The Other, Peaceful Middle East
We hear so much about violence in the Middle East that we’ve almost come to believe that “violence” and “Middle East” are synonymous. But they are not. Our news media show us the conflict and fighting in the region of which, tragically, there is a great deal to report. But the Middle East is vast and there are many large sections that we seldom see or hear of where warfare and violence are not a part of daily life, where things generally work, and where people generally get along.
Beautiful things to buy jn the souks of Dubai (left) and Muscat, Oman, (right).
It was my privilege to spend some time in that Middle East during Susan’s and my honeymoon in January. We began our trip in Dubai in the Gulf, the eastern part of the Middle East where I had not been before. Dubai is an amazing place; National Geographic calls it a “dream world” that is “like no other.” (Jan. ’07) 50 years ago Dubai was an impoverished dusty little city whose traditional pearl fishing-based economy was failing. Thanks to bold and visionary leadership, Dubai has grown into a remarkable city that serves as a hub for travelers between Africa, Asia and Europe. Planes arrive every 35 seconds bringing tourists with money to spend at the shopping malls that now make up Dubai. In fact, I had the impression that Dubai had become the world’s largest shopping mall with accompanying theme parks to keep the kids happy. The large majority of the people living in Dubai who serve the millions of tourists are expatriate workers. English, not Arabic, is the primary language spoken. Dubai has the world’s tallest building and is planning to build an even taller one.
I found much to like in Dubai; its people are actively involved in “the pursuit of happiness.” We actually saw a Happiness Street and, indeed, learned that there is a Minister of Happiness. She had initiated some good proposals, we heard. We met with Syrian refugee friends of mine who had found refuge in Dubai and who were managing to make a living there. And as I have found again and again in the Middle East, Christians and Muslims live peacefully together. Next door to a large mosque, we attended mass at a large Catholic church that was overflowing with worshipers.
Happiness Street in Dubai, above, and skyline, left
Church and mosque co-exist in Muscat, Oman, below.
But after several days of the glitziness of Dubai, we were ready for a more traditional city. After a 7-hour bus ride, part of it over beautiful, isolated, rocky desert terrain, we arrived at Muscat in the neighboring Sultanate of Oman. That ancient term of governance seemed to capture something of the essence of Oman. I’m tempted to use the phrase “the land that time forgot,” but that wouldn’t quite be true. The modern world had definitely arrived in Muscat bringing wifi and ATM’s, but the timeless beauty of the historic Arab world was very much there as well. In contrast to the “mallification” of Dubai, we delighted in the traditional Arab culture of Muscat. Meticulously tended public gardens surrounded beautiful traditional architecture amid rugged desert mountains in a remote beautiful kingdom by the sea.
We concluded our honeymoon in Amman, Jordan — a lovely and gracious city I’ve visited a dozen times in my last 20 years of Middle East peacemaking work. Just as American media coverage focuses on the violence of the region, it has also often focused on the parts of the Middle East that are culturally backwards, such as the harsh practices of the ultraconservative fundamentalist Taliban in Afghanistan and the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. But there are vast sections of the Middle East, particularly the great urban areas, where people share many of the fundamental values and lifestyles we cherish in the West.
Amman is one of those places. Here are some local news items we found by reading the Jordan Times (Jan. 9 and 12-13, ‘18) that probably didn’t make the mainstream U.S. press:
- A project called “Empowering Women for Leadership” has been launched by a local Arab initiative “aimed at encouraging women across the Kingdom [of Jordan] to . . . get more involved in civil decision making.”
- A project called “TechWomen” offers Jordanian women leaders in technology and related fields an opportunity to compete to be part of a five-week mentorship in San Francisco, thanks to the help of the U.S. State Department. The U. S. does so many stupid things in the Middle East that it’s refreshing to see the State Department do something good for a change.
-Thanks to its excellent higher education, Jordan is attracting international students to its universities and expects to have 70,000 foreign students by 2020.
- King Abdullah of Jordan is energetically working to develop an Arab response to President Trump’s profoundly foolish decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. The King points out “Jordan’s historic role . . . as the custodian of the Islamic and Christian [italics added] shrines in East Jerusalem.”
-Christians are an honored part of Jordanian society. The Jordan Times lists 19 churches in Amman, some of which I have attended over the years.
Peace is possible! We can live together! Come visit Dubai, Muscat and Amman and see for yourself!
February 15, 2018