Traveling in Arab World
Four months ago, I read an article on Wadi Rum in a Canadian travel magazine called Outpost. Almost instantly, I was lured by the natural wonders of this region and started to research for travel opportunities.
To some, traveling alone as a single female in the Arab world may seem daunting, given the western interpretation of how women is treated in Islam religion. Nevertheless, except the rather annoying hassles in the major Egyptian tourist towns, I found that most Arab men are in general very respectful of the opposite sex. And vice versa. After a few street pursue, love manifestations and marriage proposals, I learned quickly that polite and honest refusal is the best way to turn down a request and gain a friendship.
For most part, I felt quite comfortable doing shopping in markets or walking aimlessly on the streets and most uncomfortable in touristic sites. Occasionally, some curious and innocents stares do make me feel a little self-conscious. To start with, it is very unconventional for a muslim woman to travel by herself in a foreign country, especially if she is married. Understandably, while most locals have seen western female, rarely do a single asian female picking fruits in the market or wandering in their neighborhood. More than a few times, groups of teenagers followed me for quite a while. Finally, one courageous soul came forward and talked to me, I would in turn satisfied their curiosity by introducing myself with my broken arabic or even exchanged emails. From feeling a bit odd in the beginning, now I feel completely delighted and privileged to be asked for photographs or invited for chai (tea). What is better to break the cultural stereotype by talking to strangers, even if you only know a few arabic words and they only know a few English words? Sometime, a smile and a laugh can transcend borders.
So here are my final thoughts and impression on each country I visited on this trip:
Egypt is magical by itself with its amazing history, civilization and architecture. The genuine hospitality of the Egyptian Bedouins breathe life into the beauty of the sand dunes in the western desert and all the oasis. Each temple along the Nile is an open pictorial encyclopedia. If you observe and listen closely, you may hear the stories on the wall being told by the artist and workers who preceive their pharaohs as god. Felucca ride was a test of strength. The coptic churches and submit to Mt Sinai introduced me to more Christian history to come. Dehab, by the Red Sea, has some of the best corals and most polite shopkeepers.
Syria is definitely the hidden gem in this region. With Damascus as capitals of many ancient civilizations in the past, the old city, souq Hamadiyas and Uyammad Mosque contrast sharply with the boutiques, banks and restaurant frequent by the young and well-dressed, who too often overdose on Hollywood movies, Egyptian/ Lebanese pop and hip hop music. However, still locals in smaller towns like Hama or Homs will go out of their way to make sure your stay in their country is smooth and pleasant. One man changed his route just to make sure that I get off at the right minibus station and paid for my ride. Many other hailed down and bargain a taxi ride for me in my neediest moment. Roman architecture in Bosra and Palmyra and Apamea rival the ones in Greece.
The difference between rural and urban life is most noticable in Turkey. The best example is the all-male teahouses in the rural Muslim town Derinkuyu and the hippies Starbuck overlooking the mighty Bosphorus in trendy Bebel. The only thing they have in common is the excessive cigarette smoke. With architectures like the Topaki Palace, Aya Sofya and Blue Mosque, no wonder tourists flock to Istanbul to indulge in the Ottoman treasures.
So yes, I'm saving the best for last. Needless to say, Jordan is the highlight of my trip. And Wadi Rum is undoubtedly its soul, whispering with its seducing desert language at nights. From the moment I stepped on the bus leaving Wadi Rum, I yearned to go back for its silence and beauty. For two weeks, I slept under magnificent rock formations, watching desert foxes dining on our leftover, counting stars next to mountains illuminated by the full moon. My heart would melt, next to the fire even on cold nights, to the intoxicating allure of the Bedouin culture. Waking up to a sea of orange sand and the sound of camels is only possible in an arabian dream. I felt privileged to help prepare meals, wash dishes, dig toilets, pick firewood and load supplies to the 4x4 day after day. I felt rejuvenated to play football games, feed the goats, toss around under the blanket before sleeping with the children, watch women make bread and breastfeed. Time flies. Now only pieces of memories remain. Even without showers and flushable toilets, I was in a state of trance.
From children screaming hello on the rooftop to riding 'Summer' to submit the mountain behind the Treasury, Petra, the rose city, is another unforgettable town. It is here that I had the best family-cooked meal, the most amusing dance performances by an Bedouin elder, the coldest night in the warmest stable.
One had to admit that nowaday, too often the image of Middle East focuses almost exclusively on the negative portrait of Islamic traditionalist ideology and the action it takes to achieve its goal. Rather, too little is focused on the impressive landscape, history and nature of most muslim people. The perfect match between the land and people are often overshadowed by the complicated and conflicting balance between politics and religion.
Islam is a relatively new religion. Like its predecessor Christianity and Judaism which takes more than a millenium of warfare to evolve into what it is today, Islam is still going through phases of identification, interpretation and revolution. Mohammad's revelations in Medina and Mecca in the 7th century had led to many different schools of thoughts over the centuries and sadly, was also used by many to gain power in the name of God. With the de-colonization of most Arab countries after WWI, nationalism flourished and faded. Muslims are forced to face with the materialism and demoralization of the western culture. Is unity possible? Can the Palestinian cause be the catayst?
No matter what the history books will record, it is not the politicians, but the people who had the final say. With the selflessness and diversity of Islam and the genuine nature of most Muslims, may there be the day when lives cease to sacriface and peace come to this region to embrace all who believe in humanity.