Discover Everyday Life in the Heart of the World
“There are as many impressions of the Middle East as there are visitors fortunate enough to travel there, and this book earnestly and engagingly samples a wide swath of them.”
—Alan Weisman, author of The World Without Us
A dizzying amount of media coverage bombards us from the Middle East, yet little filters through about the experiences of ordinary people. Encounters with the Middle East tells their stories through interactions with 30 writers who go beyond the usual reporting to reveal the simple and poignant ways that life goes on. These writers’ experiences with the people and places of the region remind us that the Middle East is blessed with astounding cultural and historical treasures, and offer moving glimpses of lives unfolding behind the headlines.
- Discover the depths of hospitality in a hulking steamer as fasting locals voyage back to Egypt during the holy month of Ramadan
- Take in the stunning sights, sounds, and scents of the sacred Shia ritual of Ashura as experienced by a family of Bahraini women from their balcony in Manama
- Journey back in time to Jerusalem for an intimate glimpse of the city in the 1960s as remembered by a boy coming of age in its cobbled streets and bustling souks
- Inhale the sweet fumes of the hookah, chew the beloved qat, and soak up the lively atmosphere found in the salons of some of the most notable and politically active women of Yemen
- Sip apple tea in Turkey and reconsider your impressions about arranged marriages as an Anatolian carpet seller and his wife lovingly recount their courtship…and much more.
“Each of the tales in this dazzling collection is a brightly colored stone in a mosaic revealing, warts and all, a Middle East that is often charming and always complex. For those who see a Middle East inhabited exclusively by terrorists and fundamentalists, these stories bring to life ordinary Middle Easterners and help us understand our shared humanity.”
—David Dunford, former U.S. Ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman
The Wonders of the World
by Bruce Feiler
Not long ago, I was invited to join a panel that would select the Seven New Wonders of the World. Seven of us, convened by a major television network and leading newspaper, were locked into a room for the better part of a day. Among us were the Asia Guy, the Astronomy Guy, the Naturalist, and the Archaeologist. I was the Middle East Guy. I scoured the region for places that I thought might make the final list. Places that were magical, transcendent, and meaningful. Places that were timeless, but also contained a message that was important for today.
I ultimately chose three sites for consideration. All three had roots in antiquity, had deep spiritual connections, and were symbols of inter-religious coexistence.
The first was the Old City of Jerusalem. As Jeff Greenwald notes in his piece, “In Jerusalem,” one of thirty essays contained in this book, “Walled cities are worlds unto themselves.” But Jerusalem is a world that still influences the rest of the world. Half the globe’s believers consider it holy. While Jerusalem is often in the news for the tension on its streets, the defining fact of the city is that any panorama, any camera angle, any genuflection that incorporates one of its holy sites will necessarily include one of the others. For all its conflict, Jerusalem is a living laboratory of different cultures.
The second place I chose was Persepolis. As Peter Jon Lindberg explains in his essay, “To Hamadan,” Persepolis was conceived by Persian king Darius the Great in the sixth century B.C. It honored Cyrus the Great, who, among other things, destroyed Babylon, ended the exile of the Israelites, and paid for the Israelites to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Darius’s commitment to respecting other faiths is on view in Persepolis, one of the great sites in the ancient world. The highlight of the place is a giant wall with carvings of men from twenty-three different countries bringing tribute to the king. They’re smiling, holding hands. Happiness was a virtue here. And the king promoted that happiness by telling believers in all those different countries that they could worship their own god. Pluralism was pioneered in Ancient Persia.
The final site, St. Catherine’s Monastery, is not included in this collection, though the opening essay, “Bread,” takes place on a boat to the Sinai peninsula and puts the traveler in the mood. Located in the red granite hills in the southern quarter of the Sinai, St. Catherine’s was built 1500 years ago by monks who said that one particular bush at the base of one particular mountain is the actual burning bush where Moses heard the voice of God. The bush is still there today, and is guarded by a fire extinguisher. When I first visited, I thought the fire extinguisher was an eyesore, then I realized the unintended humor: Is it there in case the bush catches on fire? And if it does catch on fire, should I put it out or look for the face of God?
