For centuries, the Middle East has dazzled travelers and traders. In the past 100 years, millions of tourists have traversed the mystical and troubled land. Some seek wealth. Others seek enlightenment. Most answer the call of the land’s rich history, its wonders both natural and man-made.
Known to be both brutal and breathtaking, the Middle East connotes fears of terrorism and violence. That notion dates back as far as the biblical Cain and Abel. But our recent month there was peaceful and without incident.
On this fifth visit, we skirted international troubles as if by divine plan. Our visit missed protests, demonstrations and the launching of missiles. But with the occasional presence of armed escorts and semi-automatic machine guns, the tumult of this region is never far from mind.
Free of incident, we reveled in the exotic food, music and crafts. We spent time at world-class museums, monuments and religious sites, walked through souks and temples, sampled fresh-squeezed pomegranate juice, purchased prayer shawls, feasted on fish, goat and lamb and munched roasted seeds and nuts.
We spent time in Egypt, Israel, Turkey and the Greek Isles, renewing cherished friendships and forging new ones.
And the thread we found among our friends of Jewish, Christian and Muslim backgrounds was one of tolerance — a willingness to live and let live.
In the lovely port city of Alexandria, Egypt, we hired Amr Shaheen, a 30-something translator and tour guide, to escort us through the desert to Cairo. The three days spent with him were a crash course in his country’s people, architecture, politics, music, food and farming techniques. Our time together included lessons on the building of the pyramids (not by slaves but by farmers), the making of paper from papyrus (the reeds must be very wet) and etiquette for eating black dates (the skin slips easily off).
Shaheen, who is Muslim, expressed his dislike of the current administration of Mohammed Morsi and shared his firsthand account of the revolution that captured the world’s attention two years ago. Injured in the uprising and now recovered, Shaheen feels Morsi is pursuing too much power too quickly, repeating the pattern of former Arab leaders.
We walked with Shaheen around Tahrir Square as the doctoral candidate and father of two talked emotionally about his love of country and sorrow at the difficulties of lengthy transition.
In the shadow of burned buildings, with piles of garbage yards from museum treasures, he expressed his sadness at the collapse of the country’s infrastructure. Trumping that is his hope that his children will benefit. Aware of potential danger as the country moves toward democracy, Shaheen said he may take his family to America.
Multilingual and married to a fellow Egyptologist, Shaheen hopes to be a translator for the United Nations in New York.
“With the unrest, it is safer to take the children temporarily to the U.S.,” he said.
But as a son of two professionals and a student of Egypt’s ancient wonders, Shaheen is also a loyalist. Fighting tears, he said that since the revolution, 90 percent of his tourism colleagues have lost their jobs.
“I love my country and our people — we have so much to offer,” he said.
In Jerusalem, three major religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — celebrate their beliefs with icons and sanctuaries, in traditions dating back thousands of years.
Docking in the busy Mediterranean port city of Ashdod, we finalized plans to travel for two days with our Jewish friends, Yosh and Shula Wichman.
Days later, rockets fired from Gaza would hit Ashdod and air raid sirens would ring in the streets of Jerusalem.
Although we had visited before, we were struck anew by the smallness of the country. Israel’s 8 million people live on 8,019 square miles. By comparison, New Jersey is bigger at 8,729 square miles. (Although Egypt is much larger — 387,018 square miles — 90 percent of its 80 million people live along the Nile, as they have for centuries.)
Within a square mile in Jerusalem, we visited the shining Dome of the Rock, historic Temple Mount and the fabled Western Wall — significant sites for the three religions. The themes of respect and reverence are palpable. In this sacred mile, one cannot help but yearn for world peace.
As with Shaheen in Egypt, our Israeli friends have deep roots in their beloved country. Shula Romano was born during the War of Independence in 1948 and Yosh immigrated from Poland, where much of his family was killed during the Holocaust. Both served in the Israeli military, a compulsory commitment.
