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Culture Blinded by Poetry in Sinai

What are all those bloody Bedouin yelling about? Poetry, apparently.

Last winter I was hiding out in Sinai and as Hanukah had already passed, there weren’t too many Israelis on holiday and only the odd other foreigner around. The relentless winter wind drove most of us into the shelter of the hoosha, the tents made from carpets, and in the evening a fire was lit with imported wood to warm the desert night.

On one such evening I returned from watching sunset up on rock overlooking the Red Sea and found there were more Bedouin around than usual. Men in white robes sat around the embers gabbling away and I guessed there wouldn’t be much call for my guitar tonight. Probably they’d start up with the oud and drums in a while or maybe they’d just continue to argue until the dawn. Their raspy, aggressive voices were getting on my nerves in fact and I wondered why they felt the need to shout at one another from a metre away. They were probably arguing about money, politics or camels.

I decided to ask.

“Philippe,” I said, turning to a Lebanese guy to my right who naturally spoke fluent Arabic as well as French and English, “Just what are they talking about?”

“Poetry,” he replied, ” These are guests from Saudi Arabia and they’re comparing local verses with some of the great Arabic poets and discussing their merit.”

I suddenly felt very small.

In my mind, discussions about poetry and literature were conducted in thoughtful, meandering tones, perhaps over a civilised cup of tea in a cafe overlooking a river. In short, it had just been proven to me just how culturally blind I was and I found myself wondering just how many other times in my travels I’d come to swift and entirely mistaken conclusions. Were the Indians as illlogical as they seemed? Were the Brazilians really that superficial? Did the Germans have a sense of humour after all? Fuck, what did I know?

Most of us travel with the intention of opening our minds, broadening our experiences and learning what the road has to teach us. But we head out there into the Great Unknown with a backpack full of preconceived ideas and opinions that weigh us down more than any 5 kilo guidebook. The prejudices that we don’t already have we pick up from other travelers and it’s common to see someone who’s been in Mexico for 2 weeks already joking about the laziness of the locals. We embrace the ideas that are fashionable, sound good or are simply convenient. The clichés protect us from having to actually make the effort of understanding another culture.

In the Tao Te Ching it says the more you travel the less you know and since Sinai I’ve been wondering just what the hell I’m doing as editor of an online travel guide. So the position is officially up for grabs, just drop us a line and explain why you’d make an excellent editor. We offer highly competitive pay scales (if you happen to live in say, Mali or Bangladesh) and being female might be a plus (not much chance of harassment as it’s a telecommuting job) as we’ve noticed that 80% of road junkies on the site tend to be male.

And if you can’t write for nuts but want to learn how to open your mind and get to grips with another culture, check out our ten tips to assimilation abroad.