Unease in the Middle East

I’ll admit it, I got pretty scared a number of times during my recent sojourn in the Middle East. But before I tell you about the time I almost crawled under the car seat, let me tell you about the amazing hospitality that I experienced.

The warmth and generosity of the Middle Eastern Arab culture is beyond the pale. Truly I have never had some many people open up their homes to me. I was honored to be guest in their lives and their countries.

And yet, I was un-nerved several times while traveling around Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. Here’s just a snapshot.


While in Jordan several years back, I was given the dubious honor of holding all the passports for my tour group during the ferry ride between Nuweiba, Egypt and the landing port of Aqaba, Jordan. As a “group representative,” I accompanied the passports to a back room on the boat where the Jordanian immigration officials would clear us for customs.

I was alone in the room, as the 4 immigration officials – all holding machines guns – made small talk with me. In those days, the favorite topic of conversation for all traveling Americans was how much they (insert foreign country) hated then-President George Bush.

After a time, the officials started laughing and pantomiming a beheading (the Daniel Pearl tragedy was fresh then). No matter what you think of our last President, or of Middle Eastern politics, it’s never fun to be the lone American woman in a room with 4 armed Middle Eastern men laughing about a beheading. Enough said.


There were a couple of times while in Lebanon, just this past month, when I felt, let’s say “worried,” and one time I felt that I should not be there at all. Here’re a few example of things that are “out of my comfort zone”:

  • Example #1: Fireworks are going off at night and my friend and I are wondering whether these are bombs or a celebration. We pause in the middle of the street before crossing onto the far sidewalk – just in case.
  • Example #2: We’re driving in downtown Beirut for a meeting and there is – uncharacteristically — no traffic. The reason is that there was a Hezbollah bomb threat. My question: then why are we the ones still driving around?
  • Example #3: I’m on the balcony and notice a white car with its hood up, parked just outside the apartment building. I immediately think of “Blackhawk Down” and whether or not this is a signal for an imminent attack. I check to make sure there’s no “X” taped on the roof of the car. Whew!

Cringing in the Car

And the time I was really worried was when we were visiting the Roman ruins in the town of Baalbeck, a known Hezbollah stronghold (except I didn’t know this of course, because I never do my homework).

Outside the ruins, there were large revolutionary posters and patriotic songs blaring from the loud speakers. And yellow and black Hezbollah flags adorning every street lamp. And a picture of a Hezbollah leader and Syrian President Assad right outside the Lebanese Army barracks (to prove to the army that they are not in control). I believe it – the army is not in control!

And we’re lost to boot and keep stopping to ask for directions. I keep cringing since I didn’t necessarily want anyone to notice that I’m sitting in the back seat (especially as this was just after the threat of the foreign kidnappings in retaliation for Bin Laden’s killing). We eventually found our way, but for a girl that doesn’t sweat, I was definitely starting to perspire.

A Complex Character

This last incident is a perfect example of the duality that characterizes much of the Arab region. While we were lost in Baalbeck, we stopped at a fruit stand to ask the right of way. The fruit merchant gave us a handful of plums to enjoy during our car ride through the countryside.

So while I felt some fear, I also felt this amazing generosity. This is the duality that marks the region – and not just for travelers like me, but more importantly, for the people who live there.

It must be an incredible strain to live your life tempering your fear while enjoying the generosity and goodness that abounds. I think it would be exhausting.

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 8th, 2011 and is filed under Arab Region.

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