Chivvis Moore, an American lesbian feminist, lived in the Middle East for 16 years. She spent 11 in the West Bank, three in Egypt, two in Syria and one in Israel – all countries that have been or currently are plagued by violence.
“Give me a stereotype you’ve heard about people there and I will break it,” she says. “If I hadn’t gone, I’d be as ignorant as anybody else,” she adds, warning people who think it’s too dangerous that if they won’t because of such labels, “they are missing out on an unforgettable experience.”
The Middle East is a lot more than what Americans see on the news, Moore says. There are stunning mountain ranges, unique landscapes, untouched beauty, remarkable modern architecture, and some of the oldest historic sites in the world. After all, the region is the birthplace of several religions, including Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
Visiting Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya now is out of the question, she admits. “But the West Bank has always been difficult and travelers are not in danger; Jordan, Lebanon, and Sudan are also fine for personal safety,” Moore says.
Moore’s her experience in the region was in 1978 in Egypt. She read a book by an architect about how people building brick houses to help others and wanted to volunteer. It was the right time in her life to travel, she says. It was a mesmerizing experience. “I always knew I’d go back after that to understand more about culture and to see if only Egypt was so amazing,” she says.
It wasn’t. The generosity and kindness people showed her, the hospitality towards foreigners, and their “particular” sense of humor drew her even more. “I learned to laugh for reasons I would not before,” Moore says. One time, in Egypt, she was walking on a street and saw guys smoking a pipe. They made her for a tourist and said “Hashish,” with a quirky smile. She looked at them in a way that gave away what she was thinking – that two guys are smoking opium. Moore would later find out that hashish means tobacco and they were only teasing her.
People in the Middle East are “absolutely respectful” toward women travelers, Moore says. She has broken the general rules of not to go out alone after 9 p.m. and not to exchange currency on the black market many time. “I never had any trouble. There was nobody on the street but I never felt afraid at all,” she says.
People have gotten up to give her a seat on the bus, to offer directions, and help in general. “They don’t treat foreigners badly. They know we [don’t know] the culture,” Moore says.
The dress code women should follow is long pants and sleeves. People should be offended by that, Moore says. “You would not go to Wall Street in a bikini, would you? So why offend locals and not dress appropriately?” she adds.
Society in the Middle East is more self-contained and private. People don’t stop to talk to everybody on the street and they don’t really look others in the eyes when walking, Moore says. “You won’t get a good reaction is you show flesh or act in a flirtatious way,” she adds.
Men are kind, she adds. They usually sit in cafes, and women don’t go there. “But I have been offered a chair to sit and rest after all day of walking.”
Locals are very sensitive to how much others offer something, according to Moore. People ask three times and if you don’t want whatever they are trying to give you – food, drinks, souvenirs – you just have to be patient and refuse each time, she adds. “Also, if you offer anything, you’ll have to ask three times, otherwise that person won’t believe you mean it.”
The view of the Middle East nowadays in the U.S. is primitive, fanatic, extremist and violent, Moore says. “Not one of these I find to be true,” she adds. “Islam and Muslims are tolerant.”
All range of human behavior exists there, just like everywhere else in the world. “When a whacko kills kids in a school, nobody says ‘Oh, but he was a good Christian.’”