Middle East Travel in a Post-9/11 World

I’m going to ask a quick question of you. Did the events of September 11, 2001 make you think twice about traveling to the Middle East? It’s okay, you can be honest. If you’re scared, you’re  certainly not alone in your thinking. Heck look at the recent backlash against plans to build a Muslim cultural center a few blocks away from the World Trade Center site in New York City?

Tribute in Light at WTC

Tribute in Light with a rising tower at the World Trade Center site to the right.

Many things have changed in the decade since 9/11 happened. The way we live our lives, our diminishing rights in the name of security, the constant presence (particularly in NYC) of excessive security measures. But the sad thing that has also happened is this notion that the Middle East is somehow dangerous and that Muslim countries are not welcoming to Americans. I suspected that this was not true, so, for the tenth anniversary of that terrible day, I asked a few bloggers who had actually been to the Middle East for significant amounts of time to contribute their thoughts on how 9/11 changed Middle East travel.

9/11 Memorial in Bryant Park

2,753 empty chairs at NYC's Bryant Park to commemorate those killed at the World Trade Center

Lisa of Chicky Bus:

“When I told my friends and family that I would be traveling to the Middle East last summer—to Jordan, Syria and Lebanon—most thought I was out of my mind. “Be really careful,” they said, their eyes full of fear and concern. “It’s a post-9/11 world we’re living in, after all.” Most were worried because I’m an American and others because I’m a woman and was planning to do the trip solo.

I didn’t heed their warnings, of course. The 40-day trip turned out to be an epic adventure. In Jordan, I floated in the Dead Sea and was a guest of the Bedouins in Wadi Rum, where I slept out in the desert on the sand. In Syria, I fell in love with the old city of Damascus, worked as an extra on a TV show sponsored by an Emirati prince, wandered around Krak des Chevaliers, an amazing Crusader castle, and so much more. In Lebanon, I blew off Beirut for Bcharre, the birthplace of the writer Khalil Gibran, and met a Colombian hermit living on the side of a mountain—one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in years.

I felt safe no matter where I went—both on and off the beaten path–and found the people to be warm, friendly and super helpful. When I was lost, locals not only offered help, but actually walked me back to my room. I was often invited for tea and given rides and advice freely. I felt welcome in each of the countries. As for 9/11, it didn’t come up in conversation except a few times with other travelers, mostly grad students studying political science.”

Earl of Wandering Earl, writes about how eye-opening his experience was:

“Instead of finding myself in countries filled with people who held an intense hatred towards Americans, I simply found an endless number of human beings, human beings who were also afraid that their lives would no longer be the same due to the events of 9/11. Apart from a tiny handful of individuals, the people I met wanted nothing more than to be happy and to be able to provide shelter and food for their family. They didn’t want to be engaged in war, they didn’t want to have any enemies and they didn’t want to be hated either. All they wanted was a peaceful world, just as we all do.

Sure, some people expressed their frustrations and anger with US policies towards their countries, but they also expressed their extreme anger at those responsible for 9/11. In fact, most of the people I came across spent a great amount of time and effort trying to convince me not to hold them, ordinary citizens, responsible for what had happened on that terrible day.

My most life-changing memories from the time I’ve spent in the region involve walking around the streets of several towns, villages and cities in Pakistan back in 2005. Everywhere I went people approached me, shook my hand and then desperately pleaded with me to return home and tell everyone I knew that the Pakistani people were not terrorists. I can’t even describe how badly these people wanted me to spread this message and when I say that such interactions occurred several times per day during my stay, I am not exaggerating in any way.

And since that time, I’ve also had dozens of similar interactions with local people I’ve met in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Finally, Anil from FoXnoMad:

“I suppose for me 9/11 didn’t change my perceptions on the Middle East, as up until that point I had spent most of my life in Turkey. When I did hear the news though, I knew it would change views for many people very quickly and for the worst. Many around the world associated the actions of a few extremists with an entire culture and religion encompassing 1.5 billion people – which is hardly homogenous in itself. There are more three times the number of Muslims living in Asia than the Middle East for example; and Germany has a larger Muslim minority than the entire population of Lebanon (which is only 60% Muslim at that). So, to be reluctant of going to a country in the Middle East because of 9/11 is akin to not visiting Iceland because of the recent Norway shootings. Something that’s been sad to see and what has been slow to recover. There is, unfortunately, still a long way to go. However, while fear is a powerful motivator, travel is a potent cure.”

