No part of the world within the last ten years has been scrutinized as much or stereotyped as heavily as the Muslim world. Although a minority of these countries have warranted the criticism, the media has unjustly painted the remaining majority as being similarly run, hateful of the west, and as places to be avoided.
Not only are these countries worth visiting, but what they offer is so unique that to be left off the list of any traveler would be a shame. When a friend asked me where would I recommend visiting the most, I answered Jordan — a 90% majority Muslim country.
“Isn’t it dangerous?” she asked.
My reply: “I feel safer in Amman than I often do in London.”
In the past 13 years, ‘Muslim’ and ‘terrorist’ have become synonymous in many countries in the western world. News organizations and Hollywood films do very little to distinguish between the minority and the majority, and sometimes even openly merge the two.
This mindset is extremely damaging to the world’s Muslim communities, degrading the vast majority due to the actions of a few, and perpetuating the myth that all Muslim countries are radicalized, are a danger to travelers, and are full of close-minded and stubborn people who hate Westerners.
In truth, there is as much variation in opinions in these countries as there is in our own, and plenty of Muslims are refreshingly open-minded. I even felt comfortable asking a guide in Jordan if I could scatter some of my dad’s ashes, knowing well that it was not accepted in Islam. Not only did he accept the idea, but he drove me to the spot he described as the “most beautiful and appropriate in the whole of the Wadi Rum desert.”
The “most beautiful and appropriate” spot in the Wadi Rum desert. This and all subsequent photos courtesy of the author.
One of my favorite memories is of sitting on a mountaintop with a Bedouin, gazing upon a surreal sunset and hearing him say, with absolute sincerity, that you could offer him the best car and the biggest house in the world, but he would not change his life for any of that.
“It is enough,” he said, “to meet people who come visit my country, converse with them, learn from them, but then to come up here every evening and gaze upon this sight.” Propped up next to him, appropriately surveying the same sun setting down behind a canyon of mountains was a slab of wood with ‘WELCOME’ written in black paint across it.
The welcome sign was not an anomaly: Islamic and Arabic society puts a tremendous emphasis on the tradition of hospitality. This will become clear once you have been offered your tenth different invitation for dinner or tea in two days. For travelers interested in discovering different cultures first-hand, such an experience is essential.
On my first trip to Jordan, one of my taxi drivers stopped the car within seconds of my confession of having never tried falafel, popped into the ‘best falafel shop in the area’ and brought me one for free. He then watched as I ate it, excited to be sharing my cultural initiation into the Jordanian world. This attitude is not uncommon in Jordan.
Do we have this in our own society, where foreigners from all different walks of life are welcomed with such generosity and compassion? I myself find it difficult to imagine the reverse happening back home. I certainly have never received the same level of warmth as I felt while accepting Muslim family invitations while in a strange place in the western world. And despite being a white European and quite obviously not a local, I have felt no judgement in the Muslim world — only curiosity and respect.
In a world which is still so hostile towards people from different creeds, races and nationalities, maybe we could learn a great deal from a culture which strongly emphasizes the need to welcome strangers into their homes, acknowledge but not judge them by their differences, and offer them food, friendliness, and the opportunity to learn about one another.
Even setting the people and culture aside, we often forget that the Muslim world is full of dramatic and surreal landscapes, most of which are still relatively new to the western photographer’s checklist. The Musandam Fjords in Oman, Wadi Rum in Jordan, and Mount Damavand in Iran are three world-class destinations for photographers, filmmakers, and travellers searching for remarkable nature. Don’t let the misconceptions deter you — these are places every traveler simply cannot afford to miss.
The tea will always be offered: it will never run out and you will find it impossible to decline. It is sweet and warm, just like the company.