This particular entry to my blog has been one I have given a lot of thought to. Not that I give my other stories any less thought but rather this entry I have found to be evolving at a pace I can't quite keep up with. I did not want to write something that was no longer relevant or worse, completely inaccurate.
I have chosen to write about the Middle East. A topic I have, at times, avoided in the past due to its political, moral and social stickiness.
By no means does that mean I think it not worthy - far from it. Just that I often feel and believe I simply do not know enough about it (using the term 'it' loosely. It must be recognised that the Middle East is not a homogenous clump of countries - the diversity within is extensive and vast).
But the continuing appearance of the region in our news, more or less every day, has made it impossible to ignore. We see and hear, second-hand, the attacks either by Islamic State (IS) or those fighting against militants, the continuing struggles in Syria, the thousands that have had to flee their homes and those stuck in the middle of the turmoil whether in Turkey, Israel, the West Bank or Iraq.
And so, it has been this constant footage that has made me think hard about with the Middle East. It has made me almost hyper-aware. Any mention of the region, my ears prick up. All sorts of questions start forming in my mind. But the most prominent one is this: Is the Middle East really full of war and nothing else?
The answer? No.
As violent, gruesome, wrong, or whatever word one would use, the current situation in some parts of the Middle East is, it must be remembered that although troublesome (and truly horrific in some cases), a lot more goes on than brutal killings and war. This is particularly hard to fathom when media coverage is so heavily biased towards images of destruction.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
I want to stress that I am, by no means, claiming to be Middle Eastern or an Islamic expert. I have never been to that part of the world. Nor am I dismissing the media coverage as inaccurate or false. Some parts of the Middle East, have over decades, been in internal and external conflict. Pockets of turmoil continue today.
But what I have found extraordinary is the enduring ignorance of those who assume that what is currently unfolding in Syria, Iraq or Turkey is the norm; Muslims fighting Muslims, Muslims becoming radicalised. There is no peace and blood in the streets is a common occurrence. That is all that ever happens in the Middle East (apparently).
If this were true, it would mean the 18 countries classified as being part of the Middle East were all at loggerheads with each other. In other words, that is around 300 million people all trying to eradicate the other. When put like that, it is appears somewhat amusing so many believe the region to be one participating whole.
There is no denying there are cultural similarities of course. Countries found clustered together globally all share certain resemblances. But I acknowledge Jordan is not Iraq, Iraq is not Syria and Syria is not Saudi Arabia and no one country can truly represent another - each to their own so to speak.
Similarly, religion can't be used to justify the behaviour of a minority. As Ben Affleck correctly stated in the debate with Bill Maher's show 'Real Time', the blanketing of Muslims is:
"...gross. It's racist. You are painting the whole religion with the same brush".
With this in mind, I am attempting to illuminate the forgotten majority. Those who have lived and know of those who live in various countries across the Middle East: those who truly know what it is like to either live amongst or be a so-called inherently extreme Muslim (to paraphrase Bill Maher's belief) or not, to live in a region that is represented as being nothing but identical or somewhere that is only ever described as dangerous.
I spoke to friends who have had the chance to create their own opinions by living there.
Their accounts and memories are far from the bloodied, destructive images that (sadly) come to my mind and many others when the Middle East is mentioned.
Broadly speaking, the Middle East can be divided into three parts, North Africa, The Levant and The Gulf but, as described by E, 'each country has its own character, culture and flavour'. Those I spoke to have visited and/or lived collectively in: Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Palestine/West Bank, Israel, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Oman and Lebanon.
Not a bad mix hey? Reasons for their time there include; studying, holiday, religious pilgrimage, visiting friends and working. No emigrating militants here.
My friend Z visited Syria in 2007. It was a city he described as full of history and architecture that reminded his family of Pakistan. He adds, with a sigh, that he was unsure whether the historic preservation of the city is still standing.
Z and his family went on to Saudi to perform Umarah - the non-mandatory lesser pilgrimage made by Muslims to Mecca. When Z was describing his time in Saudi, from the 'overcrowded, fast paced and multicultural' site of Mecca to the 'peaceful and relaxing' time spent in Jeddah and Medina, I felt a complete mixture of emotions.
I was fascinated. I was angry. I was saddened. This beautiful religious practice and religion was (and is) one that some have associated with violent extremism. Again, we have heard of the British Islamist brides and British IS militants fleeing to 'the Middle East' where upon they are warped into a life of hatred against the West and deemed never to return.
The media have made it easy to forget that the millions of Muslims who do travel to the Middle East for religious purposes, come back. Not as a danger to the West. Not as a violent Islamist. Not as an extremist but simply a Muslim.
For my friends that went to study in Jordan and in Egypt, they painted a life full of laughs, fun, friendship and excitement. They truly lived the student life in a country that is 'like a diamond in a rough part of the world.'
The terms 'backward' and 'unequal' are often synonymous with Middle Eastern countries. While some countries have the highest rates of gender inequality in the world, for example Yemen and Saudi (gender equality being an issue I take very seriously), not once did my friends refer to the locals as such.
'My experience of Jordan was wonderful. I met so many open-minded, friendly and hospitable people. Jordan is home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees. It is used to welcoming people. The people never judge, they want to help.'
As already mentioned, Saudi's level of gender inequality is extremely high. F felt 'very much like a second-class citizen' purely because she was a women.
However, as this piece is about forming a different image of the Middle East, I was so pleasantly surprised when both M and E spoke of how little their freedom and movement was restricted in Jordan.
E: They [Jordanians] respect the West and women. They are eager to learn more about different cultures than I found other nationalities of the Middle East to be. On the whole, they are law abiding and friendly...I warmed and gravitated to their traditions and explored their religious beliefs. As a woman, it was important to respect local traditions in the more traditional parts of Amman.'
M had 'such an amazing time [in Jordan], [she] didn't want to leave.' Her student life was a blur of studying, travelling, partying and mixing with the locals. It sounded and looked incredible.
She described 'most of their characters as extremely hospitable and respectable.' The only restriction was getting around. Not because of her gender but due to the fact that everyone drove. Luckily, taxis were readily and easily available.
The most brilliant but also perhaps astonishing moment when talking to M was the description of her socialising and partying. I feel embarrassed to have thought student life in Jordan would be so different to our own.
Alcohol stores can be found everywhere and anyone can buy. As we do here in the UK (and I can imagine at other Western universities), we have the classic 'pre-drinks' session. So does Jordan.
When out clubbing: 'all the Jordanians drive to clubs and inside everyone is wearing similar attire to clubs in the UK, small dresses, big heels etc.'
A far cry from the image of Arab women often portrayed.
In complete contrast to the Levant, the Gulf is an area of wealth, skyscrapers and tradition. Dubai was described as 'an America in the Gulf' where life is based on aesthetic value. Again, a completely different picture can be painted to the one drawn in the Levant.
I could go on and on, attempting to re-create the memories shared by those who so kindly spoke with me: a measly effort to try and change the perceptions of many.
But I think (I hope) you are getting the idea. The Western media fuels the fire for the generalisation of the Middle East. Every one of my respondents' believed its portrayal in the media was unjust, ignorant and biased.
Out of the 300 million odd people living in the region, I understand my small sample of friends cannot be taken as a final representation of the Middle East. Nor do I want to gloss over the fact that thousands have been killed and millions have been made homeless. This we cannot forget and maybe, quite rightly, the media aren't letting us.
But for now, I hope I have at the very least, opened your mind or opened it further to the idea of diversity in the Middle East.
Wadi Rum, Jordan