Traveling Behind The Borders Of Islam

August 19, 2011 by  
Culture

Admittedly, I don’t like my own title for this post, one that’s far too generic for such a complex and intricate part of the world. There are no real borders of Islam, but having spent much of this past winter and spring traveling through the Middle East, I find many people who haven’t been put off by this invisible barrier. Ironically enough, there isn’t even a consensus on the geographical area the Middle East encompasses, somewhere that intimidates many, for a variety of assumptions enough to prevent people from visiting.

Istanbul Camii

Perhaps in no other part of the world does religion take such a prominent role in people’s lives – but it’s only one facet of of life, much like everywhere else. And that simply can’t go for everyone, because the entire Middle East isn’t Muslim with many variations within the religion itself.

coptic cairo egyptThe Middle East Isn’t A Homogeneous Place

Although Islam is the major religion across the the Middle East, it’s far from the only one. There is of course Israel; but large Christian and Jewish minorities exist in many countries across the region. (Not to mention Druze, Yazidism, and others beliefs as well.) Lebanon, for example, only has a 60% Muslim population, Qatar 75% (though more than half are foreign-born), and Egypt has a Christian population of over 5 million; more than the entire citizenry of Ireland. There are also 4 major denominations within that religion itself to break things down even further. While we’re at it, the entire Middle East isn’t Arab either, Turkey and Iran being the two notable examples.

Land Of Images And Wu Tang Clan

When you arrive at some airport in that loosely-defined area behind the imaginary borders of Islam, you’ll almost certainly encounter women wearing a hijab (headscarf) but at the same time in places like the United Arab Emirates you’ll find them walking the streets with women in western attire. You’ll also find a very young population, with nearly 65% under the age of 30 who are absorbing the world through the Internet at a phenomenal rate. A greater percentage of the population in Dubai is online than all of Spain, France, or Italy and Iran has more people online than Egypt, Jordan, or Israel…combined.

dubai mall uae

There is Internet censorship but it’s easily circumvented by a generation that’s more tech savvy than the censors themselves. Even when the government of Hosni Mubarek in Egypt completely shut off that country’s Internet connection – people still found ways to get online. Where there is the freedom of information there is change, modernity, and hope. All of which are gaining momentum across the Middle East right now along Ethernet cables and wireless signals.

It’s not necessarily assimilation of Western culture, it’s an adoption of that technology in a very Iraqi, Omani…specifically local way. Whether it’s young Egyptians blasting their car radios and rapping along to the beats of Busta Rhymes or organizing a Twitter revolution; it ain’t all camels and carpets. In fact, it’s hardly that. Many of the friends I made in Egypt and Oman might occasionally do their daily prayers (sheepishly admitting it’s not as often as they’d like) and afterward have their money on their mind, at least vicariously through Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre.

tea in egyptA Touchy Subject That’s Not Quite So

Religion is often a charged subject, particularly in the West, that’s deflected or avoided, often arousing tension when brought up. Generally speaking in the Middle East people aren’t as shy to talk politics or gods; to do so would be a glaring omission of its presence all around. People want to talk religion here, particularly with foreigners and travelers, mostly to get and give opinions about themselves they know are often misrepresented around the world. It’s what’s happening at a digital level on a personal scale, usually over tea and musty clouds of flavored shisha smoke.

Reading about a place allows your imagination and mind to visit; but actually traveling there invites all of your other senses. So much of the culture in the Middle East goes beyond religion, which sits atop thousands of years of history and nuance. As I found in Iraq, what can be so unusual about a place is how normal it turns out to be. What sticks out is all you got wrong prior to arrival and what fascinates you is aligning that new truth with previous misconception. Few parts of the world can set you up for such a swing in perception and those experiences tend to shine brightest in our travels.

