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Muslim World Travel
I lost count many years ago of the times complete strangers in the Muslim world invited me into their houses for lunch or dinner or endless cups of sweet tea. The various occasions merge into a blur of hospitality unmatched in Western culture. During an expedition across the Libyan Sahara, my companion and I, not to mention our five camels, were offered food and lodging in every oasis we visited. Sometimes, it was clear the family was too poor to share what little it had with us, but any attempt to contribute financially was firmly but courteously rebuffed. In Taliban-run Afghanistan, old friends risked severe punishment asking me into their homes. In Cairo and Karachi, Tashkent and Tripoli, in the mountains of Morocco and the deserts of Jordan, the story has always been the same.
These experiences are not unusual. Far from it. They are staples of travel in this part of the world. The great explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger remarked on the Arabs boundless capacity for hospitality in Arabian Sands, published in 1959. "I have wondered sadly what Arabs brought up in this tradition have thought when they visited England," he wrote, "and I have hoped that they realised that we are as unfriendly to each other as we must appear to be to them."
Islam can take much of the credit for this generosity. "Whoever believes in Allah and the Last Day should honour his guest," wrote the Islamic scholar al-Bukhari, collator of the Prophet's sayings. "Provisions for the road are what will serve for a day and night; hospitality extends for three days; what goes beyond that is charity." Like the world's other sacred texts, the Koran is replete with injunctions to extend hospitality.
I mention this rich tradition because it is one and only one - of the privileges and glories of travel in the dar al Islam, the Muslim world. Why dwell on it? Because ever since the events of September 11, hard on the heels of the second Palestinian intifada, followed in quick succession by the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, it has fallen off the travel map for many Westerners. In these people's minds, it is simply too dangerous a place to visit. Why risk a suicide bomber ruining your holiday when there are plenty of other countries to see?
Such caution, although understandable, is exaggerated and misplaced. At the very least it disregards the facts on the ground. Al Qaeda has shown it is as capable of killing people in Bali and Kenya as attacking in the Middle East. As our political masters are fond of reminding us, terrorism today knows no boundaries.
Personally, I have never felt safer than when travelling in the Muslim world even during times of conflict. I remember watching Allied bombs fall on Baghdad in 1998, surrounded by Touareg tribesmen in a Libyan village tut-tutting in disapproval but far too polite to address any angry words to a British guest. In unruly Afghanistan last month, I found the tradition of respect and courtesy towards visitors unchanged, notwithstanding the alarming rise in anti-Western feeling fuelled by the US-led conflict in Iraq.
Says the acclaimed travel writer William Dalrymple, veteran of the Levant: "The first rule of any serious traveller is as soon as you hear of any incident, book an air ticket there. You have heightened security and the place to yourself. You can wander through marvellous ruins like Palmyra completely undisturbed, just as David Roberts did in the nineteenth century. In the Coliseum you be trampled underfoot."
The first time I visited the Roman cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha on the North African coast in the early Nineties I was as astounded by their monumental magnificence as by their emptiness. With the exception of a local family or two I had the run of two of the most outstanding Roman sites in the Mediterranean entirely to myself. But then Libya was a pariah state, therefore risky and dangerous in the popular mind. Shortly after September 11, I galloped around the pyramids alternately shocked,saddened and delighted by the absence of tourists. Never mind that there had been no domestic incidence of terrorism since 1997. Egypt was a Muslim country, best to avoid. They hate us, don't they?
Well, no, they don't, actually. In the present climate it needs to be emphasised that Muslims are perfectly able to draw a distinction between Western governments policies towards the Muslim world which they generally oppose - and Western visitors, whom they continue to welcome. Contrast this open-minded approach with the assault of two Iraqi Kurds in Plymouth last month. "Are you f---ing Turks?" two British men reportedly asked, before setting about their victims with a skewer and belt buckle.
Ignorance and prejudice go hand in hand. When all you see or hear about a region consists of suicide bombers, wars and dictatorships, it is only natural that the Muslim world disappears from the traveller's must-see list. An alien reading the Western press would rationally conclude the region was a seething mass of terrorism. Thanks to the efforts of Osama bin Laden, countries like Iran and Syria and many other Muslim nations which did not make the Axis of Evil have disappeared from the travel pages, unwittingly confirming the perception that they are unsafe to visit.
They are not, but for as long as we view the Muslim world through such blinkered eyes, the polarity between Islam and the West will only become more deeply entrenched. Western political scientists continue to debate whether we are on the way to Samuel Huntington's controversial Clash of Civilisations. In many Muslim eyes, we are already there. It is time to re-evaluate our fears and put them into their proper context, rather than allowing the misperceptions to harden.
So if a wander through Petra or a gallop around the pyramids appeal, if you prefer your Roman sites uncluttered by the tourist hordes, if you have long wished to visit the Islamic jewels of Isfahan and Bukhara, explore the Crusader castles of Syria or hike amid the untouched wilderness of Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, if you are ready to lose yourself in the medieval maze of the suqs in the imperial city of Fes, or dive in the clear waters of the Red Sea, then put the headlines and over-zealous travel advisories to one side and consider the Muslim world. See for yourself. Its hospitality will put you to shame.
Justin Marozzi is the author of "South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara". His history of Tamerlane will be published by HarperCollins in 2004.
This article appeared in the FT