Opinion: My trip to the Middle East

Hannah MabryManaging Editor

When people ask me what my cultural exchange trip was like to the Middle East, I have started saying, “Turn everything that we do upside down and you’ll have Arab culture.” It’s true! However, although it was different, there was nothing bad about my trip. I went into it not knowing what to expect but ended up having an incredible time.

Honestly, I had a lot people who didn’t like the idea of me going there. The Middle East is a place that is very foreign to most who live in the United States. For many, all they know about this region of the world is what they see in movies and on the news, which is that it’s scary, dangerous and full of terrorists. However, we can’t judge all Arabs by what a group of them has done. Not all Arabs are terrorists. In fact, all of the Arabs that I have met are kind and generous. Where I went in the Middle East, I never felt threatened or afraid for my life. I experienced friendliness and hospitality.

An Arab man stands on the roof of a medieval fort overlooking a date farm.
Photo by Hannah Mabry.  

During my first week, I went to the mall with some of my American friends. I was in a bigger city in the Middle East, so it was very modern (with lots of AC!). While at the mall, I noticed a little girl looking at me and smiling. Because I have white skin and crazy curly hair, I stood out like a sore thumb in this culture, meaning lots of smiles and waves from kiddos. I waved back at the little girl and said hello to her. She came up to me, reached up and grabbed my face and kissed both of my cheeks. As you can imagine, I was very surprised and didn’t know what to do. The little girl’s sister, a woman who looked close to my age, laughed and said, “Kissing on the cheeks is how we say hello. She likes your hair.” I laughed and starting conversing with the woman and quickly found out that she lived in a city a few hours away. When she found out I was from the U.S. on a culture exchange trip, she invited me over to her family’s house a few hours away. I went a few days later with my roommate and spent all day with her and her family. They fed us multiple meals and gave us many gifts.

Gifts are an essential part of the rich Arab culture and hospitality. When you go to someone’s house, you take them a gift. If someone asks you to hang out, they pay for everything. Guests don’t question or try reject hospitality or gifts because that is rude. It’s important to be a good host, but it’s also important to be a good guest and accept the hospitality your host offers. That means trying the food they put in front of you, no matter what it looks like. It turns out that almost everything I ate there was delicious, including camel.

The ‘suq’ (market) is a place with lots of activity. Vendors sell trinkets like these camels, as well as lamps, jewelry, and other handmade items.
Photo by Hannah Mabry.

We also experienced incredible generosity from another family that lived in the same city as us. We met them by happenstance as well, as they were friends of one of our friends. Because spent a so much time with them, we referred to them as our Arab family. We went to their house every week, sometimes multiple times a week, and they took us on few trips out of the city. One time, they took us dune bashing. Dune bashing is huge in the desert cities, comparable to NASCAR here. Drivers start at the bottom of the sand dune and drive all the way up to the top, then back down as fast as they can without rolling their car, which is normally a Jeep. Our Arab Fam also took us to an extended family member’s wedding. At weddings, men and women are separated into different locations to celebrate, so all the women are comfortable enough to take off their head scarves, let their hair down (literally) and dance. Strangely enough, we didn’t even meet the bride or groom, but that’s pretty normal. Weddings are so big, and everyone is invited, even your extended family’s random American friends.

As most people know, the majority of the Middle East are Muslims. Muslims follow the religion Islam, which was started by the prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. Muslim women wear a head covering (hijab in Arabic) in order to keep men from seeing their hair. At times, in order to respect our friends and their families, my American friends and I would also wear headscarves to cover our hair, especially if we knew we would see a male member of their family that day or were going on a mosque tour. A mosque is a place where Muslims pray. Depending on who you talk to, women wear a hijab for different reasons. I had some tell me that they do it for God (Allah in Arabic) or to not tempt the men around them. I would ask many of my friends about Islam, and they enjoyed talking about it. An important thing I learned this summer is the importance of asking questions. My friends loved that I wanted to learn and understand their culture and religion, and that’s how we bonded as friends. They wanted to hear about my beliefs as a Christian, the values I hold and what the United States is like. When we exchanged thoughts and ideas, I grew in my understanding of who that individual was, and it helped me understand why they think the way that they do.

A mosque is a place where Muslims gather together and pray, but many mosques are open to visitors to come and learn.
Photo by Hannah Mabry.

A mental slogan that I developed this summer was, “It’s not bad, it’s just different.” I said this to myself when we sat on the floor to eat, when driving in their many, many traffic circles or waiting in what seemed to me to be a disorganized line at McDonalds.

While the Middle East was different, I loved my experience and made incredible friends who I hope to see again. I learned more about myself and a rich, new culture that taught me how to host and be hosted. I strongly encourage people to travel because it opened my eyes to new ideas and showed me my misconceptions about other cultures. If you’ve never traveled or are considering it, just go! See how the world works in other places and get out of your comfort zone.  

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