Have you ever thought of Baghdad as a “city of peace” and “a miracle”?
Me neither, but that’s how it was described in an exhibit we visited recently — not in Iraq, but at the National Museum of Qatar.
Several of the exhibits there reminded me that people around the world see things very differently than we do in the United States, regardless of who is “right.” Another one highlighted the collapse of the global pearling industry, which was devastating to Qatar but unknown to me. An exhibit about the “Ramadan Blockade” described how Qatar was blockaded by several neighbors a few years ago. I barely remembered that happening.
The museum, which opened in 2019 with a design evocative of a desert rose, wasn’t the only one in Doha that made me think in new ways. Across town, at the Museum of Islamic Art, an exhibit examined how Lawrence of Arabia and other films have contributed to Western misunderstanding of the Arab world. Another gallery showed how modernity has brought prosperity to Islamic nations while upending local traditions.
Both museums featured stunning architecture and beautiful exhibits. Neither was especially political; on the contrary, both were designed to appeal to broad international audiences. Inevitably, though, they reflected the perspective of a society that, for all of its wealth and rapid modernization, still differs from our own.
This is why I love to travel. It challenges my assumptions and broadens my perspective, no matter where we go.
Shortly before we flew to Qatar, for example, we had lunch at the Kathmandu home of two old friends. Here’s what I saw on the gate outside their house:
If you’re startled to see a swastika displayed so proudly, much less beside a Star of David, think about your own vantage point. Swastikas were sacred symbols in Hinduism long before they were linked to Hitler. The six-pointed star, which we associate with Judaism, is also a Hindu symbol. Both symbols are common in Nepal and have nothing to do with Nazism or Judaism, at least in the local context.
Or consider this statue we saw in Ilam, Champa’s home town. It honors Ratna Bantawa, a local Communist leader who opposed Nepal’s former king. Ratna and his brother were denounced as terrorists and killed for their activities. Today Ratna’s memory is celebrated. There’s a road named after him. Communists now play a prominent role in Nepali politics even as “communist” remains an epithet in our own country.
My point here isn’t to debate Iraqi history or communism, just to note how travel changes our perceptions. This latest trip reminded me of something I wrote several years ago after returning to Moldova from a trip to Bulgaria and Romania: “One of the things for which I’m most grateful about serving in the Peace Corps is how it’s made me less fearful about traveling to places that seem exotic or dangerous to some Americans even though they’re actually safe, beautiful, fascinating and cheap.”
As I wrote then, “you hardly need to have served abroad to expand your horizons a bit. … There’s a big world waiting beyond the American comfort zone” for those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel, a privilege the two of us never take for granted.
That big, mysterious, fascinating world is still there and still waiting. Now that the pandemic has eased, I hope more Americans will explore it, as we hope to keep doing ourselves.