In Sunday school I learned of Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, Ur of Chaldea and Ramoth-Gilead. I imagined the "sacred waters" of the three great rivers, Jordan, Tigris and the Euphrates flowing through Mesopotamia and Judea. As a young child I read the stories and saw the Ray Harryhausen films of Baghdad, Joppa, Phoenicia, Damascus and the great city of Persepolis. My head spun with the tales of Darius, Xerxes, Sinbad, Scheherazade, Aladdin and Gilgamesh. Flying carpets, Genies, one-eyed Cyclops? Are you kidding? When can I go? Shazzan!
I've had to visit each of these lands either through the 24 hour tragedy of CNN or the don't-go-or-you'll-destroy-it beauty of National Geographic. On one hand I can't go because of the political environment on the ground. On the other I shouldn't go because as a clumsy, heavy-footed tourist I'll unwittingly step on some holy pebble in the road and crush it to powder or bend a blade of grass that flowers once every 30 years and permanently alter the eco-system that relies on that particular variety of weed. Whaddya gonna do?
I wanna go!!! Item Number 5 on the Traveling Optimist Bucket List is to see the Middle East, a long-hidden and often forbidden part of the world. I've been to Israel and Egypt and I am free to travel to Jordan whenever it suits me. I wish for the day, however, when traveling to the big three, Iran, Iraq and Syria will be as routine as going to Greece.
How I have long envied citizens of other countries who are not restricted by their governments from traveling to these uniquely historic lands. Canadians can travel to Cuba and flock to the island nation in droves each winter. I can't. The French fly to Syria and Lebanon as a matter of course. Why not me?
How is an American tourist going to overthrow President Assad when all I want is Syrian tea, bakhlava and an afternoon at the bazaars? He's two years younger than me, probably speaks better English and looks like someone who enjoys a mean game of tennis or racquetball.
Thanks to Google Maps I can see an aerial image of Persepolis, to the northeast of Shiraz in central Iran as plain as day but I'm not physically there, on the ground, smelling the air and keeping the sand out of my eyes. From the comfort of my living room I cannot fully imagine great hosts of warriors and exotic merchants coming and going across the eastern desert plains.
Thanks to National Geographic I am able to view gloriously rendered images of mystic lands complete with erudite narrators and award-winning writers to enlighten, entice and tease me with the places they've been but I am as yet not permitted to travel. Reading the yellow bordered magazine in bed with a light snack and a glass of water before lights out does not give me the immediacy of life on the Tigris with bleating goats and giggling street urchins running from frazzled mothers wrapped in burkhas while shopping for the daily meal.
I'm no fool. I know full well that, if nothing else, my personal safety is not an assured thing in this part of the world. I know of the political differences between nations which keep the borders closed as well. It has always been interesting to me, however, that journalists, photographers and film crews from "The Great Satan" can safely travel and report from beneath the veil in the course of their duties where an average tourist armed with little more than a camera, credit card and curiosity cannot. When?