Like so many of the places discussed in this fascinating compendium, St. Catherine’s blends religions and cultures into a mesmerizing mélange. The monastery contains the oldest operating church in the world, where they still conduct services five times a day in Byzantine Greek, but it also has a mosque, which was built to appease local Muslims. The Bedouin come weekly to receive handouts from the Greek monks, including bread and soap.
Reading this book, I stumbled onto many similar scenes, both familiar and fresh. The first breath of tobacco from a water pipe in Egypt, the smell of incense at an all-female gathering in Yemen, fresh mustard greens sautéed in olive oil served in Cyprus. Some are funny, like Chris Kipiniak’s account of a wearying rug negotiation in Cairo. “It was love,” he says when he finally succumbs and makes a purchase, “in a medieval, arranged, political, marriage-of-necessity sort of way. The rug was everything I wanted; it was red, I got it in Egypt, it wasn’t ugly.”
Some are blunt. Murad Kalam writes in his piece, “If It Doesn’t Kill You First” about the hundreds of people sometimes killed during the Haj, “In one twenty-four-hour period during my pilgrimage, eighty-two hajjis will die. People perish in many ways, from natural causes like heart attacks to unnatural ones like dehydration and trampling.”
A surprising number involve blood. Rolf Potts opens his piece, “I arrived at the Jordanian customs stations in Aqaba with the bloodstains still on my pants.” He’s referring to blood from the annual Festival of the Sacrifice. Shannon O’Grady witnesses human blood at the Shia festival of Ashura. “The drumming was loud and sounded as if it was building to a crescendo when, suddenly, I began to smell the blood. I looked toward the square and saw droves of young men beating their backs with razor blades attached to the ends of chains.”
Any traveler to the Middle East will find scenes in here that are reminiscent of earlier trips. Any traveler will discover new places to visit. As for our panel charged with picking the Seven Wonders, Jerusalem was the only place that received a unanimous vote. My other two recommendations lost out. Reading Encounters with the Middle East made me long for the original list, where all seven came from the same, wondrous region.
* * *Bruce Feiler
is The New York Times
-bestselling author of seven books, including Walking the Bible, Abraham,
and Where God Was Born
, an award-wining journalist, and the host of the series Walking the Bible
with Bruce Feiler on PBS. A frequent commentator on NPR, CNN, and others, he is a contributing editor at Gourmet
. He blogs about religion, travel, and the Middle East at www.feilerfaster.com.
by Nesreen Khashan and Jim Bowman
The sun was setting in the West Bank village, casting shadows on the terraced hillsides lined with olive trees. As evening brought coolness, villagers emerged from their homes to walk along the dirt paths. Young and old walked, women linked arms while men held salty watermelon seeds in their palms that they then cracked between their teeth, letting the shells return to the dusty ground. In the distance, calls to prayer echoed in the twilight sky, overlapping one another like waves. It felt as though the exhortations came from the heavens themselves. Talk was about what uncle was doing, what cousins were studying, who had asked whom for a hand in marriage, which relatives were visiting the homeland at present. It was here that someone from the outside could learn to let life pass slowly. Here in this land so holy, yet so unassuming, that the traveler can practice, perhaps even learn, patience.
It was not as though she set out to learn patience, this outsider who longed to belong to the club. She had really come for another purpose: to discover that kindness and innocence that she had come to associate with her parents. So it was that she returned to the West Bank village that her mother last took her to during infancy, when relatives clutched her chubby arms before memories could take hold…
It is a portrait so unimaginable these days. It may even seem absurd that such a calm exists on land associated with tumult and strife, that someone can tell of something so serene where others know only of unrest. The scene is unlikely because a din obscures daily life in this region, and rarely do the voices of the everyday—sublime and mundane—get to be heard.
The land that most people imagine as the Middle East has become engulfed in a kind of madness transmitted via the twenty-four-hour media circuit, the front pages of newspapers, the images transmitted on the evening news, crammed hastily between commercials for twitching legs, bad hearts, and weakening sexual prowess.
Yet amidst the cacophony called perception that supplants the ordinary, people in the Middle East still go about their lives. They do so through a cultural and existential prism that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. They do so whether roadside bombs, menacing fighter jets, political assassinations, or other forms of violence occur around them. They do so as we all would because at the end of the day, all human beings are remarkable for their ability to adapt and to reveal their resilience and strength, no matter what they face outside their front doors.
