A MIDWEST GAL AND 5 MYTHS OF THE MIDDLE EAST
Written by Jennifer Yucus
Photography by Jen Eun
Project funded by the University of South Florida St. Petersburg
I have found myself somewhere in the middle for much of my life. Middle child, born in the middle of a cornfield, in the middle of the United States. I find my political views to be in the middle and the middle of my body to be a major focus of most of my negative self talk. With all of the ‘in the middle’ going on in my life, I hadn’t really taken the time to reflect on another middle; The Middle East.
I am a graphic design professor at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and my area of research is social awareness design. Creative projects keep me busy traveling the globe assisting non-profit organizations with numerous design needs.
The Table Initiative is a non-profit organization that connects people to travel experiences for global awareness. I joined them on a creative trip to Ethiopia in 2016 where I designed a variety of materials for several NGOs. I was invited on another adventure with them in the Fall of 2017, this time the destination was Jordan. My announcement of the pending trip received (more than normal) crinkled nose responses. This gave me pause as I reflected on what my design skills could contribute to this trip. I began discussing perceptions of the Middle East with my friends on social media. I posed this simple question, “when you think of the Middle East, you think of _____?” Responses ran the gamut and sparked conversations both on and offline. Conversations that not only intrigued me but fueled my creative thought process.
I compiled the list of responses and asked my fellow travelers to do the same. From this, our list of 5 perceptions of the Middle East was born. My task was set; were these stereotypes true or were they myths? It was time to find out.
I traveled to Jordan with a small group of diverse young-ish adults from across the United States. Complete with support hose and Dramamine I began my trek from the U.S.A to Amman, Jordan (via a long layover in Frankfurt where I contributed to my middle section with schnitzel and beer).
I travel abroad often. It is my belief as a designer that I need to experience the culture and meet the people that I am designing for. I knew to pack snacks, Gatorade powder, prescription required patches for motion sickness, and a hearty notebook to make sketches and take copious notes. These items prepare me for the expected; crazy driving, oddly timed meals, and recording conversations that you want to remember every detail. These material comforts can’t however prepare me emotionally. I have experienced moments I can’t find the words to share. Moments that have impacted me so greatly that words cannot do them justice. But moments, like taking a selfie with a soon to be executed ox for a celebration, are just too good not to share. These global experiences are authentic and I appreciate every one of them.
Back to Jordan. My first impression upon landing was surprise. The infrastructure was more developed than I imagined. The vast majority of people I came in contact with spoke English. I was taken aback, and relieved. Thank goodness I didn’t have to whip out my wrinkly cheat sheet of common Arabic phrases. I was spared the humiliation of butchering the language.
This leads me to the first misconception of the Middle East: Americans are hated. Absolutely not. I was welcomed and treated with heartfelt kindness throughout my ten-day journey. I was actually embarrassed that my country isn’t always known for doing the same. I would walk into a market and be offered a bottled water or orange juice as a gift just for being a guest in their country. I asked one of our van drivers about this kindness and he explained that it is part of the Islam religion to be hospitable and kind to guests. When was the last time you offered someone that looked lost on a sidewalk assistance? When have you invited guests from another country into your home for dinner? And not just any dinner, but the finest feast made with care from cherished family recipes? I will speak for myself and state that I need to step up my hospitality game immensely.
The second misconception on my list: The Middle East is dangerous. There are certain areas that have more violence than others. I liken this to my home state of Illinois. You wouldn’t say the entire state of is dangerous because parts of Chicago have a high murder rate. Iranian-American author Reza Asian states, “When we use a broad brush to paint others, we splatter ourselves with ignorance.” I agree. As mentioned before, I was greeted with kindness and hospitality. I felt safe and welcomed as I trekked from one area of the country to the next. To say the entirety of the Middle East is unsafe is just not true. I acknowledge that several of these perceptions have truths within them. These are complex issues and are more nuanced than we seem to understand. These perceptions became myths to me because of my experience in Jordan. Would I feel this way in another Middle Eastern country? Maybe, maybe not.
The city of Mafraq is close to Syria’s border and they welcome Syrian refugees. We were asked to not openly take photographs on the streets of the city. This was to protect the identities of those that have fled Syria for their safety. The plight of the refugees in the Middle East is one that I unfortunately didn’t know enough about before traveling there. I, like many, had seen and was deeply touched by the image of 3-year old Alan Kurdi, the little boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea during his family’s escape from Syria. But, I was ignorant to the magnitude of the problem. I was unaware of the number of people fleeing to Jordan. I did not fully understand their plight. I sat with Syrian refugees that told stories of their lives in their home country with looks in their eye as if they were telling a fairy tale of a home that once was and now will never be the same.
