As I strolled along next to the Pyramids of Giza, I kept asking myself one question, “Where did everybody go?!” Aside from Egyptian kids and teens on field trips, the site was practically empty. I couldn’t believe that no one was here at the legendary Pyramids of Giza! The reason wasn’t hard to figure out, but I still didn’t want to believe it.
Sitting at the bottom level of the pyramid, the scene seemed so surreal and my eyes were finally opened to the truth of the misconceptions and ideas of the Middle East, and how we had been wrong the whole time. I felt empty inside, as if I wanted to scream. I too was one of the many people who thought negative things before I had even stepped foot on the land. I realized I had been judging a situation of which I knew nothing about. We really never truly know until we visit and see with with our own eyes – leaving the media behind How can someone judge a place they have never been to? Who was I to have an opinion on people I had never met?
All I had encountered so far were welcoming people who were so grateful for seeing tourists come back. They had been treating us like family everywhere we went and I couldn’t imagine not experiencing these memories. We began to open our hearts and our lives to everyone we encountered and we were told beautiful stories of their families and children, “The people here aren’t scary! They are kind and loving people who have a deep love for their families and children just like we do and they want to share their warmth and joy with others!”
The Egyptians loved to take pictures with all of us and we sometimes were surrounded by groups of school kids and teens all asking for photos. They were so excited to see foreigners in their country and when we told them we were having a great time, they were so thankful to hear that. At the same time, I was honored to finally meet people from the country I had been dreaming about for years.
No matter where we went in Egypt, we were met with kind strangers who were often more friendly than people we have known all our lives! We made so many incredible new friends during our 3 weeks in Egypt, and I understand if you are still somewhat nervous about dropping everything and getting a plane ticket. But, I do urge you to keep an open mind about the truth behind the media and how much you could be missing. Also, I hope others will think about how the people there are living and how we could help by visiting and improving their local economy.
After Egypt, we went to Jordan, the country with the friendliest people I have ever met! We were shocked by their kindness. “Certainly there must be a catch? Right? Can people REALLY be this kind to strangers? We soon learned that there is no catch – the Jordanians, Syrians, Egyptians, and many others who call Jordan their home are truly wonderful!
So, with it’s amazing people and sights, certainly Jordan would be filled with tourists, right? Wrong. Jordan too is lacking visitors. Even the magical Petra, a place to fantasize the past, hike through mystical monuments and discover hidden treasures between the stones, was pretty empty. I said to myself, “Not here too!” Well, even if others were missing out on this enchanting place, we weren’t going to miss out on immersing ourselves in the magic! We chatted and laughed with almost everyone we met. We got to know the Bedouins, the local people living in the archaeological site, some of the sweetest and most hilarious people ever! You could spend hours laughing at their funny jokes and acrobatic stunts.
We made friends with local children, like Dima and Fatima, two Bedouin girls who loved chatting with me and Cassidy, or Ali, Maru, and Abdisalam, three adorable little boys also living in the site who made Trevor feel so welcome!
Even in the town of Petra outside the gates of the site, we made friends in cafes, shops, and especially our hotel. Our new friend and “uncle” Azzam, who worked at our hotel in Petra, spent hours each day for 5 days teaching me Arabic in his only free time all day. At the end of the week, he gave me a verbal exam that my mom videoed. He was so excited to have had the chance to teach me, that he wanted a copy of the video to send to his family in Syria and to show them his new friends. He and all the hotel staff truly made us feel like family during our 12 days there. The warmth they showed us is almost too hard to put into words – it’s a sincerity in their smiles and actions that I have rarely experienced in my life.
We experienced the same kindness and generosity during our visits to Turkey, United Arab Emirates, Israel, and Palestine. When you talk to the locals in all these countries, you feel like you are talking with family. No matter how small a gesture or how little you know them, they never hold back on going that extra mile to make you happy. And it’s not to try and get something in return, it’s just part of their culture.
I had an overwhelming feeling of contentment while visiting the Middle East. As I think back now to all my experiences over months of travel throughout the region, I picture the smiles and laughter of all the children we met and all the friendly faces that are now family to us. They have given me such sweet memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life!
MY WISH FOR US ALL…
Even though the Middle East has some of the most ancient and incredible cities and sights the world has ever known, tourists aren’t coming as they used to, negatively affecting the lives of thousands of people who rely on us travelers to survive. It absolutely breaks my heart to listen to people’s stories, realizing how little some people have and how I and many other kids my age are often spoiled with the ultra excess we have acquired and the privileges we are born with.
There is an unsettling feeling of wanting to make a change sitting deep in my soul when I think back at my past judgments and those of many in other countries. The opinions of the public can be so harsh sometimes, and I wish people could look beyond the headlines and start thinking with their own minds and hearts. If tourists stopped visiting a country every time something bad happened, there would be no one traveling anywhere! They would all hide in their homes!
My goal is to share the true Middle East and the stories of the loving people living there. Beyond the noise, Beyond the fear. I wish for us all to look past the articles we read and realize that life is precious, no matter what continent it’s on, and to not overlook the needs of those outside of our own little world.
I wish for us to think and pray deeply about the kind people in the Middle East and that we can say to them, “I hope for you a good life”, a saying that was expressed to us by kind strangers who wanted nothing in return except a human connection.
I encourage you to think outside the box, think outside your life. Could you take a leap of faith and go visit the Middle East? I hope you do so that you too can find the true illumination that has changed my heart forever.