Fishing nets in Byblos, Lebanon. July 2010. Credit: Laurie Galbraith
MOST TOURISTS only passively enjoy their destination. They slurp the noodles, take a selfie in front of the sunset, buy the cheap pashmina, and return home with a phone full of photos—seen again only during spells of boredom at the doctor’s office.
General wisdom says that a well-planned trip is the most enjoyable. Maybe, but with too much planning, debacle and spontaneity — the two catalysts of good travel stories — are hard to find. It is in the midst of uncertainty that we meet people and make connections, either because we must, or because we realize the illusion of control is gone temporarily and we might as well enjoy the moment. In The Joys of Travel, Thomas Swick laments the all too familiar feeling of being emotionally flat when traveling, especially alone. “We exit our lives without, usually, entering someone else’s,” he says. “In a void, deprived of company, conversation, connection."
Most of my travels, whether short—volunteering for a month in India, or longer—studying in Lebanon and working in Turkey—rooted themselves most deeply in my heart and mind when I made emotional connections with locals. They solidified my resolve to return again and dig even deeper. More than just a smile and 30-second small talk with the server of my fresh pineapple juice and apple hookah (argileh) at a seaside café; I mean the unexpected occasions which reinforce that notion that we have more in common with the “foreigner” than we think.
Studying Arabic in Lebanon found me wanting when it came to native speakers to practice with. Urban Lebanese are proud of their English skill, using every opportunity to impress English speaking visitors and expats. After day trips to less populated areas, it became apparent that small towns afforded the best chance to polish my colloquial language fluency. Southern Lebanon (junoub) is historically the most volatile, due to its shared border with Israel. UNIFIL workers and UN peacekeeper vehicles dot most of the roadways, keeping travelers aware of the underlying conflict with Lebanon’s southern antagonist. Simmering tensions notwithstanding, larger towns like Sidon, Tyre, and some a bit smaller, such as Qana, are steeped in history, theological importance, and are less congested than Beirut. My three flatmates and I itched to go south, despite warnings to the contrary. So, we headed down to the taxi stand across from our building, hired a car, and made fast friends with our driver Ahmed, as we barreled down the highway in his aged minivan.
ACCORDING TO THE BIBLE, but also contested by Israel—which has a second location with the same name—Qana is the place where Jesus is said to have turned water into wine. Following our stop there, one of our friends complains of a headache, likely the beginning of heatstroke. Ahmed—fiery, wiry, and helpful to a fault—quickly volunteers his sister Nura’s home in nearby Qana as a place to cool off and rest. We agree this is a prudent idea and Ahmed coaxes his tired van back into action. Ten minutes before we reach Nura’s apartment, we leave our friend in the feebly air-conditioned car with Ahmed and soberly take in the skeletal UN compound, bombed out by Israeli military during Operation Grapes of Wrath in 1996. Amidst anti-personnel cluster bombs, throngs of people unable to leave the village sought refuge in the building and were left dead or maimed. Broken glass, debris, and bullet holes still remain, painting a vivid picture for visitors who didn’t witness the Qana Massacre. This and similar scenarios have been a part of life for those living in the south, and for many, bitterness simmers under the surface, reinforcing support for groups like Hezbollah.
We arrive at Nura’s house bedraggled and hot, our sick friend now vomiting on the sidewalk. Ahmed’s sister opens the door and greets our motley crew warmly. Noticing our friend’s state, she flies into action, directing us to the side of the apartment, to a large patio shaded by lush bougainvillea. In the Middle East, the guest is king—nothing is overlooked. On large, faux gold and silver trays, Nura brings in cold lemonade, cookies, fruit, and a fan to cool our sweat as we languish on the worn but comfortable furniture. Our friend is treated as if he is family. She lays a long, hallway-type rug down on the cool concrete, grabs throw pillows off the family couch, cool cloths for his head, and a cold 7-UP. After making him comfortable and brushing aside our offers to help, she hurries to the front yard and removes all traces of sick off the front walk. Within minutes, she joins us in conversation while tenderly caring for our friend, removing his socks and shoes, and changing out the cool washcloth regularly. Nura took great care in everything it seemed. Walking to the back of the apartment to use the bathroom, I note the heavy, brocaded but dust-free drapes, and sparkling glass frames around her family pictures.
Shia Muslim like most of her neighbors, Nura fully understands the lingering vitriol caused by the Qana Massacre and other military actions that lead to death in her village. While we utilize our improving Arabic and Nura relies on Ahmed to translate the gaps, she shares earnestly how deeply she cares for people, no matter their religion, or where they’re from. She explains quietly that if another attack were to happen and an Israeli soldier were to come to her doorstep—wounded—she would treat him the same way she was treating our friend. Caring for people is the most important. It does not matter where they are from or what they believe. She looks around slowly at the two of us on chairs, and our friend dozing in and out of sleep—all whom she had never met in her life—and smiles. Her rare and unpopular opinion in this region—marked by pain, bitterness, and hatred—is met with our humbled silence and moist eyes.
THE ROAD TO DAMASCUS from Beirut is about three hours—including a border stop and a falafel sandwich break in Chtoura. This also assumes an average driving speed of 90 mph.
While studying in Lebanon, I arrange to spend a long weekend in Damascus. It’s fairly easy to find a cab and the rate is affordable. Other passengers going the same way will help share the cost, this is called service.
My very caffeinated driver, Khalid, and I settle on a price and then pile into the car with an elderly gentleman intent on complaining when he isn’t sleeping. And there’s Iman, a middle-aged Palestinian woman returning to the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. She hopes to one day leave the camp for good and make use of her PhD in finance.