In fact, they exist much as people anywhere would when forced to endure hardships. Losing sight of this link and failing to recognize our potential connection with the lives behind the headlines can have devastating consequences. When we don’t connect people to the greater global scheme that includes us, we consign ourselves to the images presented on television. In that way, we become myopic and abandon all the moments that represent the complexity of lives in the Middle East. While those experiences remain hidden from our view, we remain deficient by failing to see them. When we are unaware of other possibilities, how then can we imagine solutions to the global challenges that face us? We are a single community bound to share the same planet. Plowing ahead without forging coexistence is a dangerous plunge. Whether people live in war zones or hundreds of miles from them, there is still something akin to normalcy in this region: places where instability remains something delivered by a television set, places where homes are kept intact with spirit rather than mortar.
This collection offers a snapshot of moments worth preserving. It works because many of the narrators are Westerners who come to places like Jordan, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey, in search of a particular type of knowledge about the region; invariably, they end up leaving with something unexpected. This is true whether the traveler is a first-time visitor like Pat Walker, who leaves shattered when she discovers a Bethlehem so different from the one she clung to from childhood, or Yasmine Bahrani, a native Iraqi who finds optimism amidst the turmoil upon a return to the land of her youth.
Like all great moments of travel, the delight in these stories comes not so much from discovering when the narrators, as Nicholas Seeley put it, “finally, finally, get it.” It comes from the process of untangling that revelation, from owning up to the misconceptions that we carry into a situation, and the relief of leaving without them, bundles we are no longer burdened with.
There is no smoke screen here, no quixotic gloss presenting an undisturbed Middle East. There are plenty of portrayals of awkwardness and discomfort to remind the reader of the culturally unfamiliar terrain so many of these narrators have travailed. Attrition will happen, as when Erika Trafton bemoans the unfolding of yet another sleepless night in the boiling intensity of Jerusalem’s Old City, or when Mal Karman recalls the details of his trip to Iran while detained at gunpoint by a sentry in Tehran.
Some realities are coarser than others. Karman’s predicament is unenviable, but the stoicism and dark humor he displays in the face of a mini-crisis leave us with a memorable story and an enlightening picture of a terribly misunderstood country. Joel Carillet’s portrait of animosity among Palestinians and Israelis is tempered by descriptions of individuals from these backgrounds working together to build something enduring that promotes peace.
The emotional range of the collection spans a wide spectrum, including stories that are bittersweet, exuberant, poignant. Each in its own way contributes to our understanding of the complex mosaic that is the Middle East, “warts and all,” as one reviewer writes. The rest we leave for the reader to discover.
Introduction: The Wonders of the World
The Promise Coffee
Key to the City
Dancing at the Blood Festival
Cairo, Egypt/Aqaba, Jordan
The Way of Suffering
Kidnapped by Syrian Hospitality
Just Under Your Feet
Confessions of a Water Pipe Smoker
Carolyn A. Thèriault
Peter Jon Lindberg
If It Doesn’t Kill You First
Mecca, Saudi Arabia
Walking in Yemen’s Terraced Mountains
Serendipity in Cyprus
Five-Star Mussandam Bush
Christopher K. Brown
United Arab Emirates/Oman
Magic Carpet Ride
A Damascus Cab Ride
An Afternoon in Kavaklıdere
Half Truths and Olive Trees
Clothes, Camaraderie, and Qat
Instant Mother, Just Add Tea
From the Oasis to the City
The Neon Night of the Emirates
United Arab Emirates
Repatriation and Regret
Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem
Gridlocked Tehran at Gunpoint
Holy Land Blues
The Mukhtar and I
Sample Chapter: Bread
by Nicholas Seeley
Aboard a cargo boat on the Red Sea, a traveler sees no gulf between cultures.
It’s the last night of Ramadan, and I’m on a ferry crossing the Red Sea to the Sinai. Now, I seldom pay much attention to holidays, and as a non-Muslim in the Middle East I do my best not to get involved with Ramadan. It’s an interesting display of devotion to God, but it’s not mine. For the first few days it’s a curiosity, an intriguing departure from the familiar. Later, it’s an annoyance: the Jordanian government closes down all but the swankiest tourist restaurants during fasting hours, and many shops and grocery stores close out of solidarity. You can get ticketed or harassed by cops for eating, drinking, or smoking in public. It’s not a big deal for most foreigners, who try to be respectful, but it’s a lousy break if, say, you happen to be diabetic or pregnant or on vacation with small children. By the end of the month of fasting, Ramadan is simply a fact of life, an event one tries to be respectful of but need not comment on.
