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Journal Entry:

Thursday, November 30, 2006 04:30:58

Arabia 2006: 15 - Epilogue

Arabia 2006: 15 - Epilogue Having now set foot in all Arab countries, here are some observations. With apologies to the Iranians, when I say Arabs I am referring to Arabs and Persians, as they share many of the same traits. Please keep in mind that the Arabs I talked with during this and other trips speak at least some English, and so are educated. Most had contact with people from the Western World. The majority of Arabs are literate, and literacy rates among both men and women are on the increase.

"Gulf Arabs" is a term widely used to describe Arabs living in the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait. "Desert Arabs" are nomads living the hard, traditional life in the desert, which many do not want to give up.

What do Arabs look like? The stereotypical Omar Sharif colouring is common in desert Arabs and in southern areas. Many Arabs living near the Mediterranean are Scandinavian white, with an average of California beach boy brown. Traditional dress is found more in the south, while in the north most favour western dress.

Are Arabs Muslims? The majority, but certainly not all. In all Arab countries Christians, Jews and other religions are represented in varying numbers. People from different religious groups say they live peacefully and enjoy the same rights as Muslim citizens. A big no-no is to attempt to convert a Muslim to another faith. That is prohibited in most countries.

Religious conflict is not a problem in most Arab countries. Where it exists it is usually between Sunni & Shiite Muslims, not involving other religious groups. The conflict goes back to the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, when two factions went for control and divided the followers. For generations the heads of both factions died from assassination. The Koran, which I read cover to cover on this trip, was originally written in kufic script. As kufic has no vowels or separators, translations differ. Differences have been exploited by those using religion to gain political power.

Are women suppressed? In my translation of the Koran, Al-Nisa 4:14 says, "Men have authority over women because God has made one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them." Just before you guys run out to sign up, remember your favourite libation will be prohibited - only alcohol free beer at football games!

Women are participating more and more in business and government in many countries. A stark exception is Saudi Arabia, where women must cover themselves completely, are not permitted to drive cars or ride bicycles and walking with a man not in the immediate family can result in a charge of prostitution. Iran requires women to cover up, but they needn't hide their faces. When Marilynn and I were there 65% of university students were women.

The extremes at the other end of the spectrum are Tunisia, where women are not allowed even a scarf on their heads, or Morocco where schoolbooks showing pictures of covered women are prohibited. In the rest of the countries it is optional, with dress varying from fully covered to trendy European clothing. Covered women are generally older, with the younger generation preferring the latest in fashion.

Although it is permitted, few Muslims have more than one wife, and family sizes have reduced to two or three children. This is largely due to the cost of modern living, and the desire of most Arabs to educate their children well.

Is value of life low because they go to paradise? Absolutely not. Family values are very high. Generations of families often live together in the same house, the woman moving in with the man's family. Fathers dote on daughters, speak proudly of their sons and talk about their grandchildren at any opportunity. If a family member dies, it is every bit as much of a tragedy and loss as it is in western society.

Paradise is defined in the Koran as a garden with running streams and fruit trees. As one reads further through the Koran it is embellished by adding a soft couch, jewellery, rich cloths, servants, and yes - towards the end some virgins are included. Most people are not in a hurry to get there, though.

Do Arabs dislike Westerners? No, quite the opposite. People are intelligent enough to differentiate between the policies of government leaders and the citizens of a country. The policies of the current US government are despised, yet visitors from that country would be welcomed as guests. Religion is also not a problem - the only country that asks about religion on a visa application is Libya. Should a Jewish person wish to visit Arabia they would be welcomed - but if there is an Israeli stamp in the passport, forget it, entry would be denied. This is not about religion, it is to protest Israeli government policy.

I discussed the situation of Israel and Palestine with most people I met. It surprised me that all were in favour of recognition of Israel by Arab countries. They also felt Palestine should be recognized as an independent country to let it get on with building an economy, instead of depending on international aid. The Syrians and Lebanese are most anxious for the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees to leave, however that won't be so easy. They are not in refugee camps, they are scattered throughout the countries and many have jobs.

Are Arabs united in their thinking? Arabs are individuals and think individually. Tribal, national and family ties are important, but that does not mean an individual thinks the same way as the rest of the family or tribe, and they certainly don't necessarily agree with their government. All felt their government was corrupt.

Many Arabs distrust neighbouring countries, most dislike Saudi Arabia and many dislike Kuwait. Jealousy of Gulf Arabs is common. All condemn Israel's recent actions, but most don't have anything against Jews. In Yemen the people were really upset when a lot of Jewish Yemenis left to move to Israel in 1948, as they lost their best silversmiths and building engineers. Most believe that the Israeli government does not want peace.

Many Arabs are concerned about the balance of power should Iran get nuclear weapons. All I spoke to want an end to conflict in the Middle East. Most Lebanese believe Syria is financing Hezbollah in Lebanon, and some believe Iran is sending funds as well. There is no question Hezbollah is well funded - apparently they pay supporters around $400 per month just for being supporters. Most would like to see the funding cut off. No one I talked to supported fundamentalists or extremists, and most Arab countries have severe penalties, including death, for anyone involved in terrorist organizations. Arab people are not different from others in the world in that they want to make a good life for themselves and their families.

Governments vary widely. The only countries close to being democratic are Lebanon, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen. Most have an absolute ruler called a Sheik, Amir, King, or in the case of Iran, Mullah. Usually there is token democracy with elected representatives. The ruler can consult with these elected members, but his decision is final.

Most Arabian countries are rich in culture, history and natural beauty. The people are friendly and helpful, sometimes to the extreme. You will almost certainly be invited to homes for tea or meals, and if lost or in trouble in the countryside someone will help you.

It is unfortunate that due to media coverage, Arabs are thought of in a negative way, but the reality is that the vast majority have no more use for terrorists than anyone else. While Rev. Jones and his poisoned Kool Aid , the Waco Texas crowd, the Oklahoma bomber, the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi White supremacists are not considered representative of the Citizens of the US, a relatively small number of terrorists have been able to taint the entire Arab world.

It is my hope that you will visit some of these countries, learn about the culture, and most importantly get to know that most Arabs are proud, honest, caring people.