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.

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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.

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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.

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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.