Before departing on our three-week trip across the Middle East visiting Turkey, Oman, Jordan and Israel, there was a mix of nerves, excitement and apprehension. It’s not uncommon to have the opinion that most of what we are shown by the media portrays the Middle East as a war-torn and dangerous region, full of conflict and political disputes. Of course, there are parts of the region that do have these issues, but that is just one, small, side of the story.
With all our apprehensions we visited four Middle Eastern countries and found that each place was culturally contradicting everything the mass media had been depicting. Which prompted the following question: why is the mass media presenting these beautiful countries in such a tasteless way?
It seems that we are largely shown very small and selected fragments from a much larger picture, while the remaining pieces are somehow lost in translation. Let’s start with Turkey, Turkey’s political situation has not been the most stable over the past few years. Its new government followed by the attempted coup, and most recently the onion crisis, have brought the country more attention than necessary. It has previously been labelled as an unsafe place to visit primarily due to its proximity to Syria, a country in the midst of ongoing terrorism and war.
However, should we just take what the media feeds us at face value? The answer is not a straightforward yes or no, but we can argue that a good pinch of salt is a must. We found that Turkey has some of the friendliest people, often going out of their way to welcome you to their country. It also has some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery and a culture so deeply soaked in lush history that one day won’t do to get acquainted properly. And yet, we don’t associate Turkey with any of these things, but rather with instability and danger. Why? Because we’re only fed a tiny piece of the mosaic.
As we pressed on with our travels to Jordan, Oman and then Israel, we found that this inconsistency between reality and media-handed newsbites was becoming a familiar pattern. None of these places are ever actively advertised as must-see tourist destination for the main reason that they are situated either in or near conflict zones. Yes, these countries do indeed border places with ongoing political and civil disputes; such as Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and of course Syria. No, these same disputes are not present everywhere. Take Jordan, the country is actually home to some of the most beautiful sites and its ancient city of Petra constitutes one of the new 7 Wonders of the World.
The places we visited were peaceful and filled with people going about their daily business and living their lives just as others do, despite the political situation their country is in. Britain is also a country undergoing considerable instability, with Brexit negotiations putting a strain on nearly everything. However, we go about our daily lives just as the Jordanians do, despite being surrounded by international pressure and domestic disputes. Our own country is but one small example, but gets the point across nonetheless: don’t believe everything you hear and see. With this in mind, the question becomes this: is the mass media focusing on the wrong aspects of countries in the Middle East?
It has been suggested that one of the root causes for the political strife in the Middle East is religion. It is essential therefore to consider this factor and the impact religion has on the cultures of Jordan, Oman and Israel. We discovered that religion does play a big role in the way people conduct their da- to-day lives. It also had some impact on us during our trip, but not in the way you might think. The main religion of our visiting countries is Islam, which is a religion based on respect for both men and women — contrary to what we usually hear in the news.
In Oman, for instance, Islam is deeply rooted and visible throughout the culture. From the traditional, modest dress code that both men and women observe to the nature of social interactions we had with people, it was clear that religion plays a deep social role. The Omanis make you feel nothing but warmly welcomed and show you only respect when you’re visiting their country. That respect, undeniably, is a consequence of their religious tradition. Likewise, in Jordan the big focus on respect was still very much prevalent, and although there was more Western influence — especially in the main tourist areas — religion remained a central focus of the culture and its hospitality.
The biggest controversy that often comes up in the news is the way Islam treats women. We are told that women are unable to be independent from their husbands, fathers or brothers — amongst other things. However, throughout our journey we found that this is not entirely true of everyone. Women are free, and most choose to wear the traditional Islamic clothing. Some of them of course choose not to, and some choose to cover their faces fully whilst others don’t. Also, a lot of women have jobs, drive, and go out in public without men. It wasn’t what we expected, but that’s mainly because of our inexperience and characteristic media-provoked bias. Certainly, there are many women (too many) who are trapped within Islam, but this is arguably not the exclusive fault of religion but of the people that choose to interpret it in a certain way that reduces women to second-class citizens.
The biggest eye-opener for us on this trip and the last example we’re going to use to drive our point across is Israel. The country doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to using violence and often meets with heavy criticism, hence reducing its appeal as a tourist destination. However, the ongoing political disputes were not a central topic of conversation and didn’t come through in the culture we saw when we visited Israel’s various cities.
Eilat, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were all very peaceful, liberal and green. The people were friendly, helpful, and went about their daily business the way people do in all countries. Our point is a simple one: the bulk of mass media shows Israel during its worst moments, but they are not Israel. It is a bit like showing a video of someone’s worst actions in life and then getting people to judge their character based solely on those particular actions. What we need is both sides of the story to make a rounded, unbiased judgement.
When the media shows us the worst parts of a country and we make a snap decision on whether it’s evil or good, that’s poor judgement. We need to know the whole picture before making our decision.
Though it is quite normal for our opinions to be shaped by the things we see, read and hear, it is also essential that our thinking is influenced by experience (when available) and informed understanding — especially when information is held back.
Video shot and edited by: Sam Matthews