Friday, April 06, 2007

Anti Semitic?

I am have now reached Nuweiba, a dusty little Red Sea resort in Sinai, just across from Aqaba where I was almost 4 months ago (I seem to keep doing loops in my travels). The main thing to do here is to go diving or snorkelling amongst the corals. The variety of fish is impressive but the corals have been sadly affected by mass tourism and there is considerable bleaching. Plus, due to the considerable depth of the sea, the water is really quite cold and without a wetsuit I can't last in the water for much more than 30 minutes at a time. So after my little beach holiday I will be moving on.

When I was planning the Middle Eastern leg of my trip almost a year ago there was one country that remained firmly out of the picture: Israel. There were several reasons for this - financial, practical and political. From a purely pecuniary point of view Israel is far more expensive than any other country in the region. The country also isn't very good at making friends with its neighbours and the much-dreaded Israeli entry stamp in your passport reduces your travel options considerably (there are about half a dozen countries that refuse entry to people with Israeli visas or entry stamps and even more that refuse entry to Israeli nationals, and it seems that I've been to most of them). And finally I make no secret of the fact that I found, and still do find, Israel's policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians and the region in general reprehensible, criminal and arrogant. At home I would make a conscious effort not to buy Israeli products, although I didn't go as far as some travellers I have met who refer to it as The-Country-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. But here I am, preparing to cross the border tomorrow. So what has happened to make me change my mind? Well, when I was in Georgia I met a couple of Israeli girls who were friendly, fun and open-minded who helped break the image of the Israeli traveller as being cliquish, miserly, bigoted and insensitive to local mores (a familiar stereotype amongst backpackers and one that I, sadly, found to be true on quite a few occasions*). I have kept in touch with one of them (Leali) who has taken the bold (possibly foolish) step of allowing me to crash on her floor in her home close to Jerusalem. As for the passport I only have three blank pages left in mine and so will be needing to get a new one sooner rather than later. My political views, however, have not changed, but I would have truly learnt nothing on this trip, where more often than not the reality on the ground has proved to be far removed from the stories I had been fed by the media. So I have decided I must go and visit the place so that I can see for myself what the situation is really like before passing judgement and I will try and approach the country and its people with an objective mindset, ready to have my opinions proved wrong. God knows I've been to enough countries with dodgy, autocratic regimes on my trip so boycotting Israel would be hypocritical on my part. Now I just need the notoriously paranoid Israeli border guards to let me into the country, something that may not be so straightforward considering the countries I've recently been to.

But enough of that, seeing as my time in Arab countries is coming to a close this is a good time to give a round up of my experiences here. The Arabs are quite a diverse lot, from the urbane, cosmopolitan Syrians and Lebanese to the tribal Yemenis. Generally though they are a hospitable bunch, always ready to ply you with tea and biccies and have a little chat (and qat, if you happen to be in Yemen). But stick to talking about the weather because they can get rather touchy about religion and politics which are often inextricably intertwined for them. Sometimes it can't be helped when they bring up the subject (which they often do, as "what's your religion?" tends to be the third question everyone seems to ask you) but it's handy to have a few exit lines handy as people often don't understand that there's an option other than Islam or Christianity; and proselytism is rife - in Yemen I even got Islamic literature with my breakfast ful. So I've had enough of Islam for the moment, though mainly because of the calls to prayer that start at 4 o'clock in the morning. When the wailing is blaring from the mosque next door somehow that doesn't make conversion an attractive option. But that aside I've had a good time in Arab countries and feel they get an undeservedly rough time in the media. The one exception has been Egypt where I haven't felt as welcome as I have in most countries I've visited. I've gone over most of the aspects in earlier posts but I'll just say that I've been scammed or blatantly overcharged here more times than on all the rest of my trip (except India) combined and I've gotten the overall impression that Egyptians in general see taking advantage of tourists as being perfectly OK and that my sole purpose here is for them to be able to make a quick buck. (Of course there are exceptions and there are many kind and helpful Egyptians, it's just that they make up a small minority of the people I've met here.)

*I suppose that comment might earn me the epithet of being an anti-Semite, though it's a term I truly detest. Not because I like insulting Jews, but because I'm a pedant and the term, in the way that it is most commonly employed, is so inaccurate. Semitic refers to an ethnic group that comprises the Arabs, Syrians and Amhara (Ethiopians) as well as the Hebrews. Jews on the other hand are people who believe in a particular religion and can be of any ethnic background. So I find it ironic that Arabs are sometimes branded anti-Semitic when in fact they themselves are Semitic.

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