“What the HELL are you doing here!?” My conscious was screaming at me as I started to reflect on the fact that I was sitting in a battered old mini-van, hurling through the suburbs of Syria’s northern city of Aleppo.
Market in Aleppo at night
Despite the actual fact that the driver of the van was just doing what I was paying him to do - drive me to Aleppo’s main bus terminal, the spare moment my mind had to itself resulted in it erupting into ridiculous scenarios along the lines of “Am I about to get kidnapped?” and “What if he’s taking me somewhere else to rob me?”
Looking back, I shudder at those memories of my ignorance, but I’m thankful for the massive life lesson that the Middle East taught me about my perspectives and the stereotypes of other cultures that were somewhat unknowingly built in my life.
To finish the story, the driver got me to exactly where I needed to be, in one piece and on time. I don’t doubt that this initial stress during the short trip helped me to get used to the organised chaos that seems to be customary of Middle Eastern transport hubs i.e. Bus drivers running off unannounced with your passport, only to return with the tickets you couldn’t find the sales booth for…
A butcher shop in Aleppo
With everything I saw and experienced in this region, there is one word that is the essential key - Justice. The whole region craves it, and it is the very reason I am optimistic of its future. We have seen the proof of this starting to overflow in a huge way, as the “Arab Spring” has swept through the Middle East in recent times.
Crac Crusader castle in Syria
My stand out experience from travelling extensively through Lebanon, was a chance meeting with veteran war journalist, Robert Fisk. There’s one thing he said to me in regards to the region’s relationship with the West that I agree with whole-heartedly. “The Middle East doesn’t need us (the west) to come here as soldiers. It needs us to come here as doctors, as teachers and most importantly as tourists.”
The traveller is more prepared to learn. They visit to experience, not impose. And it doesn’t take a traveller long to find out that the people of the Middle East love having guests. This is where real peace is made.
Children in Aleppo
“Peace in the Middle East” has become an over used phrase, an unsuccessful part of our modern history stemming, I believe, from a difference in our definitions. In the west, peace is simply viewed as an absence of conflict. Peace, in the Middle East (that was unintentional I swear!) however, is viewed as the different cultures of ones society being bound together to produce harmony collectively, much in the same manner that individual threads are interwoven together to create colourful and detailed tapestry.
The region is bursting with the things travellers desire: historic sights from almost every major civilisation that has conquered the Earth over the last 6000 years. It has Mediterranean beaches to rival any Europe offer. Cities with pumping night life scenes. Food… oh man, THE food!
The hardest thing I found with travelling in the Middle East was myself. Once I got over that, it ended up changing my life.