The question comes up: "what's so great about the Middle East?"
We've heard that Islamic Arabs are frightening fundamentalists, terrorists perhaps, who deny equal rights to women.
Having just returned from Jordan and Palestine, and having traveled previously in Egypt and Morocco, I can give you some more positive impressions.
Eyes are a window into the soul. I seldom experience the open channel here in America that I find in the Middle East. Or if the window opens for a moment, we shy away and detach our gaze.
Looking into my Bedouin musician friend Hussein's eyes while he plays a song for me is like drinking sweet nectar seasoned by centuries of gentle wisdom.
Broad-band wide-open soul-level eye contact can continue unbroken for many minutes.
Watching mothers or fathers with their children, no matter what their ages, I see a loving connection so intense that we "westerners" could feel embarrassed to allow it. The sweet wet glances of women I pass on the street, even if viewed only through a slit in their veil, tell me that there is a very vibrant being inside.
When I recently left Amman, Jordan, and boarded an airplane staffed by European flight attendants, I immediately felt starved for the eye contact connection which is standard in the Middle East. It made me realize that we "westerners" guard our emotional availability by comparison. Our souls seem shrouded and rather gray because of this guarding.
Women in the Middle East are worshipped for their beauty and wisdom by their husbands and sons and brothers. Most would not trade places with "western" women who have entered the "man's world." To do so would do violence to their softness and femininity. And their husbands would not wish such hardship upon them. Not all Arab women are being forced to dress as they do. The now almost ubiquitous "hijab", or head-scarf, can be a way of showing their pride in their traditional, and now threatened, way of life. Covering themselves allows them to feel softer and more precious, which they are, to their families and close friends.
When I have been befriended and invited into Arab households, I discover that the women soon shed their "street clothes" and they can be naturally very intimate and sensual. They may come and cuddle up next to me even though they really hardly know me. Of course it does help that I can sing a song with them if we reach the limits of my Arabic or their English.
Also I notice that woman-to-woman relationships are cultivated in deep soul-sister ways... not gradually, but immediately... It's as if in America we display a lot of externally flirtatious behavior, but when the initial strutting is finished we put up walls and slam ourselves shut. It feels like the Middle Eastern way is to look more deeply into souls through the eyes and then continue to honor that presence. Maintaining psychic contact with someone with sustained eye contact feels safe. I don't know why this is.
Young men in their 20's walk down the streets holding hands. They find it natural and easy to be close to one another. The women cluster together in public also, frequently out doing some shopping with their children in groups of 7 or 8. It is not so common for men and women to display sensual affection with each other in public. It's almost as if there are two worlds: the marketplace world where men are juicy with other men and women are juicy with other women, and the household world where men and women are juicy with each other. I do not get the impression that Arabic women are ruled by their men. When a woman has her say, she gets her way. Most men seem to regard women with awe as though they were sacred creatures.
The women on the bus, public transportation, may pass their babies to each other whether they know each other or not. They will pass them with equal enthusiasm to "western" women who happen to be on the bus in an effort to extend friendship and include all women in this sisterhood. The babies seem to enjoy this adventure. They don't seem to experience sudden panic related to "being away from mommy."
Islam has something to do with this. In many ways it impresses me as a very elegant religion. Living in community in harmonious generous ways is a big part of Islam, even as it is lived in this day and age. People are not coveting their private times and spaces. There is much more of a sense that “we are all in this together...” Not so much striving for individual superiority.
Most people pause what they are doing five times a day during the very beautiful call to prayer which is audible, frequently, but not always, on a crunchy loudspeaker from the minarets of the mosques... Sometimes the “muezzin”, or “prayer reader”, is live, not recorded, and, if the sound system is good, his voice echoes through the city streets in exquisite song and melody. They are careful to call this “reading” the Koran, rather than “singing” the Koran because their idea of “singing” can have unholy qualities. But it sure sounds like singing to me! And it goes through your senses several times each day. Sometimes I have heard waiters in restaurants singing along with the call to prayer. Perhaps this helps explain the readiness with which all Middle Eastern people sing.
People tend to remember and live according to the rules of Islam, which are basically the same as the rules of all great religions: “do unto others as you would have others do unto you...”
Honesty prevails. This does not mean that people won’t sometimes try to talk you into paying high prices. But they will not physically rob you. That is something which happens much more in the western countries.
Between men, once the bargaining over prices is completed, a jolly friendship is immediately available. I am seldom disappointed when I enter into this. And then the bargaining becomes easier too. Taxi drivers and other men I meet in public places routinely invite me to the their homes to meet their families and, at least, drink tea if not have a meal. Many times this invitation is reiterated and I realize that it is sincere. Sometimes I take them up on it and enjoy their ancient hospitality. Occasionally, I will be asked for a financial contribution, but usually not. They take pride in being able to offer their hospitality for free.
Women are also safer, in my opinion, walking the streets of Middle Eastern cities than walking the streets of our American cities where alcohol is such a common influence. Perhaps it is not so much the alcohol which is to blame for the increased violence in our society as is the relentless tendency toward loneliness and isolation. That is my opinion. Desperation results and crimes of personal violence are committed.
Ask Kristina, if you have the opportunity, for more info on this.
In the Middle East the fabric of society is much tighter and people do not fall through the cracks so easily. We view this as restrictions on “freedom”... Girls in America do not expect their parents to arrange marriages for them... But it may be much easier in the Middle East for each person to feel that he or she has a “place...”
I, of course, as a “westerner,” an American, would ultimately have a hard time “fitting” in such a family-oriented society. And I am accustomed to exercising all of my freedoms. It is not easy for a person to immigrate in either direction. But it is far more interesting to me to explore and admire beautiful aspects of another people’s ways than to sit in distant judgment, never entering the open doors of hospitality which are so frequently offered in the Middle East.
Middle Easterners are accustomed, as all “third world” people are, to living more intimately with each other. But I am impressed that there is a wealth of ancient tradition in the Middle East which supports intimacy in especially exquisite ways.