Middle Eastern Travel Love Affair: Prologue

July 11, 2011


map of the Middle East

Map of the Middle East

Traveling the Middle East and love, how do those possibly mix?  The story of how I fell in love with the Middle East is still a mystery to me. I can recall how it happened, but will never understand why it happened. The same routine I followed many years of my childhood, but nothing captivated me like Arab culture did. I feel as if I was somewhat chosen. As if destiny, or “Allah,” meant for me to have a Middle Eastern affair.

I remember opening a world history book around the time I was 8. It was on my summer vacation still, but as usual, I was peeking through the textbooks mom had already bought for the school year ahead. Fascinated, I remember getting stuck in the Ancient Egypt chapter. I was enchanted. I read the same pages over and over again, never growing tired of looking at the pictures of Nefertiti & pharaohs. I think around that time was when I saw the film “The Ten Commandments” (1956) for the first time as well. I must have watched that movie hundreds of times. As with the book & pictures, I could not stop admiring the beautiful costumes, the gold jewelry, imposing head-dresses & gorgeous architecture. And so I fell in love with Egypt. It was love at first sight.

While I did not learn more about the rest of the Middle East until I was older, my fascination with Egypt and (in my case) the “Biblical Middle East” kept growing. Attending Catholic school only catalyzed the process, as it was all we spoke about in religion class: The Egyptians, the Israelis, Jesus, those lands. However, there was something special about Egypt, about Arab culture, that simply enthralled me. Ever since, all I could think about was visiting the country. Wander through those lands. Soak in the culture. Stare at those inspiring sunsets in the desert I kept seeing on National Geographic. Then, in 2008, my mirages finally came to life.

temple in Egypt, Middle East travel

Abu Simbel, Nefertari's temple

I will never forget when I arrived to Cairo, one of the most populous cities in the world on August 2008. The polluting fog was thick. The climate Unbearable, even for a Latina used to living under the hot Caribbean sun year-round. The traffic quite terrifying. Crossing the streets was like playing Frogger; riding a cab was even more dangerous than a real-life Crazy Taxi game. I didn’t stumble upon Nefertiti as much as I would have liked. No matter how much I chatted with Egyptians through the Internet and the many times I read the book “Culture Shock! Egypt,” I was not ready for what Egypt had in store.

This is when our love-hate relationship begun: I loved the Egyptian hospitality; hated the hawkers at the Pyramids. I loved Egyptian food; but hated the frequent “Pharaoh tummy.” Loved vibrant Cairo; hated its pollution. Still, somehow, I was captivated. My heart could not leave. I could not “fall out of love. And you know what they say: ”True love is eternal. If you think that you were once in love, but fell out of it, then it wasn’t love you were in. There are no ‘exit’ signs in love, there is only an ‘on’ ramp.”

I did everything I could to delve into the culture, to pass as an Egyptian (my looks helped, too). Instead of living on-campus, I decided to rent my own apartment with two other American students, Ramon and Julie. They were also studying Arabic; yet, they were already fluent. It was enriching and fortunate that I had the opportunity to live with them. I got to enjoy the comfort of having Western roommates, easing the cultural transition, while simultaneously being able to practice my new language. I believe this is one of the best decisions I made while abroad, as not only it helped me grow academically and culturally, but also personally.

Middle East - Arabic calligraphy

Arabic Calligraphy

While most expatriates lived in Westernized districts like Maadi, I lived in Agouza, where most of the population does not speak English. Not only I got to practice my Arabic and be corrected while at home, but also I was exposed to the language in my neighborhood. I remember going by hand gestures and slowly associating them with words until Arabic classes started a week after my arrival to the country. By then, I had already figured out how to ask for directions and basic menu items in Arabic. From the get-go, I was never shy about asking questions and practicing Arabic with the locals. Every day, I encountered conversations between locals in the metro, taxis, and markets. I even mastered the Middle Eastern art of shopping (bargaining) in my new language.

My love is not exclusive to Egypt, though. These experiences made me I fell in love with the Arabic language. With the Arab culture. I loved hearing stories about the Arab world from my Egyptian teachers. The passion with which they spoke was also inescapable. It drew you in. On my free time, I found myself learning more and more about the Arab world, the region as a whole. It was also my attempt to better understand this complex, often-misinterpreted society. I traveled extensively throughout the region, including several visits to Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel. I ordered food, read menus, and even booked tours and hotel rooms entirely in Arabic. Basically, I traveled, I “conquered.” It is fair to say that not only did I immerse in Middle Eastern culture, but my entire life mirrored one of an Arab. Naturally, my tolerance and understanding of Arab traditions and the Muslim faith increased tremendously through the year I spent in the region.

Consequently, it still baffles me how most of the West portrays the Middle East. Problems abound, yes. However, it is sad to see the little effort Western media put into trying to grasp the culture. It only took a couple of stories and beautiful faces & pictures for a 20-year-old to accept the nuances and push away pre-conceived notions. It is tragic to see how long it has taken veteran journalists to do so.

And so this is a prologue to my Middle Eastern Affair. A love story that I hope lasts forever.

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3 Responses to “Middle Eastern Travel Love Affair: Prologue”

  1. Bradley Says:

    Hi Maria!

    I’m looking forward to hearing your stories! I’ve just returned home after living in Turkey for 4 years – the Middle East is an amazing region and I too have had a fascination with Middle Eastern culture for a long time. In fact, my first trip alone I bought a one way ticket to Istanbul and didn’t know when I was coming home! I traveled to Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and even Libya! I’m sure you’re going to have an amazing time, feel free to email me or check out our website if you want any info!

    Have a great time!


    • Maria Laborde Says:

      Love to hear others sharing my passion for the Middle East! I’m hoping you are enjoying my stories and tips as it has been over a month of blogging already. Lovin’ it! =)



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