Every time I post on Facebook that I’m headed to Dubai or Oman or anything with the letter “Q” in it, I immediately start receiving warnings and words of caution from my friends about where I’m going. At the moment of this writing, a handful of people have met their demise at the hands of a terrorist group called ISIS. Trust me, I’m sympathetic to the families who have lost their loved ones and I think that travelers should be cautious when visiting countries that have known terrorist groups. However, in my opinion, not traveling because there are terrorists abroad is like not swimming because you read an article about a recent shark attack.
I have traveled extensively through North Africa (which is mostly Muslim), Turkey, Dubai, Oman, Qatar, Jordan, etc. and at this moment I’m in the Maldives which is 100% Muslim. Am I afraid? Not in the slightest. I’ve found this religious group to be some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. Very few would hurt you, steal from you, or try to cheat you. I’m not saying everyone is perfect, but we’re talking about a religion where devotees pray 5 times a day, wash themselves relentlessly and hang out in mosques. My question is, when was the last time you prayed 5 times a day?
Opponents to the Muslim faith often criticize the fact that women don’t have equal rights and can’t wear shorts or other revealing clothing. Muslims are not allowed to drink alcohol. There are terrorist groups of this faith who kill others because they’re “infidels”, not of the faith. Some of the fundamentalists have gone so far as to destroy ancient shrines from other religions. I agree that the latter is not acceptable by any standards, but consider for a moment how Christians has done many of the same things throughout history. I was in Luxor a few years ago admiring the giant Egyptian stone pillars in Karnak. I wondered why a lot of the hieroglyphics on the structure had been destroyed and there was damage to the pillars. Was it the effects of time? The elements? No, it was the Christians. They didn’t like the fact that Egyptians had a polytheistic religion. If someone decided to worship another God and they didn’t approve it, then they just ripped it to pieces like the Taliban. Once in Spain I visited a Spanish Inquisition torture museum. I saw the most gruesome torture devices designed by the church to slowly impale it’s victim, burn him slowly or stretch his body until all the muscles and bones were pulled apart. In American history when the Puritans came to America, they came to escape religious oppression. They wanted to be free to worship as they chose. They immediately began trying to convert native Americans to their religion regardless of whether they wanted to be Christian or not. Ahhhhh…..the irony.
I’m not saying 2 wrongs make a right. It’s taken us 600 years to get past the Spanish Inquisition and realize that people should have their freedom to worship as they choose. What many people don’t realize is that just a little over 100 years ago, women in the United States had no rights, people swam in bathing suits that covered almost their entire bodies and there were plenty of lynching mobs who would be happy to hang you if you did anything outside the box. For years alcohol was illegal in America.. 150 years ago, Americans still had slaves.
Mohammed lived some 600 years after the birth of Christ. In the giant timeline of the world, Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism all had a pretty big head start on Islam. A 600 year head start at the very least. Just to be clear, I’m not saying I agree with the way the Muslims do things, but let’s cut them a little slack before we start pointing fingers. They have a little catching up to do.
I feel like one of the main problems in the Arab world is the lack of separation between church and state. I know lots of Muslims in Texas who are happy to get little promiscuous if the opportunity presents itself and will grab a margarita faster than you can say Allah-kazam. In their own country (and this really depends on the country), it might be illegal to drink or fraternize with the opposite sex. So what do they do when they come to a country which doesn’t have these rules? They get a little nutty. Imagine if you were not allowed to date a woman or have a drink when you wanted…. I don’t think many westerners would like that idea.
I recently discovered a loophole in which I could go to Iran (and cross it off my list of countries) by visiting the island of Kish. Kish is the only part of Iran that requires no visa and is a short 30-40 minute flight from Dubai. It’s the Iranian version of Dubai and they’ve relaxed all visa rules to get visitors to come and showcase their country. Are people coming there like Dubai? No. Well, maybe Filipinos and Indians to renew their UAE visas. The problem is there’s a bunch of rules that are pretty hard for westerners to accept. You can’t really go swimming there in a bikini, alcohol is a no no…..and guess what happens if you stay in a hotel there with a woman that you’re not legally married to? Death. Yes. The penalty is death regardless of whether you did anything or not. Fortunately the entire Muslim world is not nearly as strict. Just like Christianity, there’s fundamentalists and those who think Allah is a little bit more forgiving. Less than 300 years ago when America wrote it’s constitution, the founding fathers agreed that having the state connected to the church was not a good idea…… Having the government decide what your religion should be is never a good thing.
I realize that the points that I’m making appear to have little to do with your travel safety, but I think that having an understanding of the culture you’re visiting can make all the difference in the world on how you’re treated. Walking scantily clad in an area where the customs are conservative and drinking a beer publicly in places where no one should be drinking is not going to score you any travel points. People like people who are like them. Think about the last time you saw some annoying tourists in your home town. You probably shook your head and wondered how they could be so clueless. I don’t try to change myself completely when I travel, but I’ll often sit down and have a chat with the locals and get a feel for what is cool and is not cool. They’re usually happy to share and help you connect better.
Last year as I went through customs in Dubai with my cowboy hat, I was asked a lot of questions and eyed suspiciously. I thought to myself “why are you guys acting like you don’t trust me? I didn’t blow up the world trade center.” True, but neither did they. But maybe they’re a little distrustful of a country that wants their oil so bad that they’ll make up excuses to create a war. I don’t want to start a political discussion, but I think both sides have a little reason to distrust each other. I believe that our media and government pit our different cultures against each other. We see American flag burning on TV, they see American soldiers shooting Arabs…. there’s a lot of hype that focuses on the bad and rarely on the good.
What’s the solution? A bridge. Dubai has been successful at creating an environment where westerners actually WANT to visit an Arab country not for business but for fun! Both sides have to give in a little, but Dubai’s approach has been that they understand what westerners want and although maybe they don’t entirely agree with our lifestyle, they’ve made it possible for us to visit them and have all the things we need to make them feel comfortable. As travelers, we can do the same. Taking a moment to learn a little about the religion, the dos and don’ts, and a smattering of knowledge about the history and the culture will go a long way. Knowing how to say “hello” and “thank you” in Arabic always evokes smiles. It’s really not that hard to learn a couple of words.
Visit the Middle East. Visit North Africa. Morocco is amazing, Turkey is one of my favorite places in the world. When Egypt settles down, go visit the pyramids! If you understand a little about the people I promise you that you’ll discover a new world that you didn’t even think existed…but just for the record, I won’t be spending my honeymoon in Kish.