For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
As I travel through this part of the world, a region that for most people in the West first and foremost stirs up visions of war, instability, and fighting, I have made this question of violence and safety my foremost topic of conversation with local people.
But not in the way that you might think.
I have not been asking people, “why is your country so turbulent?” or “why do these streets feel so unsafe”, but rather the complete opposite. What I really want to know is, how is it that I can find myself in the core of what is thought of by most of my peers as a zone of virtually permanent instability and violence, labeled a member of the ‘Axis of Evil’ by the American administration, and I can walk down any street, at any time of day or night, and feel substantially safer and less threatened than in the streets of my own hometown?
Not only do I feel safer, but I also feel incredibly welcome. Most obviously because “Welcome!”, accompanied with a big smile, is
shouted my way, on average I would say, 20-30 times a day when walking the congested streets and ancient souqs
(Middle Eastern bazaars) of Syria’s two major cities, Aleppo and Damascus, both of which are contenders for the title of oldest living city in the world. But also just because that is how I am treated; not with the wide eyed stares typical of impoverished nations, or the scam oriented tourist treatment of more popular destinations, but with legitimate, sincere and open hearted hospitality.
I already knew from traveler’s reports of Syria and the region that I would encounter this, and so I came with some theories of my own. An obvious one is the complete misrepresentation in the western media of societal norms in the region. What we see in the news is not always lies per se, but it is certainly not the whole truth. And sometimes less analytic people take those little bits of carefully selected truths as the whole truth, and form immense generalizations and judgments based upon them like, for example, that the Middle East as a whole is an unsafe place populated with extremists, fundamentalists, and even terrorists. Well I have
spent several months of my life visiting nearly every country in the Middle East, and I have never met a single person I would regard as an extremist, fundamentalist, or a terrorist. And certainly these people do exist, somewhere, and there are pockets of instability, but I want to destroy the notion that this is anything approximating common or widespread.
I also predicted that family values could play into it, for in many regions in the world outside of North America families are, generally speaking, more closely knit and stronger, so that social factors like isolation, boredom, and lack of responsibility or family guidance that in the west might lead to violent behavior or crime are less influential here. You might think that increased poverty would correlate to increased levels of street crime, but based on the Middle Eastern or even Asian example, this is not the case. And you might also predict that more conservative gender roles and increased machismo found in the Middle East might also lead to an increase in brawling, ridiculing and unnecessary fighting, but again I could argue, based on my own direct experience, that these things are also substantially more common in
But what do the locals think? I only got one answer, exactly the same answer, from every person I have asked. I won’t say it is the correct or only answer, but I certainly won’t say that mine are either. “It is because of our religion”, says a young man who has approached me on the street in Aleppo for English conversation practice. “In this country, everybody follows the same religion, which is Islam. Islam is a religion of peace, and we all know that Allah is watching us, so this stops even poor people from doing bad things”. In Turkey I posed the same question to some local men over beers in a pub (itself a curiosity since drinking is technically forbidden for Muslim's, but in Turkey they take a liberal stance on issues like this), and I get exactly the same answer. They also tell me that when their president pronounced that there are no gays in Turkey, they joined the pro-gay protests in he streets, even though they themselves are not homosexual.
A female university student in Aleppo named Maleam, whom I spent an entire afternoon conversing with after she approached
me in the Old City Citadel, says the exactly the same thing once again, in response to my violence question. Then she puts me on the spot and asks what MY religion is, and makes a strange face at my confused response. I tell her about the diversity of faiths in my own country, and how exposure to so many belief systems can leave individuals skeptical to say the least. But she doesn’t seem to care so much about the beliefs of others. “I love Allah so much that my life is so happy. I don’t even go to the mosque, I prefer to have a personal relationship with him in my home”. I tell her that in my country some women might not like the idea of being separated from men for prayer, or wearing a headscarf all the time. But once again she doesn’t seem to take much interest. “I don’t care about America. I am happy. So why should I care about what anybody else thinks or does”? She tells me that when she hears the sound of the prayer call, which in Muslim countries is broadcast from mosque loudspeakers five times a day, her heart is
filled with happiness, and the reason that she cannot even go into mosques is because the direct connection with Allah is so intense that she cannot even handle it.
I might conclude from what I have been told that religion here seems to play a very powerful role of social control; conversely, local people would take offense to this and say that their practice is nothing less than truth and that it is beautiful and sublime. But I am not really trying to make that distinction here, rather I am just reporting the local perspective, based on my direct interaction with the common people on the streets of this country, in response to the question of safety and violence, to the reader who may, like myself, have once actually fallen for what the people who politically and economically dominate our countries want us to believe; that there is some major ‘difference’ between us
, that ours is a society that is inherently safe and normal and theirs is violent and subhuman, therefore it is somehow excusable for our nations to oppress theirs, even at the expense of countless human lives. And so I accompany my thoughts with
some images of the people I encountered on my journey, faces I will never forget. For more of my photos, or to buy my book, please visit www.nickkembel.com
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