None of us are going to be travelling too far afield any time soon and, even when the lockdown eases, land, sea and air travel will be something to think differently about in more ways than one. Our heads are in another place now and I suspect the prospect of holidaying abroad is the last thing on most folk’s priority list. Having said that, foreign holidays have an importance and value of their own, not least of all to extend our understanding and knowledge of other cultures. And when these present challenges fade, I hope that that sense of exploration continues to prevail.
Because I have spent quite a lot time there, I wanted to share some thoughts about countries in the Middle East where I have held residence and would encourage the more curious of you to visit. We cannot help but have preconceived ideas – it’s what you call human nature and I was no less sceptical than anyone else before visiting any one of these destinations. For, after all, those two words ‘Middle East’- what do they conjure up in your head? Conflict. Desert sands. Kohl-eyed women dressed in black chadors perhaps. We do tend to generalise. You watch something on the television news or read in a newspaper article and for the most part, that’s it. A picture has been painted that’s often quite tricky to erase unless there’s an opportunity to go and experience that place for ourselves.
As mentioned, I have been a frequent traveller to the Middle East and have spent some extended periods of time living there, having savoured a taste of life in Iran, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and most recently Oman. The common denominator between all of them is of course the oppressive summer heat (albeit, there are parts of Iran with temperatures of 15oC in the Summer and -35oC in the winter)! But putting that aside, they are all very different in their geography, their demography and their various forms of hospitality. As I have written about in a previous piece, Iran for example, wasn’t one bit like what I thought it would be like and how I wish more people would take the plunge and discover its treasures for themselves. It’s to my eternal embarrassment that when I first met my Iranian husband nearly forty years ago, I was not informed enough to know that Iran is actually not an Arab country, but Persian – a completely different race altogether and, who incidentally speak Farsi and not Arabic. My own ignorance was diplomatically and deftly quashed over a period of time by my polite and longsuffering other half.
And then there’s Bahrain, that tiny archipelago of islands snuggled like a thumbprint into the Persian Gulf. Who’d have thought to discover an International Formula One track in this tiny country – the vroom vroom vroom of the engines on a race day making your very blood roar before getting anywhere near the venue. You could drive around Bahrain in a single day, passing on your way the miraculous Tree of Life – over four hundred years old and as green-leafed as an Irish summer, standing literally in the middle of the desert. No one is really certain how it survives.
Some might say that the most wondrous encounter of all is a first visit to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where the tallest building in the world, Burj Kalifa, spears its way into endless blue sky. It took 22 million man-hours and 110,000 tons of concrete to build and it takes your breath away, but having stood on the observers’ deck and having no head for heights, I’m not that keen to do it again. Dubai is an architect’s dream but even for a lay person the miscellany and ingenuity in the designs of the buildings is nothing short of mind blowing.
But I’ve saved perhaps the best for last; the shy country that doesn’t seem to push itself forward, yet has a charm and beauty all its own – Oman. I just love everything about it – the restricted heights of the buildings, the diversity and friendliness of the people, and the fact that the world and his wife offer me lifts because I’m the weird Irishwoman who actually walks everywhere. There is a real spirit of acceptance pervading across Omani life and no less so than during my visits to the mosques, none so beautiful as the Mohammed Al Ameen mosque in Muscat, my favourite, especially at night.
This is just a snapshot of a part of the world I have grown to appreciate and love over time. And there will be a time again when we begin to think, albeit in a slightly different way, about exploring far-flung destinations. I hope, for you, the Middle East will be one of them.