Asking For Directions in the Middle East

I applied for this blog four days ago and was planning to post soon before The Times of Israel received so much attention yesterday for an abhorrent blog post by a former user. Yesterday I thought twice about being a TOI blogger because this platform was being so widely slandered, but now I think the fact that this is an independent blogging platform, a social network for writing about a set of loosely related topics, has been made clear, and TOI professionally removed the offensive blog for violating their terms and conditions. For a while now, I’ve wanted to begin a TOI blog because it allows me to say what I want to say, when I want to say it, and I will get more relevant readership than if I created my own Blogspot or WordPress.


I’ve been living or traveling and working in the Middle East pretty consistently for about nine years now, and I’m beginning to consider myself a Middle East novice. I first came here in 2005 when I was nineteen-years-old as an infantryman in the US Marine Corps for my first of two tours of duty in Iraq. I was admittedly clueless about the region, but when I got to Iraq I spent much of my time with Iraqi soldiers and civilians, trying to get to know the place and people better—I’d be able to talk with Americans whenever I wanted, so I didn’t want to neglect this opportunity to get to know people I might never meet again.


My second tour was in 2007, in the same city as my first, Ar Ramadi, when the Awakening of Al Anbar was beginning there. In total contrast to my first tour, this one was entirely peaceful and I got to know the people much more and fall deeper in love with them, the land and the culture. I wrote my first novel during my free time on my second tour, and I decided I wanted to pursue peace and change as a writer, so I got out of the Marines at the end of my contract in 2008 and began going to college on the GI Bill.


Four months later, I’d be back in the region, but this time to Ismailia, Egypt, to meet a friend I had met online. I still knew almost nothing of the region besides a few cultural idiosyncrasies and the fact that I did not like Al Qaeda. In Iraq, as a going-away present, my interpreter gave me a red and white keffiyeh, so when I saw a black and white one for sale in Egypt, I got it to complete my collection. I wore it around that day and a friend at a restaurant pointed to it and said “Filisteen?” and gave me an inquisitive thumbs-up. Sure, I like Palestine, I like everyone, and I certainly love the Middle East, so I said, “Na’am” and returned his thumbs-up. But I knew nothing of Palestine, except that they were in some supposedly ancient conflict with Israel, who I also knew nothing about. I left Egypt back for the States on my scheduled flight early in the morning of December 27, 2008.


When I got home, I read an email from my grandmother asking me if I was in danger from the war nearby. “Grandma, don’t worry… I’m back home and there’s no war near where I was.” Then I checked Facebook and saw my Egyptian friends were changing their profile pictures to Palestinian flags and posting articles about war breaking out in Gaza. Every day for the next twenty-two, I wore my new black and white keffiyeh and told my friends and family that Gaza was being massively attacked. I didn’t know the details of why war broke out, I didn’t know anything of the history between Palestinians and Israelis, but I knew how my good friends felt, and damn me if I didn’t take their side.


I didn’t post anything online because I knew I was too uniformed, but I got into a few verbal arguments that I couldn’t win. I ended up writing a story for my college newspaper that quoted a Palestinian-American student, a Jewish student with family in Israel, the length of the war and the casualty numbers. Beyond that, I’d need to learn a lot more. I met bloggers online and Palestinian-American students in my Arabic class, and one invited me to stay with her family in the West Bank the next summer. I accepted her invitation, and I also accepted an invitation to stay with a new friend in Gaza.


I bought a ticket for Cairo that returned from Amman six weeks later. Things did not go exactly according to my plans. That summer I would spend time in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Palestine. I did not venture outside of occupied territory into Israel proper, unless you count East Jerusalem, which was conquered in the war of 1967 and is part of the West Bank. I will not go into much more detail in this post, but I’m just outlining my story a bit to give readers an idea of it. The next year, 2010, I traveled to the Czech Republic first, then to Israel, the Golan Heights, the West Bank, then back to Egypt. I was determined to really learn about the region so I could write about it responsibly and hopefully help contribute to peaceful change instead of mindlessly repeating one side’s rhetoric.


When the Arab Spring reached Egypt in January 2011, I booked a flight to Cairo and flew the same day to participate and help Egyptians tell their story to the world. Later that year, I returned to Iraq, but this time to the Kurdistan region to meet with some Iraqi friends. Then I flew to Amman and drove to the West Bank and was going to stay there as long as I could, until I had to urgently return home because my mother was having complications with a surgery. The next year would be the only year between 2005 and present that I would not visit the Middle East, but I was still very active in Middle East politics, joining protests at home and helping Arab Spring revolutionaries organize and tell their stories to the world. Perhaps I was too focused on the Middle East that year, as the Arab Spring was getting very ugly, because I had to be hospitalized a few times.


In the summer of 2013, I finally returned to the Muslim world, to a city some (myself included) consider part of the Middle East but some don’t—Istanbul. I’ve been living here since, working as a high school English teacher and continuing my pursuit of knowledge and understanding. None of this makes me an authority. In fact, I’m probably far from that. I’m just a young man who’s been very interested in the Middle East for almost a decade and has had some interesting experiences while traveling and learning as much as I can here.


Life itself is a learning experience, and those of us still lucky enough to be alive should always continue learning and respectfully sharing what we’ve learned. I’m beginning this blog because I have a lot I want to share that can’t be satisfactorily explained in tweets, and I’m trying to give up the bad habit of writing thousand-word Facebook updates for all of my friends, family and co-workers to read. I’ve written this introduction to give you an idea of what I want to write about, and I’ll conclude by asking for your requests. I would like this to be an interactive blog—I want to alternate between topics of my choosing and ones that have been respectfully requested by my readers. No one needs to frame their questions or requests to me in a vindictive, gotcha-type of way. If there’s a controversial subject you want to know my thoughts and opinions about, then ask me and I’ll do my best to respond to everyone thoughtfully and politely. I still have a lot to learn—I know I always will. I’m very happy to ask questions and listen to what people want to teach me.


I hope to bring my next blog post to you soon. I want to write about the current cycle of violence in Gaza and Israel and common ways it’s perceived and discussed in the Middle East and in the West, with an emphasis on highlighting helpful and unhelpful trends that might help to shorten or extend the conflict. If you have any requests, questions or suggestions, send them to me and I’ll try to either incorporate them into my next post or address them in a subsequent post. I hope very much to see the killing in Gaza and Israel, in the greater Middle East, North Africa and other parts of the world, end, and all I seek with this writing is to help expedite that end.

About the Author
Vince Perritano served in the US Marine Corps from 2004-08, including two tours in Iraq as an infantryman.
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