This particular year, I happen to be traveling with friends to the Egyptian beach-party town of Dahab for Eid al-Fitr, the feast that follows the end of the holy month. The overland passage is closed, or as good as, since it would require crossing the Palestinian territories, so the alternative is a three-hour bus trip to the south of Jordan, followed by a boat ride across to Egypt. Two types of boats make the crossing. The “fast boat” is a slick and fairly expensive commuter service. The “slow boat” is a cargo freighter that happens to take passengers. Our bus had arrived too late for the fast boat, and so, with some trepidation, we bought tickets for the freighter.
Now that we’re here, we don’t quite know what to expect. I’ve ridden enough cargo-and-passenger ferries in other countries to know that they are seldom particularly comfortable or fun, but nothing prepares me for the boat to Egypt.
The boarding dock is crowded with Egyptian migrant workers waiting for jobs, or perhaps coming off them. Some squat on the hot pavement while others shout at each other or at the dock workers, or else sit in silence, squeezing themselves into the tiny corners of shade etched out by the noonday sun.
Stepping aboard the boat feels like stepping onto a plague ship. There are no seats or benches, and every inch of the oil-slicked black deck is covered with sprawled human figures. Barefoot old women sit slumped on blankets against the rails and crowded into the narrow walkways like so many bundles of rags, while men with yellow nails and tired faces try to sleep or brush the swarming flies away with dirty fingers.
Crowds of eyes—vacant, disinterested eyes, bleary with exhaustion or sickness—follow us as we pick our way over the bodies. I think of Heart of Darkness or The Fever or the nightly news images of African famines. I think I am going to vomit.
So we find ourselves in a corner on the second level from the top, wedged against the side of a large engine shaft that belches gasoline fumes across the deck; it’s a lot more carcinogenic, but a bit less crowded. Across from us, an ancient woman with tattooed hands sits cradling her scabbed and swollen feet. My friends and I don’t talk much. If we do, it’s about the heat or the flies or where we should go that’s private to drink from the bottles of water in our packs without offending those who are fasting. No one mentions the eyes that turn to stare at us. I do my best to bury myself in a book.
Nothing moves. The only activity on the deck is a barber a few meters down who sits with his tools spread out before him on a blanket. I find myself staring at him as he changes the blade in his razor between clients. He takes a full three or four minutes just to lather each new face, first with the brush, then with his fingers, brushing the shaving cream to a thick foam. He shaves with short, deft strokes, effortlessly paring away days of stubble and dirt, even as the ferry churns its way out into the Red Sea. He looks like one heck of a barber. One of our group tries to convince me to get him to shave my head, but I can’t stand the thought of the attention it would gather—all those glazed eyes, all turned on me.
“I’m a little scared of what’s going to happen when the call to prayer sounds,” another friend says to me as evening draws near. “This whole boat’s going to light up like a Christmas tree.” I look around, suddenly worried: When the sunset call to prayer signals the end to the day’s fast, it is a mathematical certainty that everyone on the boat is going to immediately light a cigarette. I shudder, sniffing at the gasoline fumes billowing out of the grate behind me. If the boat hasn’t blown up on any other day of the year, I rationalize, it probably won’t today either.
After another hour dusk is gathering, and a couple of us get up and walk to the railing to watch the red ember of the sun settle behind the mountains of the Sinai. Instead I’m distracted; I find myself looking down at the sea of packed bodies on the deck below. One of our friends in Amman likes to refer to Egypt as a mother with too many children, who can’t feed all of them, and looking down from this high deck the metaphor seems vividly real.
The sun is beautiful as it sinks into its cradle of rust-colored stone.
And then I smell something. The faint, tantalizing scent of…roasting garlic? And vegetables? And bread?
