American ambassadors in Arab lands

 by Judith Fein

Photo Slide Show by Paul Ross

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“What country you from?” two young men shouted at me from the stalls where they sold clothing.

“United States,” I answered.

“America! We love America!” they replied, grinning broadly.

The stalls were in the souk in Aleppo, and Aleppo, which has been inhabited by our species since the llth century B.C., is in northern Syria. Yes, an Arab country. Where cautious Americans are not supposed to go.

In Damascus, the capital, I was picking food from a sumptuous buffet and piling it on my china plate when the restaurant owner approached me.

“Where do you come from?” he asked.

“The United States,” I said. “And it’s my birthday today. This is my celebration.”

“Your birthday? Come with me, please.”

I followed him over to a large, standing, locked glass showcase which displayed jewelry and antiquities. He unlocked the case and withdrew a stone.

“Here, for you,” he said. “It’s a rock from the moon. May you have a wonderful day.”

I carried a piece of the moon in one hand, my plate in the other, and I sat down at a long, communal table and felt like crying. How can the Western media continue to spew out tired stereotypes of angry Muslim men, poised on the edge of violence, their faces twisted in hatred, their arms pulsing in the air as they call out to their god? Why don’t we ever see the guys who work in the souk or the restaurant owner on TV?

Muslim Arabs are the sons of Abraham. Four millennia ago, Abraham sat outside his tent in the desert and longed for travelers to come. When they did, his wife Sarah bustled around, preparing food and drink (I don’t think Abraham was much of a cook). Ever since that time, and probably long before, hospitality was a way of life. God smiled upon it. On the earthly plane, humans have always needed each other. If you provide for travelers, one day you will be traveling yourself and someone will provide for you. In Biblical terms, what goes aroundeth comes aroundeth.

This hospitality custom has been taken very seriously by Muslims. Sometimes you get a smile or a few kind words, occasionally a gift or an invitation to a home. If you are fortunate enough to receive the latter, be careful about complimenting the home owner on any of his or her possessions; hospitality is such that the homie may insist you take it.

My husband believes that TV networks recycle their footage of rage-filled Arab men. Or, if they aren’t into recycling, they call out through a bullhorn: “Let’s get some angry dudes over here in front of the camera. Ready? Action!”

I have lived in Morocco and Tunisia, spent six years in daily contact with a Lebanese family, have visited Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and consorted with Arabs around the world. I have Muslim friends. An imam. A composer. A businessman. A restaurant owner. Sufis. Tour guides. Government employees. I have never seen one person with a rage-twisted face. I have heard anti-Israeli-government sentiments. I have certainly heard bitterness about the Naqba (what Israelis celebrate as the War of Independence). I have encountered anger. But I have not once heard sentiments that were violent, or a desire for fighting or war.

Everyone I met wants peace. A secure life. Jobs. Healthy kids. A future.

A friend of mine is in Iran right now. Iranians are not Arabs, but their religion is Islam. He reports folks are wonderfully friendly when they hear he is American.

There is, of course, a fringe contingent in every country. They are frustrated, hostile, willing to do whatever it takes to get their agenda accomplished. They exist in America, in Europe, in Muslim Arab countries. But when you walk down the streets of New York, Paris or Cairo, you are unlikely to encounter them. You’ll certainly see them if you flip on the tube in your hotel room, but they won’t be skulking in a corner, waiting to get you when you come down to breakfast. The fringe is real, but it is a fringe. The rest of the picture is racist, blood-thirsty image creation to sell more soap and Viagra.

In Tunis, I told a man named Ahmed that many Americans were afraid to come to his country because they thought the souks were filled with terrorists. Ahmed seemed stunned. He grew very silent, and then very sad. “I don’t understand, “ he finally said. When my husband and I took a group of people to Turkey, we arranged for them to meet with an imam who was willing to answer questions. “How do you explain that Muslims brought down the towers in New York in the name of Allah?” a man in our group asked. The imam began to cry. “They are not true Muslims,” he said quietly, tears cascading down his cheeks.

Over the past few years, I was shocked to hear about newspaper editors of travel sections who declined to publish positive articles about visiting Arab countries. A few said they didn’t want to encourage Americans to travel to places where they are terrorist attacks. So how come they don’t boycott articles about New York, London or Spain? Or Oklahoma City, for that matter?

In recent travels, I have met a disquieting number of people who will not travel to the United States. because they think we are violent warmongers. Hmmm. We certainly are a violent society, and our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are testimony to our warlike nature. But it still hurt when people said it to me. I imagine this is how Muslim Arabs feel when they hear about travelers avoiding their countries because of imaginary terrorists.

Why are Americans so upset by protests and demonstrations in Islamic countries? Why is it okay here or in London or Paris or Italy, but not there? Isn’t it good that people take to the streets to express their opinions about politics, war, living conditions, freedom?

Once you have visited an Arab country, you will come back and tell your friends about media distortion and racism. You will be helping to right an extremely wrong situation. In your own way, you will be much more than a tourist, you’ll be an ambassador for peace.

Judith Fein is a cofounder of and award-winning travel journalist who has contributed to more than 85 publications.  With her husband, Paul Ross, she travels the globe, writing, photographing, making videos and giving talks.

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