrorism, nor taking sides here). However, I didn’t personally experience anything beyond a heated discussion in my travels so far. Religion is inseparable from daily life here. Whether it’s a man prostrated over a prayer rug in the middle of the dairy aisle, the 4 AM call to prayer screeching over crackling speakers, or a woman walking down the street covered in head-to-toe fabric, there’s no doubt that religion, particularly Islam, feels in your face, but its not in an angry or hateful way.

I visited many religious sites and mosques and was always welcomed as a non-Muslim with generously open arms. Whether it was a local shepherd and his flock or a swerving urban taxi driver, when I talked with Muslims about their faith, they spoke of peace, love and family, only expressing anger towards those who had abused Islam for political agendas or in order to spread terror. Most Muslims in the Middle East rely on their religion to give them a sense of stability in an unpredictable world, and those whom I encountered on my travels are some of the most honest and generous people I’ve ever met.

3: The Middle East is dangerous, and they hate Americans

As a seemingly helpless American girl all on her own, I thought that entering this “Axis of Evil,” would make me a prime target for a kidnapping or hate crime . It turns out that I was held hostage, but by hospitality. I nearly got killed, but with kindness. Crazy mobs did chase me down the street, but armed only with smiles and hot cups of tea. I felt safer traveling here than I had felt traveling in Asia, Europe or America. In all the time that I have been in the Middle East, (nearly a year and a half now) I haven’t heard any stories of fellow travelers being victims of anything more than a bad bargain or a conniving taxi driver. It is much more likely that I would be in a traffic accident at home than to be a victim of terrorism here. Actually, many locals and other travelers that I talked to expressed their fears of going somewhere as dangerous as America, which seemed to them a land of school shootings, street gangs and violent crime.

And of being an American? Most locals I met were very straightforward in telling me how much they disliked my president and the policies of my government, but this was rarely held against me personally. In fact, I’ve felt much more disdain and discrimination as an American from Europeans and people from other Westernized counties. These citizens of rogue nations were so easily able to separate me from my country’s government, that I couldn’t help but return the favor.

I am well aware that I have only scratched the surface of what the “real” situation is here. I don’t profess to have any knowledge other than that which I have experienced first hand as a traveler and an outsider, but I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity and the guts to ignore the myths and take the chance to experience this mysterious land for myself.

(Photo: Jennifer Hayes)

Jennifer Hayes is a writer and photographer currently volunteering in the West Bank, Palestine. Her current NGO activities include teaching English children in Askar Refugee camp, working at the Nablus Disabilities Center, painting murals for the Askar Camp “House of Arts,” teaching acrobatics to teenage boys as a part of the Palestinian Circus, and various art therapy and photographic projects.

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