I shared dinner with a Palestinian family that still had keys and deeds to their homes, homes most likely now destroyed. I walked through a school of Iraqi children that were coloring images of their persecution in Iraq. Their only crime was being Christian. I write these sentences with tears in my eyes. No longer just a news story about refugees from a foreign country, but real life humans with real life suffering. Perceptions of dangerous refugees now transformed into giggling children that passed around plates of dessert to their foreign guests. The complexities of refugee issues are washed away with my tears. What I saw before me was a family, a family that reminded me of my own. The very idea that the injustices and persecutions they have and continue to endure could happen to my loved ones is unbearable.
Stereotypes of Muslims is another factor causing people to perceive the Middle East as unsafe. When tackling that misconception, I think about the extremist Christian organizations that we have right here in the U.S.A. I would be sickened to be identified through those groups just as much as a Muslim wouldn’t want to be categorized as ISIS.
One afternoon while on this adventure, I found myself in the living room of a Syrian refugee family having tea. Through our translator we learned of their experience leaving their homes in Syria to find a safe place in Jordan. The entire family, from Grandma smoking her Jordanian cigs, to the littlest members, sat cross-legged and chatted with us (note: you usually sit on pillows on a rug in homes and I would like to say that I got used to it but I didn’t). One of the toddlers began to cry and the father scooped him right up and took him to the kitchen for a snack and then a nap. I took note of the respect for the women in the room by the men, a theme repeated throughout the trip. Husbands and fathers actively participated in domestic chores and displayed love and respect to their wives. The third misconception of the Middle East is that the women are always oppressed. Women wearing burkas and hijabs are part of the culture. I admired this representation of modesty. In deference to their beliefs I adjusted my wardrobe accordingly. I found the women to be supportive of one another, happy, and respected. I get it. Sometimes it is hard to understand other cultures and how they do things. What I witnessed in Jordan was a community of lifting one another up and respect. A comradery that focused on loving thy neighbor and not just one neighbor, Muslims believe they are responsible for 7 neighbors in each direction. I witnessed this care as I visited a Syrian woman, close to my age, whose husband left her after their second child was born with medical issues. Her strength and stories showed a woman that was being supported by her community and her perseverance was one for admiration. That woman and her story really stayed with me. Her joyful spirit was magnetizing and her strength was inspiring. Again, this was my experience in Jordan. I understand fully the atrocities that women face around the world, including some countries in the Middle East.
On to the next misconception: the food is weird. Let me tell you something, it is far from weird and oh so divine! Before I continue let me provide you with my food judging credentials. In all my travels I have experienced some interesting dishes. I try my best to eat/drink without making any dramatic facial expressions, this is a hard feat for me as I wear my feelings on my face. I have been offered chunky milk, cow intestines, and a variety of mystery meats. I can tell you confidently that everything I ate in Jordan was beyond wonderful. From the fresh khubz (flatbread) made in a clay oven by slapping it to its round sides (hot hot hot) to the hummus, to the Maqluba (one pot chicken/rice/vegetable goodness that gets flipped onto a platter with cheers and claps) – I was in a constant food coma and it was glorious.
The last misconception on the list: The Middle East is nothing but a desert. Note that every time I write ‘desert’ I think of my editor brother. He is quick to remind me that a desert is so hot only one ‘s’ can live there. I am inclined to have ‘dessert’ on my mind. Contrary to what I expected, the sights I saw in Jordan were unbelievable! I walked at a snail-like pace with my jaw dropped through the ancient city of Petra. I floated in the Dead Sea in awe of it’s grandeur while trying not to get any salt water in my mouth or eyes. The olive trees that lined the streets shimmered in the sunlight and the ancient ruins throughout the country were striking. Let’s step back a second though, what is wrong with a desert? I visited Wadi Rum and it was the most breathtaking experience of my life. Camping in tents under heavy blankets (who knew the desert is cold at night?), gazing at the stars while chomping on some delicious, traditional Bedouin cuisine, which was cooked under the sand, was an experience of a lifetime.
While on my journey I blogged and kept my social media accounts active with photos, videos and commentary. My group of friends and family were amazed at all of my encounters. This leads me to the point of this piece, to start conversations to change perceptions of the Middle East. My glorious encounter included emotional highs and lows from seeing the sun set in a red sand desert to hearing about the plight of the refugees. Jordan represents a beacon of hope for those in need of uplifting, whether that means you are a refugee in need of safety and kindness or a thirty something Midwestern American woman that needed her faith in humankind renewed.