While Khalid chain smokes and my elderly seat mate snores beside me, Iman tells me of her yearning for a place where she feels moored and stable, wishing her host government would support her community far better than it does. She also describes equal feelings of loss and resentment over not having a country to call her own, and of harboring anger so forceful it sometimes threatens to derail the hope she holds for the future.
The Lebanon-Syria border crossing is a circus. Cars, trucks, passenger buses, and semi-trucks all vie for a spot to park. Clogging the roadway, drivers and their riders leave vehicles unattended in an effort to get inside and ensure stamps, signatures, and documentation are handled. Khalid and my seatmate make a beeline for the building while Iman grabs my hand; we need to stick together, okay? Into the crowded crush of people, we push our way into a line.
A thousand hot, sticky bodies with accompanying pungent aromas threaten my ability to breathe. Iman leans in close and whispers, put your arms around me…don’t let go. We’ll get to the front. I wasn’t scared so much as concerned the process would take too long and Khalid might leave without us. I was glad for a guide and protector. It’s an hour before we simultaneously find our way back to Khalid’s Hyundai Sonata—no small feat, considering the sea of ubiquitous white sedans to comb through; the missing hubcap is helpful. At some point, Khalid has bartered a Titanic soundtrack CD for a watermelon, which he perches on the armrest between himself and Iman. Off we go, slowly navigating the border lanes until we get back up to Khalid’s terrifying but typically Middle Eastern highway speed. He smokes, balances the watermelon, and continues to gesture wildly as he chatters on about the finer points of Lionel Richie and George Michael.
The road to Damascus, Syria from Beirut, Lebanon. A private "service" driver balances a watermelon on the armrest while navigating the highway at breakneck speed. August 2010. Credit: Laurie Galbraith
In the U.S., most processes that handle serving the public are controlled. There is no free-for-all when it comes to DMV, border offices, or social security. You take a number and step up when called. Reflecting on this later, I realized that order and control often keep us from interacting. At the border building, Iman and I needed each other so we could stay standing and not be pushed over, which created a temporary physical bond in addition to our open conversation in the car. Essentially, chaos creates a need for unification, which creates connection. When you travel, there are no shortage of chances to see how people go ‘without’ in their lives; often times tangible needs like regular electricity and access to education, and sometimes intangible and unseen; safety, comfort, and rest. Despite Iman’s everyday need for security and provision, she somehow managed to give me what she desperately hoped for herself: protection.
WISSAN IS THE SECOND WIFE of a wealthy Saudi national. They have three children together in Riyadh and most of her days are spent there, living the existence of a second wife, only interrupted by a shopping trip to Dubai, Beirut, or the occasional holiday to Sharm Al-Sheik in Egypt. This year, they come to Beirut to see what the shopping malls have to offer. ABC in Souq Sassine near Achrafiyeh (sounds like ash-ra-fee-ya) is a large mall in the largely Christian area of east Beirut and in the late summer heat, the air conditioner is struggling and the mall is stifling — too many shoppers desperate to escape the hot weather and high humidity. Family is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern society; large families enjoy most activities together, even shopping trips.
I walk outside, looking for respite from the overwhelming noise and find a shady spot at the edge of a fountain and wait for my movie to begin. Moments later, a woman completely covered by a black robe (abaya) and headscarf with a face covering that only left her eyes visible (niqab), sits next to me while her children play in the shallow water. Always looking for opportunities to improve my Arabic, I say hello and smile: as-salaam wa-alaikum. With an almost indiscernible note of surprise, she responds in kind, wa-alaikum as-salaam. I know she is smiling when her chocolate brown eyes crinkle the tiniest bit. We exchange customary pleasantries, make introductions, and begin to chat. It’s clear she wants to show off her strength in English as much as I want to improve my Arabic. We laugh as we compromise — mixing the two languages together for comical sentences that make perfect sense to us.
After several minutes, we both take a collective breath, drink from our water bottles, and watch shoppers emerge with their hauls. Wissan turns to me quietly and gestures toward her coverings with a hennaed hand. I want to tell you something that may seem strange. I see her shoulders rise as she takes a breath and gestures toward her clothing and head covering; I really am pretty underneath all this.
I am stunned.
I look at her eyes and see her courageous attempt to garner affirmation. At a loss, my own young adulthood flashes before me, years of shattered self-esteem owing to all-too-common childhood trauma. I understand what it means to find solace in being hidden, but also want desperately to uncover and literally and figuratively: be known. It seems like minutes pass. As I look at her, I struggle with what to say, how to ensure my emotion will be understood. Wissan, my friend...I am so honored you shared these words with me and trust me with your thoughts. As a young woman, I had experiences that made me feel as you do now. I know you’re beautiful mostly because of your kind heart, but also because of the beauty in your eyes. We are no longer strangers, because we have shared the same path. You gave me a gift today…mamnoonik (I am indebted).
Her eyes fill. She reaches out and hugs me by the fountain that afternoon, holding me tightly, both of us connected through courage and vulnerability.
When you meet someone who, spurred by a whisper of courage, shares so deeply that they open themselves up to an emotional filleting, you realize that reciprocation is the only appropriate response. In that moment, you are no longer strangers and a tiny piece of that place now belongs to you, and you to it.
As I've immersed myself in Middle Eastern culture for work and study, I have been pulled in deeply—far beyond warm hospitality and a dizzying array of foods to explore—to a place that gave me opportunities to understand people within their contexts and meet them as they are. Repeated chances to see the shared hopes, fears, desires, disappointments, and motivators that bind us together in the human experience are more powerful than the differences we fixate on.
These commonalities cultivate meaningful connections with the places we travel to and endear us to the strangers who become our friends in the process.
Author and an old friend, walking at Tibhirine Monastery, Draa Essamar, Algeria. March 2023. Credit: Rob Guglielmetti
Three travel vignettes are excerpts from my 2015 travel essays.