I’ve always felt comfortable in the Islamic world. My childhood years in the UAE gave me a familiarity and understanding of Islam, a religion based on peace. I’ve traveled back to this part of the world several times over the last few years.

For me, travel is not solely about beautiful beaches, luxurious poolsides, or warmer climates. It’s about gaining a greater sense of the world; it’s about learning and understanding. As fear has driven Western tourists out of the Islamic world, I only grew more fascinated by these countries — and by the Islamic community I’d grown so familiar with during my childhood.

I was 21 when I ventured back to the Middle East and Turkey — where I watched the balloons rise in Cappadocia, swam in the warm seas of the Turquoise Coast, and fell in love with one of the world’s most incredible, contrasting cities; Istanbul. I strolled between sacks of colored spices in the markets, drank black tea from ornate glass cups, and admired views across the Bosphorus. It was a short introduction to the city, but one that left me craving more.

A year later I caught another flight, this time to Morocco. Bright, colorful cities awaited, as did open smiles and delicious food. I arrived in Fez late at night and immediately felt the hospitality of local people determined to make sure a young girl traveling solo arrived safely to her hotel. The days continued in much the same way — while some were confused by my choice to travel alone and why I wasn’t married, it was a curious, interested confusion. Morocco is a country caught somewhere between its historical heritage, tribal cultures, and sense of modernization in the big cities. From Marrakech to the seaside town of Essaouira to the hills of Chefchaouen, I fell hard for this rainbow country, a place of stark difference to my home in England, yet one only a three hour flight away.

Egypt was next, and I was blown away by the warmth and openness of the local people. ‘Welcome’ followed me everywhere. I realized how much the tourism industry was suffering because of ongoing conflicts in nearby countries, and as a result of the Arab Spring. Boats along the Nile sat immobile, and visiting the Pyramids of Giza, one of the world’s greatest and most famous sites, as the only tourist in sight was surreal. Cairo glowed in golden layers, and I met incredibly strong and modern women who were kind enough to show me the city through their eyes. Out on the edge of the Western Desert at the Birqash Camel Market, I saw a timeless world in reverse, but it was clear that in Cairo, there was a conflicting desire to modernize and develop while still holding on to Egypt’s rich cultural past.

In Jordan, I drove through the Wadi Rum desert to Bedouin camps which sat in a moon-like landscape. Our dinner was cooked underground, a delicious feast of roasted vegetables, tabbouleh, hummus, and tea stuffed with fresh mint leaves. Songs were played on traditional instruments as we ate and the rich melodies filled the tent. Bedouin hospitality is like no other, as is the rich Arabic coffee served after meals.

As a traveler, there are few places I find more exciting than the vibrancy of the Islamic world. Everywhere, the call to prayer followed me, singing from rooftops in the early morning as the sun rose into the sky. Everywhere, the sunsets were magnetic, the food delicious, and the people unforgettable.

Related:  Scenes from the Sky

As a photographer and writer, there’s nothing more rewarding than changing other people’s perspectives of a place. I hope I can change someone else’s mind about these countries, and encourage them to book a plane ticket and see for themselves.

Fear is one thing, but misunderstanding based on misinformation is another, and unfortunately these lines have been blurred in recent years. The word which followed me around Egypt was ‘Welcome,’ and I felt it in each of these places.

Now more than ever, travelers are needed in these countries, not only to support the tourism industries which have been hugely affected by conflicts in these regions, but also so we can be the ones to return home and share our experiences of these countries and their people in a positive light.

1 COMMENT

  1. Annapurna, I loved reading this and seeing your photos… because I’ve been feeling a strong urge both to return to Morocco and to venture further into the Middle East. I admire the stories you’re telling to change peoples’ mindsets (particularly Western cultures).

    I too traveled solo to Morocco (mainly Marrakech) and must have had one of the few unlucky experiences because I’ve read such wonderful things about women traveling solo; and yet, I cut my trip super short because I was having such a miserable time and getting harassed and lead into uncomfortable situations. Whenever someone asks me about my time there now, I look back and I tell them the good things… because I DID meet amazing, kind people. And despite the more challenging experiences that were greatly influenced by those with less pure of intentions, I know that those experiences are ones that I want to revisit with the right people at another time.

    I know very little about Islam, but I love any culture that is different and filled with color, meaningful architecture, sacred geometry… etc. My favorite moment was flying into Casablanca and watching the women on the train, covered in burqas. While I was there, I never saw it as a symbol of oppression… but I imagined a mysteriously sensual relationship that they’re able to share with their partner when they return home. Just another layer to strip off and open yourself to vulnerability and intimacy… Because we ALL have those layers, those masks when we’re out in the public. They just take on a different form, don’t they?

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I can’t wait to go back. And, well, if you ever want a travel buddy… count me in!

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