From April 26 to May 5, I had the opportunity to travel to the nation of Jordan in the Middle East. My trip was sponsored by the Cincinnati Art Museum and the Jordanian Tourism Board (JTB) in conjunction with an exhibition that Cincinnatians (and many others) will see at the museum in September 2004.
When friends and family learned I was traveling to Jordan, few shared the enthusiasm I'd felt when I received my invitation. "Are you certain you want to do this?" I was asked repeatedly. "Will you be safe?"
I made a few lame jokes about how I walk to CityBeat's office every day through Over-the-Rhine and how could this be any more dangerous. The truth was I didn't fear for my safety: The JTB is all about promoting tourism, the small nation's most important industry, so I knew we'd be carefully guided and not put in harm's way.
I did, however, wonder how I and a dozen or so other Americans from Cincinnati, New York, Cleveland and California would be received in the Middle East. After all, the U.S. isn't exactly winning a lot of friends in the region — and during our visit, the shocking news about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. and U.K. troops was front page news in the English-language Jordan Times (which is so mainstream it carries two daily cartoons: vintage Peanuts and Jim Borgman's Zits).
I wasn't prepared for our reception. As we traveled throughout Jordan, a nation that's smaller than the state of Ohio (about half the population in 80 percent of the square mileage), we were warmly greeted — not only by tourism officials and other government representatives (I expected that) but by everyday people. There wasn't much hiding the fact that we weren't Arabs (my ancestors are British and German), but I was constantly surprised by the question, "Are you American?" followed by a smile and often a warm greeting.
Too often in the U.S. we make sweeping generalizations about the world. Our intelligent tour guide, Ali, told me that when he spent time in the U.S. earning a degree in public relations, he was often called a "camel jockey." He'd been born and raised in Amman, a city with a metropolitan area similar to Cincinnati.
(He also told me that on Sept. 11, 2001, when he heard the news of terrorist attacks on the U.S., his knees were so weak he couldn't stand up: He has siblings who live in several larger U.S. cities.)
Ali decided that people who tried to reduce him to a stereotype were ignorant of the diversity of the Middle East. There are many differences between the people of his nation and others on or near the Arabian Peninsula, but Americans tend to think of the region as singularly populated by gun-toting Islamic extremists who hate the U.S.
But let's think about this for a minute. There's gang warfare in Chicago and a high murder rate in Detroit; does that make Cincinnati a dangerous place? Does a high cost of living on America's Eastern seaboard (or the fictional opulence of TV series exported to the rest of the world) mean that all Americans are materialistic? Does the fact that the present administration in Washington, D.C., is pursuing a wrong-headed, imperialistic approach in Iraq mean that all Americans support these actions? The answer to all these: Of course not.
Likewise, we must avoid quick judgments about the people and nations of the Middle East. I walked the streets of Amman comfortably. I toured the ruins of the Roman city of Jerash, a place occupied by people since the Stone Age, and found it peopled by a friendly population who love tourists.
I visited the ancient city of Petra, the subject of CAM's much-anticipated fall exhibition: Once a community of 30,000-35,000 people called Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago, it's a place that exemplifies the blend of cultures — ancient and modern, Biblical, Christian and Islamic, Bedouin and contemporary Arabs — that make the Middle East a region with much to teach us. Petra at the time of Christ's birth was an egalitarian society that forbade slavery; its king served his guests personally when they attended banquets.
Of course, the Arab world is plagued with strife and issues that appear insoluble — many of which have been exacerbated by American intervention — but I'd like to propose a new perspective.
Rather than being petrified by fear and ignorance of places we find it easy to generalize about, let's endeavor to reach out and understand one another. In nine days of person-to-person contact, my world view changed. As Americans, we must become more open and accepting of others who differ from us. (That's an issue we need to focus on more here in Cincinnati, too, of course, but it's a topic for another editorial.)
America is diverse, and the world is even more so. My trip to Jordan — especially to the marvelous ancient city of Petra — has convinced me that we'd all gain much by opening ourselves to cross-cultural experiences. I even have a new term to describe it: Let's get "Petra-fied."
I learned a few words of Arabic during my trip, but none more profound than the Arab greeting and farewell, "As-salaam alaikim," meaning "May peace be with you." It's a fervent hope expressed by many residents of the Arab world and a sentiment that certainly all people can share.