Yosh and Shula are typical of upper middle class Israelis: educated, well traveled, global and curious about their fellow human beings. Shula understands and writes Arabic. Both speak perfect English and Hebrew; Shula also speaks French.
From their home near Tel Aviv, they book cruises on American lines, and, like grandparents the world over, help care for their preschool grandson, Daniel, while their daughter pursues her medical studies. Their British son-in-law recently flew to the United Kingdom on business, returning for the holidays to an English feast prepared by his mother-in-law.
But the constant unrest between Israelis and Palestinians — and the unstable nature of the entire region — are a part of life here.
The Wichmans showed us into their bomb shelter — a safe room with steel doors and window covers, now a mandatory part of building codes. After we left, Syria launched missiles into the Golan Heights, yards from one of the roadside vistas we’d visited a week before.
Recently, the Wichmans watched an American television program in which an Israeli reporter went into Syria from Turkey, interviewing the rebels and deserters from Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad’s army. Syria, which shares a small border with Israel, is embroiled in a nearly two-year civil war that is impacting the entire region.
“The journalist drew a very humane picture,” Shula said. “I shed a tear. Between fights, they read poetry. It is heartbreaking to see their ideology being broken.”
The many factions of Syria complicate the matter, she notes — Kurds, Sunni, Shi’ite, Christians, and others. Throw into the mix, the “lunatic in Lebanon — Hasan Nasrallah," she said, referring to the secretary-general of Hezbollah, which the U.S. considers a terrorist organization. "Things are volatile. It could go either way. Let us hope for peace and quiet for us all.”
Time to reflect
With new and old friends to guide us and share insights and history, our trip was unique and personalized.
Jerusalem still glows in gorgeous golden light. The pyramids and Giza continue a spectacular sound and light show, with Charlton Heston-like commentary. The Jordan River still hosts daily baptisms, the Western Wall is crowded with worshippers who stuff tiny folded prayers into the ancient stonework. The artifacts from King Tut’s tomb still drop jaws at the Cairo Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. Olive trees with trunks the size of Paul Bunyan’s ox stand sentinel.
In both countries, the average people go about their lives — mostly work, and, for the lucky ones, time for a bit of play, music or a poem — amid the trouble. Except for the terrorists, most people in the Middle East want only that basic human needs are met: shelter, enough to eat, a safe place to raise their children, time to restore themselves and practice their religions safely and in freedom.
Feet from Tut’s treasures in the Egyptian Museum, a blackened shell of a high-rise reminds of the revolution. Near our viewing point on the Israel-Syrian border, a jeep was burned to a shell by a rocket launch. The driver escaped serious injury.
Life goes on.
Although in upheaval since the wave of revolutions began, tours are still running, with numbers seriously down. Dinner cruise boats still transit the Nile and throngs of hawkers still crowd tour buses at the pyramids, thrusting miniature camels and scarves our way. In Israel, Jerusalem’s Stations of the Cross still draw throngs of the faithful. The Dome of the Mosque passes out disposable bags to honor the “no shoes” policy.
In Cairo, two-wheeled donkey carts clip-clop along the freeway. Cars, buses and trucks dodge them — lest they collide with the cabbages, oranges and slaughtered lamb and goat. A busy downtown street yields vendor stands, motorcycles, the odd Mercedes and well-heeled shoppers yards from piles of garbage, with children hoping to find something to eat or sell.
In the modern city of Tel Aviv, nightclubs and restaurants offer world-class menus that could be anywhere in the world. High-rises and high-tech offices are the norm. Lovers stroll and embrace in the parks. In the Marriott in downtown Cairo, couples dance in a disco. In both Egypt and Israel, cellphones are as common as burkas and prayer shawls.
Although comparing the two countries is like contrasting apples and kumquats, there is a common feeling in both, different from my last visit of 10 years ago: the people seem more open. Along with the turmoil, there is optimism. People are welcoming to visitors and aware of the region’s myriad political coalitions and constant conflagration.
Even in the chaos of Egypt’s temporary economic collapse and Israel’s justifiable fears, there is a feeling of energy and hope.