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Travel for Peace

Welcome to the Middle East—“Is All One God”

Are you crazy?! is among the kinder responses I got when I told people I was going to the Middle East for vacation. The reaction from family and colleagues turned out to be the only difficult part of my month-long trip to Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The Arab Middle East is a region most Americans know little to nothing about but everyone’s got an opinion on—usually a bad one. As a peace activist, scholar, and journalist on Middle East issues for 20 years, I wanted to do what Rob Sangster recommended in his article of traveling to Muslim countries in January/February issue of Transitions Abroad: see the lands and peoples for myself.

The Middle East is as diverse as Europe. The political, cultural, and geographical differences between, say, Norway and Italy are no greater than those between Morocco and Saudi Arabia. I wanted to see more. So I left my husband and our two sons and set forth.

When the taxi from Queen Alia Airport arrived in Amman it was early morning. Only the street sweepers and a lone woman jogger in capri pants and a sun visor were out on the quiet, tree-lined street. For a tour of the Al-Husseini Mosque I was given a black hijab. The Koran mentions nothing about the veiling of women—only that both sexes should dress modestly. Climate and custom are why both men and women wear long flowing robes.

When Muhammad founded the religion of Islam, he embraced Jews and Christians as "Peoples of the Book," and Muslims have generally throughout 13 centuries of history allowed religious minorities to practice their traditions. Still, I was uncertain about claiming my Jewish heritage given the Palestinian-Israel hostilities.

"What religion are you? Christian?" asked Hussen Hamad, a Bedouin who restores mosaics in the fifth century Byzantine church of Petra. "My mother is Christian, my father is Jewish," I finally replied, leaving it to Hussen to sort out what that makes me.

"Ah, Muslim, Christian, Jewish—is all one God.”

Hussen has one of the more secure jobs in Petra. Others are not so lucky. The intifada has scared away American tourists; while Europeans and Japanese still come, the 10,000-a-day peak is down to a trickle. Tour guides and vendors—many of whom are children—suffer terribly. A girl with a donkey guiding tourists up Wadi Deir to the 2,000-year-old monastery used to make up to 1,000 dinars a day. Today, she may make one.

The desert of Wadi Rum, where I camped overnight with the Bedouin, is a mystical place. The silence was peaceful and enormous, the air clean even when the wind blows hottest in the afternoon, and the colors are sharp. In sync with nature, Bedouins have no need for watches or most other "necessities."

Damascus claims to be the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. Its National Museum has fragments of the world’s first alphabet, developed more than 5,000 years ago on Syrian’s Mediterranean coast by the Ugarits. Damascus’s crown jewel, however, is the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most beautiful in the Middle East. Inside, the mosque is both playful and solemn. Children scamper about, men nap on the soft carpet, clusters of women socialize, and pilgrims gather around the holy relics, including John the Baptist’s head.

Although Syria is calm, reminders of past strife are not far off. One hour away lies Quneitra, a once-thriving city of 100,000. It lies deserted, a victim of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. The wind that blows steadily through the deserted streets and weed-choked fields is the only sound among the ghostly rubble, a kind of shipwreck on land where the roofless, rubble-strewn Christian churches and mosques still stand. It was an equal opportunity war.

Ma’aloula is a sharp contrast to the political strife of Quneitra and the oppressive heat, noise, and hijab-clad women of Damascus. The hillside village is one of three where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. Churches here outnumber mosques four to one, and include two large monasteries. A few hours’ drive is another Christian outpost, the Crac des Chevaliers, a thousand-year-old crusader castle that once housed 2,000 men and 2,000 horses. A common fixture along the eastern Mediterranean, the crusader castles are reminders of the roots of Muslim unease with the West.

The wide Bekka valley has been an easy march to Beirut for the Syrians and countless invading armies. The end of Lebanon’s devastating 15-year civil war came in 1990 when Syria took de facto control of the country once considered the Switzerland of the Near East.

From the border to Zahle, Lebanon’s third largest city, Hafez busts and pictures give way to those of the Ayatollah Khomeini, the spiritual and political leader of Lebanon’s burgeoning Shia population. Zahle is a tenuous Christian enclave—an island of Western dress, mores, and culture in the Bekka sea of conservative Islam. Women jog the streets in the morning, then change into skin-tight pants and tank tops for the rest of the day.

Even though tourists are rediscovering Lebanon and have not been scared off by the intifadah as in Jordan, Lebanon’s tourism industry has not rebounded. The luxury hotel built recently near the city center was converted to a hospital.

Travel to the Middle East

Visas: All four countries have embassies in Washington, D.C. and passports may be mailed in to obtain visas.

Getting There: The cheapest way to fly to the Middle East from the U.S. is to buy an inexpensive roundtrip ticket to London, then in London buy a ticket to the Middle East. The last leg of the flight should cost around $300 roundtrip. Check the web sites of Middle East carriers. Some, such as Royal Jordanian Air, run electronic auctions and tickets can be had for around $600 roundtrip New York-Amman. Either of these strategies can save $500-$1,000.

Guidebooks: Let's Go Middle East: Egypt to Turkey Overland and Lonely Planet Middle East are the best for Middle East travel. Locals and other international travelers are the best sources of information once you arrive.

Overall, the Middle East is very inexpensive, especially now that tourists are staying away. The lack of tourists makes this a great time to go—accommodations and entrance to major sites are cheaper (in Jordan, all museums are half price), and there is no problem finding lodging.

Syria is the most inexpensive of the four countries. Budget $5 a day. Jordan and Turkey cost about $20 a day. Food and, particularly, lodging in Lebanon approaches European prices, about $50 a day.

Language: English is the official second language of Jordan and is widely spoken in Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. French, the official second language of Syria and Lebanon, will come in handy.

Peace Organizations: can help you get off the tourist track in the Middle East. Servas is a 63-year-old international, nongovernmental organization based on understanding, tolerance, and world peace. Member hosts and travelers all over the world can spend two nights in each other’s homes for free (www.servas.org).

MidEast Citizen Diplomacy is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that organizes tours to Palestine/Israel and Syria/Lebanon. It promotes Jewish-Palestinian reconciliation through people-to-people peace-building initiatives (www.mideastdiplomacy.org).

CHAR SIMONS is a freelance journalist and an adjunct faculty member at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA.