De-mystifying the Middle East

by Jennifer Hayes
01 September 2009
West Bank - Sitting in my Tokyo apartment two years ago and planning a worldwide trip, I only considered travelling through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan as a means to get from Turkey to Egypt. The thought of travelling through the Middle East both terrified and intrigued me.

The majority of the news I heard from Tel Aviv, Damascus or Beirut concerned terrorism, civil war, kidnappings and suicide bombings. I couldn't help but wonder if it really was an angry sandbox full of radical Muslims, repressed women and terror like it appeared on television. I was sure that I was going to experience hatred, whether towards my country or myself as an American.

So, why go?

I wanted to see what life was really like in the Middle East and grasp the regional politics that affect us all. In my own naïve and idealistic way, I wanted to build a greater understanding between the Western and Muslim worlds.

I was genuinely—and repeatedly—surprised by what I found. No matter how open-minded I thought I'd been, I quickly realised that there were still some deep-seeded notions I had about the Middle East and it wasn't until I travelled through it that I realised they were unfounded:

1) The Middle East is a hot, barren desert.

I had imagined searing hot deserts, lonely lunar landscapes and grey cities of dingy cement sprawl. True, there were several places like this, but I was surprised when I also laid eyes on quaint red-roofed villages perched on towering mountain precipices, lush valleys, plunging canyons, climbing terraced orchards and snowy mountain ranges tumbling into the Mediterranean.

Another surprise was that the “hot” desert I imagined could also be snowy and freezing! In the Syrian desert I wore every layer I had to fight off frostbite. I even went snowboarding in Lebanon, although it was still too cold to live the Lebanese cliché: hitting the slopes and taking a dip in the Mediterranean on the same day.

“This is the Middle East?” I kept asking myself. The beauty and diversity of this region astounded me.

2) The Middle East is full of Qur'an-wielding radical Muslims.

There are many areas in the Middle East where Muslims are angry, and I honestly believe that they have the right to be so (I am neither endorsing terrorism, nor taking sides). However, I didn't personally experience anything beyond a heated discussion in my travels. Religion is inseparable from daily life here. Whether it’s a man prostrated over a prayer rug in the middle of the dairy aisle in a grocery store, the 4 a.m. call to prayer on crackling speakers or a woman walking down the street covered in fabric, there’s no doubt that religion, particularly Islam, is obvious.

But it's not in an angry or hateful way.

I visited many religious sites and mosques and was always welcomed as a non-Muslim with generously open arms. Whether it was a local shepherd with his flock or a swerving urban taxi driver, when I talked with Muslims about their faith they spoke of peace, love and family, only expressing anger towards those who abused Islam for political agendas or in order to spread terror. Most Muslims in the Middle East rely on their religion to give them a sense of stability in an unpredictable world, and those whom I encountered on my travels are some of the most honest and generous people I've ever met.

3) The Middle East is dangerous and they hate Americans.

As a seemingly helpless American girl on her own, I thought that entering this “Axis of Evil” would make me a prime target for kidnapping or hate crime. In fact, I was held hostage, but only as a result of people's hospitality. I felt safer travelling here than I had in many countries in Asia, Europe or America.

I have been in the Middle East for over a year now and I haven't heard any stories of fellow travellers being victims of anything more than a bad bargain or a conniving taxi driver. Actually, many locals and other travellers I talked to expressed their fears of going to America, which seemed to them a land of school shootings, street gangs and violent crime.

And what of being an American? Most locals I met were very straightforward in telling me how much they disliked the policies of my government, but this was rarely held against me personally. In fact, I've felt much more disdain and discrimination as an American from Europeans and people from other Western counties.

I know I have only scratched the surface of what the "real" situation is here. I don't profess to have any knowledge other than that which I have experienced first-hand as a traveller and an outsider. But I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity—and the courage—to ignore these myths and experience this mysterious land for myself.


* Jennifer Hayes is a writer and photographer currently volunteering in the West Bank. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The full text can be found at

Source:, 17 August 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"For both scholars and policy-makers, the materials on the Middle East produced by Search For Common Ground are outstanding. If one is looking for balance and depth of analysis, this is the place to go to get a better understanding of the complexities of the contemporary Middle East."

- Dr. Robert O. Freedman, Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science, Baltimore Hebrew University and Visiting Professor of Political Science Johns Hopkins University

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

Shifting the focus from al-Megrahi's homecoming
Make an example of Musharraf?
Israeli, Palestinian teens talk peace
An unusual sight in Ramallah
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this edition

Shifting the focus from al-Megrahi's homecoming by Claude Salhani
Make an example of Musharraf? by Talib Lashari
Israeli, Palestinian teens talk peace by Naazish YarKhan
An unusual sight in Ramallah by Daoud Kuttab