Personal memories of yesterday’s Mideast

This item appears on page 79 of the May 2008 issue.

Longtime readers of this column certainly realize that Moreen and I are extremely fond of the Middle East, especially its people.

These two longtime friends live in Jabala, Syria. Photos: Kinney

Having said that, 9/11 hurt us personally, seeing that men of the Muslim faith, others of whom had always treated us with utmost respect and kindness, would initiate such violence toward our country. No, we weren’t naive. We knew that some reviled our country’s global power controls and others envied our open lifestyle.

During 35 years of travel in this area, we’ve witnessed major changes. In particular, the modernization brought about by oil wealth in some Middle Eastern countries has exacerbated extremes between the rich and the poor.

On the plus side, Middle Easterners understand via the media how Westerners have progressed, which in turn offers them hope.

Negatively, this same media coverage has opened doors for Middle Easterners to now understand how they have been used by their own leaders and by the Western world. The latter realization provides charismatic radicals ammunition to instill hatred and anger in their followers (e.g., 9/11).


Still, our magic carpet has offered us wonderful adventures in the Middle East.

Probably our most memorable trip was in late 1982, when Palestinians in Lebanon, with Syria’s assistance, had earlier been fighting Israelis.

Traveling completely alone, we first visited Syria and Jordan, then spent a week in Jerusalem. There we found both Palestinians and Israelis traumatized by the recent actions of their leaders.

Palestine’s de facto leader had fled Lebanon under UN protection after destroying that country, and Israel’s Defense Minister was relieved of his command by his allied Lebanon troops for his complicity in the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinians in two refugee camps.

In this near tourist vacuum, Moreen and I leisurely visited Biblical highlights of the world’s three great religions within Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Each evening we would reflect on the day’s adventures while standing on the balcony of our hotel, watching the last rays of the setting sun highlight Islam’s Dome of the Rock within Jerusalem’s walls.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Compared with the situation today, the tranquility we experienced was surreal.

In our travels, we have tried to show respect for others and their cultures.

My camera is always at my side during our travels. I don’t hide it, nor do I flaunt it. One thing I’ve learned — a sincere smile frequently will open doors for wonderful photo opportunities. More importantly, for me, it’s a way to meet locals.

In Syria, our tour stopped to view only average (in my opinion) Roman theater ruins in Jabala. I, instead, quickly walked a hundred yards or so to a small, open-air café to watch a group of men play backgammon.

After a few minutes they became accustomed to my presence and permitted me to take a few photos unobtrusively. Before I left, two older men proudly posed for my camera. Using charades, I determined they had been friends for more than 50 years.

Compare that with my encounter with an American tourist taking flash photos inside a Turkish mosque on a Friday. I asked her to please stop, as locals were praying. She snapped, “They are just Muslims,” then continued taking flash photos.

Another opportunity to show sensitivity or friendship occurred in Lahore, Pakistan. I was standing outside a small store while Moreen browsed inside. A man came up to me (as often happens to a traveler who appears approachable) and asked where I was from. I answered, “America,” and he replied, “America good. Pakistan bad!”

Without thinking, I quickly said with conviction, “But Pakistan people are good.”

Men playing backgammon in an open-air café in Jabala.

He immediately squared his shoulders, smiled and said, “Yes, Pakistan people are good.”

On occasions, Moreen and I have stayed in fancy hotels in the Middle East, i.e., the 5-star Intercontinental Al Bustan Palace in Muscat, Oman. We also have met elite officials at special dinners. Our most cherished times, however, were those when we mingled with the everyday people, as it is the people that make a country.

It is during these informal meetings that we have attempted to be humble ambassadors for America.

Having related all of these accounts, I come to the present and an announcement of our next stage.

Moreen and I, through years of travel, have become frayed like our magic carpet. The mind continues to seek exciting adventures and greater insight of our world, but the body rebels. And so, with reluctance, I am retiring from writing this column, though I may contribute a short article now and then.

In the meantime, I hope readers of this page will continue to venture forth along the timeless roads of the Mideast and Mediterranean so that they too will better understand life and culture in this area of the world — and be humble ambassadors themselves.