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  1. lara dunston says:

    Oman is actually a hugely popular destination with other Arabian Peninsula residents. We’d quite often go there for weekends from Dubai or Abu Dhabi. And Omani locals and expats would come to UAE for their weekends. There’s a lot of movement between the Gulf countries and the Levant, by car and plane, and even more since the proliferation of low cost airlines in the region.

    Syria, Lebanon and Jordan are all wonderful, Lil – rich cultures and history, extraordinary archaeology, fantastic food, and amazingly friendly and hospitable people, which is why my heart is breaking every day seeing what’s going on in Syria.

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    • Lil says:

      it is heartbreaking, and what’s sad too is how little many people i know are not interested in knowing more except to quip “oh that’s very dangerous region” variety type of response, and that was even before arab spring! i haven’t managed to get any of my friends to agree to travel the region with me, but matters not, i’m going to go anyway ;)

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  2. irena says:

    exquisitely written and interesting post, as usual. i liked it very much and learned quite a lot from it :-)

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  3. Noelfy says:

    In Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan) I found another different way of celebrating the Islam Kurman ait….toasting with vodka!! :D

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  4. Hi Anil!
    Glad I found your website! I’m a traveller myself, currently hitchhiking through West Africa! Check out my blog if you get time!
    I’m looking for ideas of where to go next, once I’ve earned a little money for a few months at home. Where are you now exactly?
    Keep going with the inspiration :-)

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    • Anil P. says:

      Hi Kimmie,

      Thanks and I’ll be sure to take a look at your adventures. Right now I’m writing this on my way out of Istanbul and will be in western Europe for the next few weeks. Any particular destinations you’re leaning towards going next?

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      • Kimmie Taylor says:

        I have to be home for summer (UK) for my best friends wedding… after that I want to get to China the cheapest way possible! I was thinking overland through Russia and Mongolia but I think the money requirements for the Russian visa might be too much. I would love to go the Middle East way, but I don’t think I can afford all the visas right now! You got any recommendations?
        Where will you be going in Western Europe?

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        • Anil P. says:

          Jordan or Egypt I believe don’t require visas (or for UK citizens just an inexpensive visa upon arrival).

          As for me, I’ll be in Germany, Holland, and then over somewhere in northeastern Europe to some new destinations for me :)

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  5. Lil says:

    it was quite by chance that i got an opportunity to be in dubai/sharjah for a few months last year on my own, and i’m more interested than ever to travel more in the middle east. will be starting arabic classes soon too, so the next time i head out to gad about in the middle east, hopefully that’ll help in communicating with the locals who may not speak english/french. :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      What’s the next country in the region you’d like to head to?

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      • Lil says:

        i would like to go to syria, lebanon, jordan and then onto oman. not sure i can get into israel since my country doesn’t recognise israel and strictly speaking, with my passport, i’m not allowed to travel there. oman may seems weird but only because i had to cancel my trip there last year due to work constraint and i’m not content until i finally get there ;)

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        • Anil P. says:

          Sounds like a wonderful travel plan and Oman doesn’t sound weird at all! It was one of my favorite places in the Gulf (and is in general in the Middle East). So gorgeous is the landscape – I don’t get why more people aren’t traveling there. That day will probably come but hopefully you’ll get to see it before the crowds do ;)

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          • Lil says:

            i hope so too! if all goes well, i hope to get about 6 weeks off work end of next year to get there and hopefully between whatever arabic i could learn, french and english, i should have a ball getting to know the region and their culture :D

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  6. sylvia l. says:

    Visited Israel last year and agree that all preconceptions are blown away when you actually get there. Its familiar and yet completely different. We relaxed and enjoyed the whole experience as opposed to holiday. Sitting in an outwardly European cafe in the sunshine, chatting to a soldier with a cappuccino in one hand and a loaded rifle in the other. Visiting ancient Christian sites and meeting with all nationalities and religions where we all got along as visitors to an fascinating country. Driving thru the Negev Desert, magnificent; visiting Nazareth and chatting to a man who on hearing we were from Manchester UK said – Man United, my team and showed us a parking space (free). Israel is a beautiful, volatile brilliant place.

