I have traveled in 12 countries whose primary language is Arabic and whose people are overwhelmingly Muslim, yet I know very little about the religion of Islam. So before going to the United Arab Emirates last month to attend the World Travel and Tourism Council Global Summit in Dubai (and, in part, inspired by the conference theme, "World Citizen"), I asked a Muslim friend to recommend a book to help me better understand his religion.
He suggested "Islam: A Short History" by Karen Armstrong [Modern Library Chronicles Series, 2002].
The 220-page book moves swiftly through approximately 1,400 years, beginning with the birth of the prophet Muhammad. According to Armstrong, egalitarianism and the pursuit of a righteous life, as defined by the Quran and practiced by Muhammad, is central to the religion, both for Muslims as individuals and for the structure of the broader community of Islam.
I thought about her book several times during my visit to the UAE, but mostly during an excursion I made on the day I arrived.
Because I had seen Dubai thoroughly on a previous visit, I asked my hotel's concierge how to get to Al Ain, a city about 90 minutes away. I told him I had about seven hours before the conference began, and he first offered to arrange a car and driver for $1,750.
Could I not take a bus? I asked. I think it was at this moment that he realized I was not a member of the Russian petro-oligarchy. He replied that if I were willing to ride in a less-fancy car, he could arrange it for $70 an hour. I again asked about a bus. As he explained how uncomfortable this would be, an associate of his who was standing behind him winked and nodded "yes." They eventually told me where I could catch a city bus (50 cents) to the central bus station.
On the outskirts of the station, I came across a man calling out "Al Ain, Al Ain." Three young men were standing near him. I asked how much he was charging for a ride to Al Ain, and he said 20 dirhams (about $5.45). We all crammed ourselves into his beat-up, old Toyota.
The driver was an Afghan. A Pakistani joined him in the front seat, and I squeezed in back with two Bangladeshis; the one in the middle eventually fell asleep on my shoulder.
Al Ain is a tidy oasis on the Omani border. Whereas the Burj Tower, under construction in Dubai, is already the tallest building in the world, I didn't see a structure much taller than a palm tree in Al Ain. I found a cafe and had a Turkish coffee so strong it kept me awake until 3 a.m., and as I sipped, I chatted with a man smoking a hookah who allowed me to take his photo under the condition that I not publish it.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because my wife thinks I've given up smoking," he replied. (Despite the unlikelihood that his wife is a Travel Weekly subscriber, I will honor his request.)
By the time I finished exploring an old fort and walking through a date palm oasis, it was time to return.
I had planned to take a bus back, but on the way to the station the driver of the taxi I was in asked where I was headed. When I told him Dubai, he said he could take me there himself for 250 dirhams (about $68). I replied that all I had was 125.
We drove on. "How about 150?" he asked. I told him that, honestly, all I had was 125. "OK," he said, nodding. "Let's go."
I found out a lot about him on the ride back. It turned out he was from southern Waziristan, near the Afghan border in Pakistan, where al-Qaida and the Taliban are very active. He was a devout Muslim. He had some odd political theories -- he fervently believed, for example, that the U.S. was arming the Taliban -- but he was also a strong supporter of Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf.
He told me that he just scraped by as a taxi driver, that things were getting more expensive every day and that he kept just enough of his earnings to live on, sending the rest to his wife and children in Pakistan.
En route, he asked if I was thirsty; he was stopping for gas and offered to buy something for me to drink. I said I would appreciate some water. He looked at me with disbelief. Didn't I want a Pepsi? I said water would be fine. Surely, I really wanted a Pepsi, he said. I realized I was coming close to rejecting an offer of hospitality, so I said that yes, Pepsi would be great. He came back with both water and Pepsi for me.
The driver ended up missing a turn as we neared Dubai, and that error added about 45 minutes to the trip. This clearly concerned him.
When we finally arrived at the hotel, he watched as I pulled out every bill in my wallet and counted out exactly 125 dirhams.
He handed five back to me. "It's not good to have no money at all," he said. "You might need this."
I was touched by the gesture, by the gift of Pepsi and water, and by his generous spirit even after he had just lost 45 minutes from his workday. We parted with a warm handshake.
The "World Citizen" theme of the WTTC conference was intended to focus on the need to responsibly build the physical infrastructure required as more travelers from countries like China and India become globetrotters. But it's instructional to note that the industry's global leaders gathered to discuss this in the Arab world.
Reflecting on my short Al Ain experience, I began to wonder if the industry is paying enough attention to building the appropriate cultural infrastructure to enable world citizens to interact successfully with each other as guests in other countries, as hosts in their own and in encounters with other travelers while we're all on the road.
It's obvious that the bridges between non-Muslim Americans and much of the Islamic world are in bad repair. We are now six-plus years past the shock of 9/11, and U.S. citizens still eye Muslims with suspicion. The war in Iraq, of course, places a continual strain on relations between Muslims worldwide and Americans.
I felt fortunate to have been exposed to an expression of hospitality on my return from Al Ain that both reflected and transcended the information on the printed pages of Armstrong's book on Islam.
For most Americans, I would agree with my friend that Armstrong's book is a good place to begin understanding Islamic beliefs, culture and traditions. But for industry professionals preparing to counsel a growing clientele that aspires to be world citizens, nothing can compare to travel through a Muslim country.
E-mail Arnie Weissmann at [email protected].