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Rethink the Middle East: Experience kindness, generosity and smiling faces

Mandy Tay on 14 Sep 2019

The Straits Times


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THE MIDDLE EAST - I woke up, startled by the deafening alarm bell in my hotel room.


Just hours ago, I had landed in Dubai for my new job as a trailer producer in the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, the region's premier television station.


I dashed out of my room and joined the other hotel guests clambering down the 14 floors. I remember, when I emerged, how surprised I was that there was such a sharp chill in the air at 5am. It was only 15 deg C, as I found out later.


The fire turned out to be a false alarm and also the reason I caught a cold in Dubai, a place which I thought was always blistering hot.


That was in October 2010. For the next three years, the Middle East would blow my mind in 1,001 ways. By the time I returned to Singapore in 2014, all my previous notions about the Middle East would have been shattered and put back together very differently.


Throughout the Middle East, I have experienced unparalleled kindness and generosity in my travels over the past decade.




My travel companions and I decided to take the metro in Teheran, which was very much like the MRT system in Singapore. Same train, same carriages, same peak-hour rush.


The difference was that when people in the train discovered they were in the presence of three foreign women, they made space for us.


A local commuter gallantly held the doors open for us as we faced a packed train and gently asked the crowd to move in for us.


When we mistakenly got off at the wrong stop, passengers in the whole carriage waved frantically, yelling: "Bia! Bia!"


In Farsi, "bia" means "come".


The Iranians nearest the exit also stopped the doors from closing on us. We dashed back into the train just before the doors slammed shut and the cabin erupted in cheers.


This was in March 2016 and, although it was my third time in Iran, it was just as magical as my first trip in 2013.


It is never about the places, but the faces that make the journey. And in this case, the Persian prince and his fellow commuters made sure the tourists got to the bazaar safely.




Jordan was mystical. I think of the 40m-high Treasury carved out in Petra and the ageless Wadi Rum desert.


Yet, my best memory is of an accidental jaunt through a local park in the capital Amman.


On that summer evening in 2011, the Jordanians playfully indulged me and hoisted their children into the golden light at sunset while I photographed them, their peals of laughter ringing through the park.


I had just seen the most spectacular sights in Petra - yet the faces bathed in twilight hues are still what I remember most.




"We are coming in three hours," Rachid, my ex-colleague from Dubai, called and told me where to wait for him and his wife, Imen.


They had done something unthinkable when they heard I was in Morocco in the summer of 2014.


The couple, who lived in Dubai, were taking their new baby to her parents in Casablanca.


The fabled city is 240km away from Marrakech, where I was travelling.


"Is this the first time you are away from Rayan?" I asked, half-hoping that it was not. Imen nodded. I could not believe how generous they were to sacrifice time from their family visit and even tore themselves away from their four-month-old infant.


If they represent the best of Moroccan people, then I wish everyone was Moroccan.




Bebek, a hipster area with fancy brunches, was recommended by my equally hipster hotel manager when I arrived in 2009 with my best friend.


After an hour of strolling, I barged into a tattoo shop and asked if anyone was being tattooed.


No one was, but the tattooist, initially suspicious, became excited when I asked to shoot his work and invited me to come back an hour later. "I wait for you."


When I returned, the tattooist introduced us to his friend, Nikki, a burly man with long blond hair who said he would take me "somewhere cool".


This turned out to be Nikki's yet-to-open shop. He was selling everything from vinyl records to motorcycles.


As we looked around in awe, the gentle giant, who was a stage manager for heavy metal bands such as Def Leppard when they performed in Istanbul, busied himself with wiping down some chairs for us.


They had been covered in dust from the renovation.


"Would you like some Coke?"


We paused.


"People always think I am talking about cocaine, but honestly, I really just love Coca-Cola," he said.


We laughed as we took our glasses from him.


Who knew we would discover all this in Bebek, just by asking?


The Middle East will ruin you.


On my last visit to Iran in 2016, a woman I met at a mosque in Teheran asked me in perfect English if I liked the country.


"Too much," I replied.


I can go on and on about how I met so much kindness that I felt like I was starring in a feel-good movie.


Like the time I crashed a wedding in Turkey and congratulated a ravishing bride in gorgeous purple


Or that time when a carpet-maker in a Tabriz bazaar in Iran told me to "come again any time, this is your place".


Maybe nothing I say will convince you - because of what might happen or because the region seems so close to danger.


But I know we may forget what was said or what we did on our travels, but we will never forget how we felt.


And in the Middle East, I felt like a star.




• Visa: Countries such as Jordan and Iran require a visa upon arrival for Singaporeans. This is pretty much a fuss-free process. It is also an opportunity for me, while waiting, to meet fellow travellers and discover their plans in the country.


• Couchsurfing: It was in Iran that I couchsurfed for the first time. It was an amazing experience - my hosts in Isfahan introduced me to their extended family while their parents even drove me to Shiraz in a trip that took four hours.


• Currency: Online currency exchange websites do not apply to Iran. It has such a closed economy that foreign-bank and credit cards do not work in the country. You need to take along enough cash to last you through the entire trip. Everything is generally quite cheap in Iran, however.


Dinner in a restaurant is typically less than US$5 (S$7).


• Language: Arabic and Farsi are the two main languages spoken in the Middle East, although the former has many dialects. I can speak Arabic like a native two-year-old, which means I can express myself, though in a rather deconstructed style.


Some of my favourites in Levantine Arabic, spoken in places such as Jordan and Lebanon, are "Yasalaam" (to convey how delicious the food is) and "saha" (used when someone sneezes). There is also "sahten" (akin to "bon appetit"). When someone says that, impress your new friend by replying "ala albak" (to a male) or "ala albek" (to a female) - which means "may health be upon your heart".


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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