Wartime Tourists, Arab Hospitality

As we hurtle down a road with precious few guard rails but plenty of steep dropoffs and not a few horseshoe turns, I'm busy repressing thoughts of brake inspections and obituaries. A verse from the Koran swings wildly from the bus driver's rearview mirror. My husband grins, then whispers: “If your mother could see you now.”

Indeed. It is just a month since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and we are en route to Deir Alla, a small town northwest of Amman, Jordan, where, it is said, there are interesting ruins of a fifth-century Byzantine church.

If she could see me, I'm thinking, my mother would not be reassured. The only woman on this pitching minibus, I sit surrounded by men whose Middle-Eastern features now fit many Americans’ profiles of what a terrorist should look like. Across the aisle, a careworn farmer in a red and white checked keffiyeh fingers prayer beads. Most other passengers are immersed in the Jordan Times. Having skimmed the English-language edition over breakfast, I know they're reading articles with headlines like “U.S. Launches Fiercest Daylight Strikes” and “Saudis Protest at Treatment of Their Citizens in U.S.”

Undoubtedly, my fellow passengers disagree with U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and are, at best, just warily tolerant of the military operations in Afghanistan. This is understandable. Sixty percent of Jordanians are Palestinians whose families were driven out of their homes by Israeli forces in 1948 and 1967. Thousands still live in refugee camps.

Given the current situation, my husband and I had debated whether or not to cancel our first-time expedition to archaeological sites in Jordan and Syria. We decided it was not imprudent to go ahead. Still, I had braced myself for unpleasant experiences of anti-American sentiment.

They never came. Except for two little boys aiming sticks and yelling “pow pow” at shoppers outside the souk in Aleppo, we saw no terrorists during our three weeks of travel. From Arabs, Christians and Muslims alike, we encountered not hostility but hospitality.

“Where are you from?” people would ask. Typically, our answer elicited surprise (few Americans are traveling in the Middle East right now: We saw about six). Then, unfailingly, came a “welcome, welcome.”

And, almost always, there was something else. Twentysomething Muhammad, a clerk in the men's clothing department at an Amman Safeway store, groped for words to express it: “Excuse me, I don't speak English well. But I am so sorry for what happened in your country.” A cab driver named Daoud told us the terrorist attacks were a “terrible, terrible thing” carried out by people who were “not human.” A Syrian restaurant owner said the same, assuring us that, “Everyone here feels like this.”

Arab Hospitality

Warm words were followed up with action. Muhammad sprinted down an escalator and across half the store to return a package we had forgotten. Jordanian relatives of a Washington, D.C., resident we know only slightly put themselves at our disposal in a way that would have gratified our mothers. A Syrian guide welcomed us into his family home in old Damascus and served us mint tea and his mother's orange preserves.

For me, “Arab hospitality” conjures up vivid pictures from our Deir Alla adventure. The wild bus ride ended in the town's central marketplace, with no “Byzantine Ruins This Way” signs in view. Our foreign and clueless looks quickly drew a loud, friendly, uncomprehending crowd of men and boys. Finally, a taxi driver took matters in hand, motioning us into his car and collaring the English-speaking high school chemistry teacher, who was passing by.

These two men — Abo and Sharhabeel — spent the rest of the day with us. They led us to the regional director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, who graciously interrupted his busy schedule to answer our questions over cups of sweet Turkish coffee. The Byzantine ruins don't exist, we discovered. Instead, we were escorted to a nearby site related to the Old Testament figure, Balaam (Numbers 22-24), and to a small, off-the-beaten-track museum. By late afternoon, the four of us had picked our way up a steep hill etched with goat and sheep trails and were standing atop a large, unexcavated tell overlooking the Zarka (Jabbok) River. In some layer of the mound under our feet were the remains of ancient Mahanaim, where King David received news of his son Absalom's death (2 Samuel 17:24; 18:24). Somewhere in the valley below, Jacob “wrestled with the angel” (Genesis 32:23-32).

All in all, it was an experience to remember — and one we would have missed, had two Muslims not given us assistance well beyond the call of their duty. Abo, who bought everyone a snack for the ride home, asked for no more than the modest fare we had agreed on.

Sharhabeel firmly refused any reimbursement for his time and services. “You have friends here now,” they said as we left. “Come to visit again.”

Friends In Need

Later, we had occasion to tell Dr. Taleb Rifai, Jordan's minister of tourism, about our experiences of Middle Eastern hospitality. He wasn't a bit surprised. “We have many archaeological and natural riches, but our people are our greatest asset,” he said.

Looking at the Arab passengers on our flight back to the U.S. — many of them women in traditional long coats and head scarves — I could only hope that they would come away with similar observations about Americans. But with the whole country on edge, I wonder.

Arabs in the Middle East are wondering, too. An Amman man told us that his brother, who runs a grocery in Boston grocer, is living in fear. “He has gotten death threats; his children are being harassed.”

Rania, an earnest young Christian from Damascus, wanted to know whether reports of anti-Arab incidents in the U.S. were true. “I thought immigrants could be safe in your country,” she said.

We assured Rania that most Americans abhor this violence and discrimination and do support civil rights for all. I still believe this, though some recent indicators are troubling — for example, a Time/CNN poll in which 65% of respondents said the federal government should be allowed to hold all U.S. citizens of Arab descent in camps, “until it can be determined whether they have links to terrorist organizations.”

In this climate of high anxiety, we have a choice. We can hunker down, attempting to cut off and shut out whatever seems foreign and threatening. Or we can determine not to let fear direct our attitudes. As a U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops official, John Borelli, urged on Sept. 19, we can seek concrete ways of reaching out to Muslim neighbors — "to reassure them, to visit them, to express friendship,” and even, “if they're afraid to go to the store, to run errands for them.”

Personally, I would like to learn from the kind of hospitality I received in the Middle East: to look a stranger in the eye and see a person — not an embodiment of hostile forces, but an individual with hopes and needs like my own.

After all, what's the greater risk? Learning to make my words and deeds say, “welcome, welcome"? Or hearing myself reproached that “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (Matthew 25:43)?

Louise Perrotta writes from St. Paul, Minnesota.

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