I am concerned. When I turn on my American television and see Muslims, I feel scared. I see acts of violence. I hear rants of anger and hate. I see war and threats and tempers boiling. You see, Muslims do not have a peaceful face on my American TV. They do not appear to be happy people. I feel these images and this anger, over and over, again and again, every time I turn on my American television.
These images are shocking to me. I do not doubt that they are real. Several parts of the Muslim world are experiencing unimaginable suffering from war, death, poor human rights and fear from social insecurity. What I know, however, is that these images of anger and hate are not universal traits across the Muslim world. I know this because I recently returned from Muslim lands and I experienced quite the opposite.
I traveled through Pakistan, lived in Jordan, and worked in Morocco. In these places, I witnessed the euphoria of simple happiness; a sincere joy of living that I had never before seen in any other part of the world. I laughed alongside new friends from these Muslim countries who took me into their homes and into their lives as if I were a member of their family.
While visiting Lahore, a spectacular city in eastern Pakistan famous for its art, architecture, cuisine and hospitality, I noticed that a man was following me at a rather fast pace. It was night and I became worried that he might want to do me harm. He began waving at me. I turned onto a busy street and increased my pace. After a good 15 minutes of brisk walking down a well-lit main street, I thought I had lost him. I sat down on a bench for a rest. Within a couple minutes I saw him coming up, walking fast. He appeared out of breath and called out to me to stop.
I jumped up and took off again, hoping to lose him. It didn’t work. Finally I came to a dead end. I was trapped. My only option was to confront this man. When he got closer to me, he said to me in a very polite albeit exhausted voice, “Sir, you dropped your book back there.” He handed me my book, wished me a lovely evening, and turned to walk the couple miles back to where our chase had started. I was left standing there in awe, feeling ashamed of my assumptions and amazed at his perseverance and loyalty to his cause.
In 2002 I joined the Peace Corps, accepting a post as an NGO development advisor in the Jordan River Valley, the lowest place on earth. One hot autumn morning, I boarded a local bus on my daily commute to work. A man in traditional Muslim robes began preaching to the bus audience, encouraging them to pray and to attend the mosque. When he noticed me, an obvious Westerner, his attentions suddenly turned and focused on me. I did not comprehend all that he was saying. I felt uncomfortable and decided to get off at the next stop. I was scared of what I did not understand and of being a foreigner. This preacher’s gaze on me only intensified as his voice grew louder. When the next stop came, I prepared to pay the driver my bus fare. The man who had been preaching got in front of me, paid my fair for me, and said to me in Arabic, “Welcome to Jordan. Our home is your home and I hope you love it here.”
Bewildered, I got off the bus and felt guilty about my discomfort. I took solace in my punishment of the long walk up that hot dusty road which I normally only saw from the bus window. Later that day, I found the bus driver and asked him what that man had been preaching about. The driver said that he was preaching about how taking care of strangers, regardless of their background or religion, was an utmost duty for all Muslims. I was seeing similar behavior all around me and I felt humbled to be in the presence of these good and kind people. Unfortunately I was only allowed to stay in Jordan for five months: Toward the end of 2002, the Peace Corps suspended its programs in that country due to security concerns.
In late 2004 I reenrolled in the Peace Corps, accepting a post in Morocco for work as a small business development volunteer. I rented a small house in the old section of a strikingly picturesque town at the foot of the Atlas Mountains. I was the only American living in this town of 50,000 people.
When I arrived, I did not know anyone. No one, however, treated me as a stranger. Everyone I met invited me into their homes for tea and for jovial lunches of luscious couscous. They asked about my family, my country and how I liked Morocco. Many people asked me how Americans viewed Muslims. They were also concerned with the images they saw on their televisions.
I stayed in that Moroccan town for two years. I made close friends whom I grew to love. People took care of me and I tried my best to take care of them. During this time I only felt uncomfortable being an American when I watched TV and saw unpleasant images from and harsh criticisms about the United States. People, however, never made me feel ashamed for being an American or for not being Muslim. Their genuine warmth and welcoming nature continually showed me the good feelings that exist across the Muslim world.
How contrary my experiences are to the images I see on my television. Of course, happiness does not often make the evening headlines; death always does. Perhaps it is not the media’s role to provide information about daily life across the world. I do not complain, for example, that the media rarely tell me about life in New Zealand, Bhutan or Bermuda. I am only left to assume that life in those countries has its trials and its joys, similar to life in the United States and in much of the Muslim world.
In the past few years I have come to understand that the Muslim world is vast and varied. In my experience it is also exceptionally welcoming. Since I do not see the everyday life in much of the Muslim world in the media, I do my best to seek it out. Using the internet, I contact people all over the world – perhaps their televisions give them as negative an image about us as ours do about them. I search out venues in my home community to discuss intercultural relations, especially relations with the Muslim world. Most importantly, I simply share my experiences with people. I share stories in the hopes of counteracting negative feelings and misperceptions acquired through the media. Though I do not reach audiences as wide as those reached by CNN and Fox news, I feel blessed to be able to spread positive news from the Muslim world to anyone who will listen.
The author (Lee WIlbur, Jordan, 2002, Morocco, 2004-06) lives in Washington, D.C. and is an intercultural relations consultant with Petra Communications Group of Monterey, CA.
A version of this article was originally published as “The Peace I Found” in The Arab Washingtonian, http://www.arabwashingtonian.org, in February 2007.