My first experience abroad (that I remember) began in Istanbul, Turkey. As I walked out of the airport, I felt like I was stepping into the Arabian Nights. Everything, from the architecture to the language to the maniacal taxi drivers, was different from what I had ever experienced, except in books. I had known about other cultures and other countries before. But that was the moment I first truly comprehended the richness of variety that exists on planet Earth.
I spent the next six months living and traveling in the Middle East, studying Arabic, and imbibing the exotic, fascinating, yet at times strangely familiar oriental air. Our Muslim neighbors invited us into their homes and lives. Despite cool relations between my country and theirs (the picture etched in my mind of the U.S. embassy in Damascus resembles a barbed-wire fortress), the people I met were exceptionally friendly, and regarded me simply as a fellow human being.
I learned that our religions, though different, had many things in common. My Muslim friends also believed in prayer, fasting, and helping the poor. They taught me the ninety-nine Names of God, a beautiful series of expressions of divine attributes that deepened my own understanding of God. I was invited to join them in activities, delicious meals, and wedding dancing. I saw the breathtaking monuments of their faith, from the majestic Blue Mosque in Istanbul to the dazzling white mirror-encrusted Shiite Mosque in Damascus.
The time I spent learning about and living in the Muslim Middle East was overwhelmingly positive. For many of my acquaintances, I was the first American they had ever met, so I tried to be a good representative of my country and people. When I returned to the United States in June of 2001, I noticed that not everyone at home had as positive a view of Muslims and the Middle East as I did. Nor did the general attitude improve after the events of the ensuing September. I wish that everyone could have the experience I had of living in the Middle East and really coming to understand and love the people there. As one can learn from traveling anywhere in the world, we are really not as different as it sometimes might seem from far away.
With all this said, I was honored last month to be asked to write for a new English language e-magazine published in Turkey. Managing editor Fatih Kiraz is passionate about building bridges by promoting cultural understanding. The magazine explores social and cultural topics from the perspective of writers living in countries from Turkey to the UK to Romania (and yes, Italy). This month’s issue is straight off the press. You can read it here. My article begins on page 20. Kudos to Fatih and his team for making the world a little smaller, one reader at a time.