My Response to Discouragement Toward My Interest in the Middle East

When I tell people I want to travel or perhaps live and work in the Middle East, I receive common reactions of horror and disdain. Even some Middle Easterners are surprised I am interested in the region. Why would an American want to go to that part of the world?

Maybe it is an eagerness to explore a new, stereotyped culture. Whatever the reason, I am determined to travel there. I am currently learning Arabic and I have always had an interest in other cultures. I am prepared to tackle the difficult language.

Most of the people who dissuade my travel are neither Middle Eastern nor have they had much experience in the Middle East. The news has done a fine job in driving home the image of this land as a misogynistic land that has been torn apart by war under the control of despots (who are often supported by the U.S.).  Of course, I think to deny issues such as terrorism and gender would be whitewashing this part of the world. However, to paint all the region as a place where veiled women are forced to stay at home, everyone hates America and people become terrorists is not only inaccurate but very dangerous. These ideas fuel xenophobia and racism.

"They will make you wear a burqa," one woman told me when I expressed interest in Dubai. I was in disbelief. While Dubai does have strong Middle Eastern influences, it is considered to be influenced by western culture. Only 12 percent of the city are Emiratis, while the rest of population consisting of foreign workers.  I told her she must be thinking of perhaps Saudi Arabia or Iran, countries well known for their mandatory requirement that women veil themselves in public. Since these countries are constantly mentioned in the news, they are the standard by which many compare other nearby nations. Even my parents are not thrilled about me going to Qatar for my journalism residency. Aside from the country being in the Middle East, Qatar has been accused of terrorism by UAE and Saudi ArabiaI asked a friend of mine, who lived in Saudi Arabia for 3 years, about the concern I would be oppressed as a woman. She assured me that the most I would have to worry about is possible racism. She is also a black woman and knows what it is like to not only feel like an outsider in her homeland of America but also in Saudi Arabia. The question of race was not often mentioned by people who were opposed to me traveling there, but I recognize how my identity as both female and black may affect my personal experience. Often when Americans travel to the Middle East in movies, the actors are white. Movies such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Hurt Locker depict the Middle Eastern through a white, male lens. I have yet to read about the experiences of western-born black women in the Middle East, unless they are expats in Dubai, Qatar or other Gulf states.

I want to read about that experience, and as Toni Morrison said, 'If there's a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, then you must write it.'

Perhaps I may one day write a book about my experiences in that part of the world and add a fresh pair of eyes to a misunderstood, sensationalized area.