Saturday, December 5, 2009

American in the Middle East

Traveling as an American alone in the Middle East is fraught with risk. I have learned this the hard way. Without warning, you might be kidnapped, fed, whisked through the town sights, taken into a stranger's home, fed (again), and tossed in a very comfortable bed, have your captors drop everything to show you whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want, and then finally shower you with a ridiculous number of gifts when you finally convince them you need to leave.

I should have taken it as a warning sign when I was given a free coke, tea, AND coffee when I was just sitting around waiting at the border for my visa application to be processed. But it was still a surprise when, after my bus-to-minibus-to-minibus transport to Aleppo, I had walked less than half a block when two Arab guys my age saw me ask directions from a shopkeeper and asked if I wanted a hotel. I was friendly, but a little evasive, figuring they were touts trying to get me to stay at *their* hotel. But they just wanted to help me find a place. Then they asked if I was hungry. We went into a fast food place, I tried to pay, and was strenuously opposed. Then it was time for evening prayer, so they asked if I wanted to see the grand mosque. A few hours later, I was sitting in one of their uncle's houses, polishing off a home-cooked meal with homemade ice cream and homemade chocolates with hazelnuts and being told by everyone in the room that I should “feel at home” for however long I liked.

At one point about midway through the evening, we passed by a historic lane filled with traditional candy shops. Tareq, my eventual host, mentioned that candy was a traditional gift in Arab society. I immediately took the hint, and said I wanted to buy them some. But the plan completely backfired when Tareq and his buddy physically barred me from paying while they got out their own wallets. “Come on,” Tareq said, as he handed me the bag of sweets, “it would make us very very sad if you paid.”

And the trend continued for three meals out, at least ten rides in taxis, tea in a traditional hammam, two CDs of Arab music, a set of Muslim prayer beads, a Syrian flag keychain, and a build-your-own jewelry box with an Arabic inscription congratulating someone on completing the Hajj (pilgrimage).

Lonely Planet guidebooks usually have a color section in the front with their highlights of whatever country or region you are visiting. In the China guide, this had things like the Heavenly Temple in Beijing, The Great Wall etc. In Australia, it had the Great Barrier Reef, Ayer's Rock, etc. In my guide to the Middle East, one of the highlights is listed on the last color page: Syrian People. I've learned why pretty fast.

Overall it's been a pretty intense cultural experience, I've spent the last couple months in similar places where I was seeking out the differences between the place I was and my home. Now I'm back to territory so different that I'm seeking out the similarities between here and home instead. Just crossing the border, even from another majority Muslim country like Turkey, I really had to take a second to just absorb the scene, the carpet sellers, a couple camels, the uud and drum music playing through loudspeakers, the long, flowing clothes the men wore, the veils of the women, and mosque a ways across the rocky desert. There's something rewarding about a place seeming just how you imagined it.

Inside the house in Aleppo were a couple implicit guidelines. There were a couple times when I went to exit a room and was told to wait a few minutes. Even at one point when I went into my room to grab something, Tareq came after me, and said I wait to wait a second to exit again into the hallway. It didn't take long to put this together with the fact that I'd been introduced to the uncle, a brother, and two male cousins, and that they were the only ones I'd seen in the house. The men and women do not mix, even in the home.

The kids too were separate. When I sat down to eat with the men of the house, the kids would stick their head in and out occasionally, and the oldest would sit there to obey orders from the patriarch, like filling empty glasses with tea or bringing sugar when needed. Before leaving for school, the littlest ones would line up to kiss their father's hand and tap it to their forehead, the traditional way to ask for the elder's blessing.

Tareq asked me at one point why people in the west are afraid of Muslims. I answered the best I could, explaining that most people in the west don't really know Islam or Muslims, they only know news reports about war and terrorist attacks in the Middle East. I don't know if I'm right, and I'm sure there's more to it when it comes to perceived and real differences in culture. But a lot of the stuff that seems strange to me as a modern American is stuff I've either seen elsewhere or that I knew happened where I'm from in our past. In Mexico the kids don't usually leave the parents house until they get married. Not all that long ago, Christian women were expected to cover their heads, especially in Church. Yes, the veil is a bit different from a bonnet, but does it justify the attitudes we hold?

I'd encourage anyone who actually wants to learn about this to come check it out. Just be careful, you might get abducted by Arabian hospitality.

Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Dude, you managed to get me worrying, at first.
    I'm so glad you had a one of a kind experience!

    As for the attitude against Muslims, it is wrong to judge all of them upon the actions of some of the individuals. However, their "extreme" and inflexible tradition and customs, only add to the problem.
    As you said, "not so long ago" Christians had certain special expectations for women (they still have others) - but Christianity is adapting to changes, and - most important - doesn't become aggressive whenever they are insulted.
    On the other side, Muslims are reluctant to changes, and death threats are issued whenever someone mocks Muslim religion in public.
    In the end, the fanatics way of dealing with problems, and the fact that their society encourages (or doesn't punish it) - are the main causes for today's view over Arabic worlds.