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    • Anil P. says:

      You story reflects why I think travel is so powerful and a great reason more people should visit other cultures. We are such a complex species that it’s a shame whenever we try to boil down any part of the world. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Dalene says:

    A fascinating subject indeed, and this makes me so much more eager to get there.

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  8. I’m going to admit my ignorance here – I had always lumped Iran into the Arab world. I had to really think about it when I read your comment, but then I realized that Iranians are Persian – not Arabs, just as Turks are Turkish – not Arab. But in both places there are many practicing Muslims, which is a totally separate issue than race.

    There is a great deal of confusion over the distinctions between culture, race and religion, mostly because they often overlap. Take for example Israel, where the residents define themselves as Jews and practice the Jewish religion. From my limited understanding, it seems to me Israelis have combined race and religion into one. Not so other Middle eastern countries; in fact, I can’t think of any other country where that is so. Fascinating subject.

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    • Anil P. says:

      It’s a common thing people tend to glance over; also even though the majority of Turks and Iranians are Muslim, the latter is mostly Sunni while the former is Shiite.

      It is very intricate and you’re right, in Israel the state is tied to the Jewish faith although 20-25% of the population are Arab Muslims and Palestinians. The history in this part of the world runs deep and in my personal opinion the religion sits on top of other, more fundamental human issues, like access to resources and so forth.

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  9. Deniz says:

    The Middle East is the most intriguing part of the world to me, and it makes me so sad to see how misunderstood it is. Thank you for traveling there and encouraging travelers to go there, and for offering a well-rounded outlook in your posts! :)

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    • Anil P. says:

      And the Islamic world extends so far beyond it. Indonesia’s version is much different than Turkey or Egypt; though the Middle East in particular puts many people off. The perception that it’s a dangerous part of the world or completely backward are prevalent which is too bad. Travel fosters understanding which is a good thing for everyone :)

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  10. Priyank says:

    Hi Anil,

    It’s true, we often tend to lump things around us in buckets and generalise and stereotype. That makes it easier to deal with people because humans in general have this tendency to oversimplify things (I think you alluded to that behaviour in your prehistoric brain series?) Just like the “Arab world”, “Asia” “Latin America” “India” “Eastern Europe” etc. are still monolithic concepts in most people’s minds esp those who haven’t been to those regions or read about them. Heck, I had a person ask me once if “Africa” was a member of UN.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Funny how Africa is so often refereed to as a whole, and almost with the understanding that it’s sub-Saharan when doing so as well. It is our minds trying to create efficiency out of complexity; but too bad many people don’t bother to update their generalizations to more positive or accurate ones :/

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  11. lara dunston says:

    Nice post. I moved to the UAE in 1998 and I have been trying to persuade people of these things ever since, both in my writing and in everyday conversation. I always find it extraordinary how visitors to the region (and those who’ve never been) jump to the conclusions and gross generalizations that they do with the Middle East, especially about religion and politics, when in other (non-Muslim) nations/cultures they might form a much more nuanced understanding. I’m always heartened to see how people change their minds when they travel there, however, especially after visiting places like Turkey, Lebanon, and the UAE. As cliched and corny as it sounds, travel *does* foster understanding and peace.

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    • Anil P. says:

      Very true in that most of the perceptions that are the exaggerated are from people who have never been. It’s a part of the world that is often set aside as if it’s an alien place separate from how the rest of the world works, more so than other places or cultures.

      As cheesy as it does sound, I couldn’t agree more – travel does foster understanding and reduce fear – the cause of so many of our problems as a species.

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  12. Oksana says:

    I’ve lived in Jordan for over 5 years, and I am married to a Jordanian. Really thrilled to see that a traveller finally went beyond the first five minute impressions. High five, Anil! Signing under each word.

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