Anil makes a great point that every single one of these bloggers shared. Travel is the ultimate solution to most of the problems and fears in the world. For when you get to know people around the world in real life other than through the prism of the media, you start to see that we really aren’t all that different from one another! And the more people that learn this, the better off we all are. So what are you waiting for?? Just go!

Have you been to the Middle East in the last ten years? What were your thoughts on the region? 

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26 Responses to Middle East Travel in a Post-9/11 World

  1. Lisa @chickybus September 14, 2011 at 12:02 am #

    Thanks, Aaron, for inviting me to share my experience for this post! It was fascinating to read what Earl and Anil experienced and their thoughts about Middle East travel in general. Also, I just want to say that I’m grateful to my ESL students–those from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, etc.–who are really amazing people who introduced me to Middle Eastern culture in the first place. It’s because of them that I decided to take the trip.

    And although travel to Syria is not advised right now, I do look forward to the day when it’s OK there again. I really hope to return!

    • Aaron September 14, 2011 at 11:03 am #

      Thanks for sharing your experience Lisa, especially about being inspired by your students! It’s those personal relationships that show that we really aren’t all that different after all!

  2. Nomadic Samuel September 14, 2011 at 11:20 am #

    Aaron, very thoughtful answers in this article from your guests. Personally, I’ve travelled in several Muslim countries in Asia and found them to have some of the warmest & friendliest people I’ve ever encountered. The one country in particular that I enjoyed visiting the most was Bangladesh.

    • Aaron September 14, 2011 at 2:56 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your experience Samuel! The only muslim country I’ve been to is Malaysia, but I’ve always found that people all over the world are so incredibly warm and friendly, even those in countries that the U.S. government hasn’t been too kind to over the years!

  3. Earl September 14, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I think Anil said it best when he compares not traveling to the Middle East to making the decision not to travel to Iceland because of recent events in Scandinavia. Unfortunately, it can be quite a challenge to convince many people that this is really the case. Hopefully, as more and more travelers choose to travel to this region and share their experiences, the word will continue to spread that, far from consisting of dangerous countries, this area consists of countries full of good people and environments that are much safer than many other regions of the world that receive significantly more visitors.

    Thanks so much for including me in this post Aaron!

    • Aaron September 14, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

      Yes I too liked Anil’s comparison. People have this irrational fear of the unknown and I kind of feel like the media tries to stoke those fears. The more people who understand that people all around the world are so similar and that life really is different from what you see in the media, the more opinions will change!

      And my pleasure to include you Earl! You were definitely one of the first bloggers that popped into my head when I decided to do a post about the Middle East!

  4. Tori September 19, 2011 at 12:40 am #

    I have to say that the thing that made the Egyptians and Jordanians most nervous was NOT being a single American woman. It was on the rare occasions that I admitted I was Jewish and had entered through Israel. On the occasions I trusted them with this information, most shifted somewhat uncomfortably and then sought to reassure me that it wasn’t a personal thing but the politics of the situation and they didn’t hold it against me.

    I think most Americans would feel completely safe throughout the Middle East so long as they are regularly-traveled-to countries. (Obviously, I would not visit Libya or Egypt at this time, check the consulate, etc.)

    • Aaron September 19, 2011 at 9:36 pm #

      Ah yes the big thorn in Middle East travels. I may be going to Israel in a few months and have often wondered how that would affect my travels elsewhere in the region. And I’m sure it wasn’t personal. If you think about the history in the region…

      • Earl September 19, 2011 at 9:42 pm #

        Well, I can say that I’m also Jewish and I’ve never had a problem anywhere in the Middle East, including Jordan, Egypt, Syria and even Lebanon. And while I don’t go around telling everyone my religion, I have told enough people to get a good enough idea of the reaction. Even in Syria (which I visited last year), many of the locals I met would ask if I planned to visit Israel on my travels and they were perfectly fine with a ‘yes’ answer. And many times they would also suggest I visit the Old Jewish part of town, whether it was in Aleppo or Damascus.

        Again, it’s probably not a good idea to go around telling everyone but for the most part, people aren’t going to hold that against you. They’ll be much more excited that you decided to come and visit their country than they would be upset that anyone is Jewish.

        • Aaron September 19, 2011 at 10:02 pm #

          I think you could same the same about people all over the world. Take being American in, say, Vietnam and people have a similar reaction. They could care less where you’re from…they’re much more excited that you ame to visit their country (and that you are a source of money….). Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the matter Earl!

        • Tori September 19, 2011 at 11:35 pm #

          At least in the case of Egypt, the Egyptians I did tell were eager to show me the old synagogues of Cairo and Alexandria. Many of them have undergone recent renovations despite not having worshipers anymore as a sign of good civic faith/positive propaganda.