  2. Most religious groups have some forms of fanaticism in which violence against others is considered justified for saving the world. It does not mean that everyone who practices those religions agrees with that or feel safe publically criticizing those who do.

    Regarding comment above...some segments of Christianity have become more inflexible. The same country in which Christians seem to be the most strident (my country...the USA) has bombing of clinics that are providing services their fanatics believe should quit providing services. The bombers are said to be "right to life" or "protecting our borders" or "punishing gays" rather than described as terrorists....which they certainly are. But criticizing and being suspicious of people who look different and worship differently has always been more comfortable than looking inside one's own house.

    The additional modern element is the worldwide industry selling the news/global gossip which has served to enhance exhibitionists of all kinds.

    Good to read this blog and this entry which reminds us not to simplemindedly presume. Thanks.
    .....from a curmudgeon yank

  3. Interesting discussion. I liked the blog post best of all (but am biased of course). What wonderful hospitality you describe. It is the kind we all should aspire to give and must be in some level a little overwhelming to know how to receive properly and well. Thanks from your family to theirs. Lv, Anonymom


  5. And this is why you need to turn this blog into a book.

    It's good to hear from you, good to know you're safe and well.

  6. Razvan and Andra- Glad to hear you're enjoying this. I'll be interested to see if your perspective changes once you start traveling through Muslim countries. And I'll be waiting to hear about the one-of-a-kind experiences of your own.

    Anonymous 1- Absolutely true. So you understand their perspective, Razvan and Andra are actually from Romania, not the USA. Not to say your argument is in any way invalid, but I don't know if they experience the same Christian fanactics we see in the states. I didn't the short time I was in Romania, but I wasn't looking for them, either. R&A? What's your take?

    Anonymom- I'll pass it on. Again.

    Anonymous 2- I usually delete links posted without any other comment, but this one I'll keep. In the future though, a little something at least explaining what the site is will make people more interested in copying it to their address bar.

    Count C- D'aw, thanks. Yeah, I haven't been posting as much because internet in Syria is a challenge, but I'll see what I can do in the next couple countries.

  7. I wonder if a woman travelling alone would experience the same kind of hostpitality. I wonder if it would depend on her age?

    I couldn't help but wonder when seeing the picture of the hammam if there are hammam for women. Looked like a wonderful place to hang out.

  8. My guidebook to the Middle East has a whole section of stories from travelers-- probably a third of them are from lone women talking about receiving fantastic hospitality. No mention of age that I saw (though the lone women backpackers my age here tell me they'll asked quite often why they aren't married, I expect that would change with age). The great thing women traveling can do that I can't is talk to the women who live here. Not that I can't exactly, but it certainly isn't encouraged, and no local woman would ever approach me (especially not the way men here approach me). I do feel like I'm missing a big chunk of perspective on how life here works.

    Most hammams have separate times for men and women (like letting men in from 8am-10am, women from 10am-5pm and men again from 5pm-10pm). A few of the more touristy ones even allow them in at the same time. Don't know exactly how that works, if they get separate rooms or what.

  9. Just noticed the replies today. I didn't expect an entire discussion :).

    Well, in the first place, we don't have a strong opinion formed towards Muslims. I was only analyzing the causes for the general negative view over their culture, not a personal fixation.
    As I said before, they shouldn't be all criticized upon the actions of some individuals, in certain areas.
    Me and Andra are very interested in their culture, and have already added them in the top of our list, for the tour around the world.

    Concerning the Christianity, I was indeed analyzing it mainly from what happens here in Romania, where the situation is quite calm between different factions.
    Sure there are extremists in any religion, but you don't hear about all of them combined, as often as one hears about killings and kidnappings in the middle-east.

    Of course, mass-media emphasizes everything, but the fact remains that such things really happen more often in Muslim worlds.
    Also, it is being said that their religion encourages violence towards enemies/non-believers (Jihad); an aspect which might be exaggerated, but still it influences peoples point of view.

    I would be very interested in discussing all these things with people from the Middle East, and understand their ways and opinion about foreigners, religion and wars.
    I will do that for sure soon ;).

  10. Joel, I just want to point out that this kind of male/female segregation is practiced in America. It's really a function of religion, and not of nationalism -- I experienced it quite intensely in a fundamentalist Jewish community in New York.

    But you can see, in some of the double standards and mentalities we have, the "if she's dressed like that, she's asking for it" a secular society, we have very different ideas of "ought" and "must", but some of the same underlying sentiments regarding sexuality.

    Do I agree with the segregation of men and women? No, though when I am in a place that practices it, I respect other people's practices. Do I understand why it is? Yes.