What is the Middle East?
It is a geographical region encompassing between 16 and 24 nations, depending on whom you ask. It is the religious center of the world for roughly 3.75 billion people. It is a common catchword often associated by the media with violence, oppression, corruption and radicalism.
Unfortunately, it is this third point which Americans most frequently remember when they hear or think of the Middle East. Owing to media stereotyping, the majority of news coming out of the region focuses on its negative aspects (such as violence and instability), painting a picture of it for the American public as a dangerous and irrational place.
While there are indeed certain areas which travelers are advised to avoid (northern Yemen, central Iraq and most of Somalia, for example), such locations are grossly outnumbered by the many safe, tourist-friendly sites and cities one could easily visit, ranging from Istanbul to Aleppo, and Abu Dhabi to the Dead Sea.
Americans should not be afraid of the Middle East, and they should avoid looking askance at it with a wary eye. Having spent the previous semester studying in Amman, Jordan, and having traveled over much of the region, I was amazed by the boundless hospitality I encountered among the locals. The anti-American sentiment that is assumed to be so pervasive over there is largely an illusion, created by individuals seeking to make a profit through controversial news.
As an example, the widely broadcasted celebrations in the streets following the 9/11 attacks, which were portrayed by some as the common sentiment across the region, were actually only filmed in two or three locations. These films, which sparked so much controversy and attention, came primarily from Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza and Lebanon, where “celebrators” were bribed to appear happy on camera.
Although some of those celebrating may indeed have been pleased, they are hardly representative of the Palestinian, Arab or Muslim people as a whole. As well, broadcasting images of an Iranian cleric inciting crowds to chant “Death to America, death to Israel” is far from a true representation of the Iranian people’s opinions. The large-scale grassroots protests which followed the rigged 2009 elections in Iran seem to be a far more accurate measure of that.
The majority of Arabs I interacted with while abroad became very excited when they realized I was an American, and were quick to point out the difference between their disapproval of American foreign policies and their respect and admiration for the American people. They may not like our government, but they like us.
The Jordanians I spoke with about this were well aware that they are not viewed very highly in the U.S., and frequently expressed their willingness to fix that image. Many Jordanians were ecstatic that we, as Americans, were willing to come to their country, learn their language and endeavor to understand their culture.
Naturally, it was very exciting for them to share who they are and what they have with outsiders. This innate fear Americans have of the Middle East is unfortunately holding us back from better understanding a rich, complex and fascinating part of the world.
The myriad, different peoples who live across the region are, generally speaking, very amiable and sociable. At the risk of sounding cliché, they are not so different from us. They play soccer. They enjoy good music. They write literature. They love hummus.
Although they do have a different belief system, it is still founded on the same basic concepts of charity, peace and respect preached by Judaism and Christianity, and it emphasizes generosity and hospitality as lifelong duties.
In truth, Americans traveling in the Middle East have relatively little to fear. Provided they travel with an open mind and flexible attitude, they will be amazed at the warmth of the welcome and the breadth of the culture they are bound to encounter. The region and its people have much to offer, and we as Americans have much to learn both from and about them.