      • Tori September 19, 2011 at 11:30 pm #

        If the new government in Libya decides to liberalize relations with Israel (admittedly unlikely), and Syria falls, it may become possible to drive from Morocco to Jordan along the Mediterranean. That would be a dream trip.

        It’s not a big deal if you’re also going to countries with liberal relations with Israel, though things are currently in a relatively hot stage. For example, Egypt has new Visa requirements which would have made my trip impossible. (I never bothered to organize the Visas before going because I knew you could buy the Jordanian and Egyptian entrance visa at the border.) And Turkey and Israel continue to have a spat over the Gaza flotilla.

        Anyway, the Thorntree will have all the information – and in most threads, far too much information – about the visa situation.

        • Aaron September 20, 2011 at 12:07 am #

          Of course! Some day hopefully an Israeli passport stamp won’t be a liability anymore…

  5. Calogero September 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm #

    Good luck…

  6. Adam October 11, 2011 at 4:01 am #

    A few things…
    Before the Egyptian revolution, I was in Egypt and found that many people actually loved that I was from America – but I was surprised many people I met there weren’t as fond of Obama as they used to be.

    Also, I’d like to add that before going to the Middle East, I got a lot of warnings from my family. Being Jewish, they were worried about me but it was needless worry in the end.

    • Aaron October 11, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

      I hear you. There are a lot of Asian countries where I was nervous to tell people I was American (like Vietnam or Laos…the latter of which we bombed the crap out of) but, much like you, found that many people loved that I was American.

      Haha and I too have gotten warnings from friends. I actually wrote a post about one memorable quote…“Be Safe, You Might Get Bombed.” Now, I have traveled enough to know that the reality doesn’t even come close to matching that idea!

    • Aaron April 19, 2012 at 2:22 am #

      You know, now that I’ve been to Egypt, I have to agree that I was kinda surprised by how unpopular Obama is. I didn’t hear much about it till I got to Dahab on the Sinai peninsula and I didn’t even ask. As soon as the hotel clerk found out I was American he started complaining. Hated Obama’s support for Israel (which is funny, since people in the US like to accuse him of not supporting Israel enough…), the fact that he came to Cairo and made that speech and the fact that he supported Mubarak until it was very clear he was on the way out. Interesting stuff…

      • Adam April 27, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

        Yeah, I’d be really interested to speak with Egyptians now post-Mubarak about their opinion of Obama. Obama didn’t come up in any talks about Israel when I was there, but they weren’t as closely tied together (the latest round of peace negotiations hadn’t happened yet)

        • Aaron April 27, 2012 at 4:42 pm #

          Funny I didn’t even bring up Israel. I feel like Sinai though probably has a much stronger opinion on Israel than the rest of the country does since they were occupied by Israel after the ’67 war.

  7. Heather November 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm #

    I traveled to Palestine/Israel on a whim in December 2010. The minute I told my friends and family they were very concerned and could see no reason why anyone would ever want to do that. I LOVED IT! I am sure there were many dangers around me but if there is one thing traveling has taught me its that the world is a safer & happier place than any of us imagine it to be!

    • Aaron November 9, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      If there’s one thing that travel has tuaght me it’s that you should take perceived “dangers” with a very large grain of salt, because, as you said, the world is a safier and happier place than most people think! Thanks for sharing your experience! I’m heading to Israel/Palestine/Jordan next month!

  8. Katherine McKeon February 23, 2012 at 3:14 am #

    This is a great question to ask. It’s easy to be turned off from visiting a place because of news reports. To be fair, it’s always important to be informed before you go anywhere. But I’ve been amazed on past trips to “unsafe” places to see how life continues on normally for the people there, and traveling through is nothing but a pleasure.

    • Aaron February 28, 2012 at 1:46 pm #

      Since I’ve written this article, I myself have been to the Middle East, and while I didn’t visit any of the so-called “Axis of Evil” countries, I did go to Egypt, which everyone warned me against. And I had a fantastic time! Just goes to show that media reports can be seriously overblown!

  9. Dunblane hotel February 23, 2012 at 3:33 am #

    The 9/11 events were truly horrible and scary, but with time passing people got over their fears. In my opinion the middle east is a great travel destination, and I`m planning a soon visit there.

    • Aaron February 28, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

      It most certainly is! Since writing this post I’ve been to Israel, Jordan and Egypt, the latter or which everyone told me was incredibly unsafe! The truth was way on the opposite end of the spectrum!

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