And in a moment that seems to last an hour, I suddenly realize how many things I have just gotten wrong. The deck below us has come alive with people, human figures suddenly animated, like marionettes whose strings have been pulled taut. They are sitting up on their blankets, chatting, laughing, eagerly fingering bottles of water and packs of cigarettes. The shapeless bundles they had carried have been unrolled into picnic blankets piled high with food. From nowhere, old Bedouin women are producing boxes of figs and dates, whole wheels of cheese, bags heavy with thick bread; men push by each other in the tight passages carrying plates piled with fresh vegetables, beans, hummus, and foule.
Across the deck, families are cooking over tiny fires, while below us mothers divide up portions for those gathered around, and children’s fingers tear eagerly at their bread, anticipating the droning sound of the call to prayer that means they can begin their iftar meal.
And so I finally, finally get it. Many of the people on this boat are poor, yes—but they are not hopeless or helpless or lost in an abyss of poverty and despair. They’re just tired. They’ve been traveling all day and haven’t eaten or taken a drink or smoked a cigarette in twenty hours. Because it’s Ramadan, that thing that I’d forgotten.
“Hey there!” a man calls up from the deck below. “Where are you from?”
“We’re Americans,” I say, fearing the worst, but feeling trapped.
“Very good,” he shouts back. “Welcome to our country! Welcome to Egypt! I wish you pleasure!”
“Oh God,” mutters one of our party, who has lived a long time in the Arab world, “run!”
“What, are they gonna stone us now?” I ask.
“No,” she says, “but if we keep talking to them, they’re going to invite us to dinner with them, and they can’t afford it.”
Smiling and waving back at the man below, we turn away from the railing and retreat to where our friends are sitting by the engine, gratefully swigging water as the call finally sounds. But it’s too late: here’s the barber, leaning over us with a smile, holding out a huge tub of dates, passing it around and gesturing for us each to take some, then smiling and passing it around again.
We had packed food for the trip, but it spoiled, stowed in the hot luggage compartment of our bus, and we have nothing to offer in return. So, suddenly, we are the ones being looked at pityingly by the feasting Egyptians, who offer us olives and water and sugared dates. One old woman hands us an entire round of cheese.
And then the barber is back, with his friends, smiling as he presents us with a bag stuffed with thick, crusty bread, which he shoves into our hands with a smile. He doesn’t speak a word of English, and my Arabic is meager, but he repeats over and over the phrase “Ahlan wa sahlan”—Arabic for welcome.
We thank him as best we can, in broken sentences, and he goes back to his family. There is nothing more to say. My friends and I sit in silence on the freighter’s grease-stained iron deck and share our dinner. It’s one of those nights.
* * *Nicholas Seeley
is a features writer and sections editor for JO
, an English-language magazine in Amman, Jordan, that covers social issues, art, and culture. He moved to the Middle East in 2004, after studying journalism at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and theater at Cornell University. He joined the staff at JO
in September 2005. In his spare time he writes fiction and manages a theater company in Amman.
A Palestinian-American born in Kuwait and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Nesreen Khashan has for the past decade been a frequent traveler to the Middle East. Whether to the Palestinian territories and Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt or Morocco, each of her trips has been marked with special purpose and has carried with it one or more of her passions.
She has ventured to the region as spiritual pilgrim, journalist, scholar, Arabic student, and serendipitous traveler. Currently a curriculum writer in Washington, D.C., Nesreen also teaches classes in the Department of Global Studies at Mission Community College near San Jose, CA. She holds a Master’s degree in Near Eastern Studies from The University of Arizona and is proficient in Modern Standard Arabic and the Egyptian and Levantine dialects. Earlier in her career, she worked as a newspaper writer for six years, reporting forThe Salt Lake Tribune, the South-Florida Sun-Sentinel, The Boston Globe, and The Daily Star of Lebanon, among others.
Jim Bowman has developed his understanding of the Middle East through years of living in Turkey, traveling through the region, and now studying about the Middle East from afar. He is currently at work on a doctoral dissertation about Turkey and travel writing. Though he would like to spend more time in the Middle East, he settles for annual returns to the region in order to lead cultural tours of Turkey and Cyprus, brush up on his ever-rusting Turkish, and visit old friends and beloved locales.
His recent scholarly publications relating to the Middle East include essays about political memory in Cyprus and symbolic issues in the history of hookah smoking in Turkey. In addition to his interest in travel writing, he has also edited textbooks for composition students at the University of Arizona. He teaches and studies in the departments of English and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Arizona.