Reflecting on Syria

4 and a half years ago I quit college tennis to pursue my dream of living in the Middle East. I joined a study abroad program, residing in Egypt for 3 months and traveling to Turkey, Syria, Jordan and Israel. I got to talk with journalists, politicians, religious leaders, cultural icons and average citizens in a quest to gain a deeper understanding of the cultural, historic, religious and political landscape of each country. I did things I never could have imagined. I lived in a lower-class Egyptian family’s home (no English) for a week. I talked to Israeli and Palestinian college students on consecutive days who had irreconcilably conflicting world views. I experienced Palm Sunday on The Street Called Straight in Damascus and Easter in Jerusalem, getting recruited to carry a cross with Serbian Orthodox Christians down the Via Dolorosa. That semester will be forever ingrained in my memory – without a doubt, I learned and expanded my worldview more during that semester than the other seven combined.

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

Carrying my Cross in Jerusalem

It was not without its struggles. The Middle East is the most complicated place on earth and coming back to America, people didn’t understand my experiences. It’s easy to laugh about all Muslims being terrorists when you don’t know any.  Much of what I had been told about Israel and Palestine was wrong, simplistic or biased. I learned that people are the same everywhere. I didn’t want to be spoon fed information or be told what to believe anymore because there are at least two sides to every story.

The most complicated of all places

The most complicated of all places

And perhaps the hardest part was having my understanding of God shaken. In an essay titled, “Who gets into heaven and why?” I had to answer precisely that question. Having made life-long Muslim friends and coming to the realization that if I had been born in Egypt, I would have wholeheartedly believed in Islam made writing this essay instrumentally more difficult.

I have been to Syria, and my reaction to what’s happened over the last three years is that it’s incredibly sad for the people. When you’ve seen a place, you can no longer think of what happens there as merely news or statistics. Syrians were some of my favorite people in the Middle East. They were so talkative and friendly – even when we only spoke limited Egyptian Arabic. One street musician invited my friends and I to his Aladin-esque home where we sipped tea on the floor while listening to his live performance. And I learned how incredibly diverse people are. On Palm Sunday, throngs of Syrian Orthodox Christians paraded in the streets of Damascus, carrying dyed chicks instead of Easter eggs. While there, we also visited one of two towns in the world that still speaks Aramaic – the language that Jesus spoke. Other parts of the country are made up of Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Christians, Druze, and various other minority sects and religious groups. American news channels tell a single story about Syria and the Middle East but it’s more complicated than that: There are so many good things amongst the bad, just like anywhere else.

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I don’t even know what to say…

There is a TED Talk by a Nigerian author on the dangers of telling a single story, check it out if you get the chance.

I think it’s interesting that Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Europe and The United States have all rallied around defeating ISIS. That’s a good thing. Unfortunately, my guess is the world hasn’t unequivocally agreed on something this strongly since World War II (And not everyone agreed about that) and right after defeating ISIS we will go right back to bickering.

As a hypothetical question I wonder though, given the choice, if ordinary Syrians would choose to overthrow Assad’s regime again? Assad was a brutal dictator and there’s no doubt freedoms were restricted under his rule, especially for Sunni Muslims. There were soviet-style torture chambers and secret police. We didn’t have access to Facebook or YouTube and we had to be extremely careful about what we wrote or e-mailed because big brother was always watching. And yet I think most people now would probably give up those freedoms in exchange for the security they had under Assad. I don’t know if that’s depressing or just human nature. One could potentially argue the same thing in Iraq and to a lesser extend, places like China and Singapore. Everyone gives up freedom in exchange for security – our choices are just not as drastic as theirs.

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

A crooked building on the Street Called Straight

I wish I could offer hope or an easy solution to the conflict in Syria. I can’t. But I can stay informed, acknowledging that we live in a broken world and offering prayers for people in suffering. Hopefully we learn something from the lessons it has to offer and use those to make this world a better place.

Spices make the world a better place, why can't we?

Spices make the world a better place, why can’t we?

 

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What is Your Travel Philosophy?

Last week I began my first of several Japanese tour guiding trips this summer. I love working outside, speaking Japanese, seeing beautiful scenery and hanging out with people. The first day I took 15 Japanese guests to Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods and the outlet mall in Castle Rock. They loved Pikes Peak, but to my chagrin, we only did a drive by of Garden of the Gods… to allow more time for the outlet mall. It’s not what I would choose, but I suppose the customer is always right and there really is nowhere like America for cheap brand name omiyage (gifts).

Riding up the Cog Railway

Riding up the Cog Railway

The second day, one of the guests asked me to translate, as an American family who had stayed in his house in Japan wanted to show him around Denver. Since his English and their Japanese were basic at best, he hired me! It was a great experience, although I stumbled my way through the Denver Museum of Natural History. Somehow in all of my years of living in Japan, I failed to learn sciency terms like cyclocilicates, stalagmites and carbon dating of dinosaur fossils. I’m learning that as a translator, knowing where you’re going is crucial and google translate is a lifesaver.

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In traveling around the world and working as a tour guide, you learn what you want from travel, and realize that people have different ideas about what travel should entail. Many Americans, for example, go to Mexico or Hawaii or Florida for the sole purpose of doing absolutely nothing except getting a tan while sipping margaritas by the pool. That’s nice for a time, but I can’t imaging going somewhere and only seeing the inside of a resort. Japanese, on the other hand, cram in as many famous sites as possible, taking thousands of pictures in the process. They see a lot of things in a short time, but for me it’s a little fast-paced and touristy. I would comment on Kenyan travelers but since most Kenyans can’t afford it, their travels involve riding a crammed bus “up-country” to see their relatives for Christmas.

So what is my travel philosophy? Cliche, but I think it’s all about the people. Whenever I go somewhere, I make sure I know someone. Not only is it cheaper, you also experience the real place with a little adventure, local cuisine and fascinating conversations thrown in. In Mexico, I remember partying with couples in their 40s until 3:00 AM as this old dude explained proper tequila drinking etiquette to my dad and I. In Damascus, I went to a Turkish bathhouse where a huge Syrian guy  “massages” you by karate chopping your back, cracking your neck and rubbing uncomfortably far up your thigh – sort of a martial arts chiropractor masseur. While studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt won the Africa cup of Nations. Breaking the rules, a friend and I participated in the celebrations, where people danced on cars, spun machetes, pointed flamethrowers in the air, and circled around the Americans to watch us dance. Yes, I’ve experienced some crazy things that probably weren’t the safest, but I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

So what is your travel philosophy? Ask yourself what you want from travel and do it. Maybe that is lounging at an all-inclusive resort. But maybe it’s just a little bit more 🙂