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?
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?