June 2010: Arriving at the airport in Irbil (also spelled Arbil or Erbil), the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, I was struck by the diversity of the people buzzing around the small, crowded terminal. I had been equally surprised by the large number of Chinese workers on my flight from Dubai, most wearing a company shirt that identified their purpose for the trip.
I was aware that the regional government of Kurdistan was ramping up production of their oil reserves, but flying in foreign workers in such large numbers was surely a sign of the kind of new-found prosperity I’d become accustomed to in the Arabian Gulf countries. From the online research I’d done, I had expected this experience to be very different from my previous 3 years spent in the Gulf, both in cultural and standard of living. For a moment, I felt my heart move toward disappointment, but that emotion was quickly replaced by my need to focus as I entered a new culture, one that would turn out to be more proudly rooted in tradition than any I’d experienced before.
Haitham, one of my brightest communications class students, stood in front of my desk nervously fidgeting with his notebook until I finally nudged him into telling me why he’d made an appointment to speak with me in the privacy my office. “I just wanted you to know I really admire your culture,” he said, emphasizing the word ‘your’ in an effort to express his dismay with his own.
“Really,” I retorted, with an amused expression on my face that I couldn’t seem to control. “I can think of a few aspects of American culture I don’t admire,” I added. In his most earnest voice, Haitham continued by explaining that he was actually referring to ‘standards’ which he felt were completely absent in Omani culture.
Sometimes, fate gives a traveler time to slowly absorb the intricacies of a new culture, but at other times situations force us to jump in head first, sink or swim.
On a weekend about six weeks into my second stint in the Sultanate, a Canadian teacher and close friend I’d worked with in Thailand came to visit me. Wanting to be a good host and give him a tour of some of the main tourist sites in northern Oman, we set out on a weekend trip to visit Nizwa and Balha, two towns of historic and religious significance in the interior.
I had readily found a small, inexpensive car to rent soon after arriving back in Oman, but I was so concerned about my friend’s comfort that I exchanged it for a Toyota Yaris which provided more comfortable seats as well as a more powerful AC system which would surely be needed in the interior. While driving the white Yaris out of its parking space and onto the highway, I felt a chill run up my spine, and just for a moment I considered returning it. I tried to pass off this negative feeling of impending doom as dehydration and drove on telling myself that I was just being silly. This decision would later come back to haunt me.
Even as a rabid student of geography, I must admit I had very little knowledge about the cycle of daily life in the Middle East prior to beginning my first teaching job there. I thought of the region as the ultimate exotic location–the land of Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor and genies who magically appeared from shiny lamps. So, before I can begin to share my overall impressions about Arabian Gulf culture through the eyes of my Omani friends and students, let me explain a bit about my own first impressions.
While I was studying at the University of Edinburgh in 2003, I met and became friends with student teachers from Oman and Syria who forever changed my view of people from this region. I found the Syrians to be very Western in both appearance and outlook as they mixed easily with the Europeans in the program. My Syrian friends were from wealthier families in Damascus and were quick to proclaim they were not religious. In contrast, my Omani friend, Abdul, openly bristled in social situations outside class and appeared to be generally ill at ease.
Following US President Donald Trump’s first visit to the Middle East, it’s a good time to take stock and refresh our collective memories about past foreign policy decisions (those of the USA as well as others) and the effects they’ve had on the ground across this vast region. Learning from past mistakes certainly seems prudent since current events in the Middle East occupy a prominent place in the discussions that determine the foreign and domestic policies of Western governments these days.
In this series of articles, I want to address three areas: 1) the collective Western image of the Middle East and its people, 2) observations I’ve formed based on academic research and discussions with both locals and expats who call this region home, and 3) the effects of past and current Western influence and interference in the governments, and therefore the lives of the people, all across this region.
I had just snapped some pics when I heard what sounded like GUNFIRE ring out. As I turned, I saw the security guards from all the surrounding restaurants run in the direction of the sounds. At the same time, all the Colombians turned quickly and ran in my direction and away from the sounds. I immediately ‘got’ that the locals recognized the difference between the sound of exploding firecrackers and gunshots so I turned and ran as well. I don’t know any details but as I hurried out of the area, police units were arriving from every direction–what an incredibly quick response time! This took place this afternoon as I was walking in the Lleras Park area of Medellin, the city’s most well-known entertainment district. It’s located in a very upscale neighborhood near the apartment I’m renting for a month.
Some of you will say ‘stay inside and be safe,’ just as I’ve been repeatedly warned by American relatives to ‘please return to the USA.’ This was especially true during the eight years I lived in the Middle East. I suppose it’s normal to feel more comfortable, and therefore safer, when we’re close to the place we call home, regardless of the reality shown by statistics.
In my zeal to discover myself as I move from place to place around the globe, I often find myself cringing at my own behavior. Yes folks, this roving lover of all things cultural has been known to behave badly at times when faced with challenging situations in distant lands.
Oh, how I wish I was one of those travelers who could eat anything without upsetting my stomach and fall asleep on a rock. Unfortunately, I’m extremely sensitive to many of the external forces that I encounter as I drag my bags from one country to another. I also started my life of international travel late—in my early 40s—at a time when many people want a bit more predictability and comfort in their lives. As I age and health problems begin to creep in, the challenges of constantly being on the road grow for me as well as those dear souls unlucky enough to meet me in one of my worst moments.