Following My Heart to Turkey and Lebanon
By: Sarah Baron
April 2, 2019
Last week, I finally got to celebrate spring break. After weeks of intensive Arabic study and so many hours of homework, I was beyond excited to visit Istanbul, Turkey, and Beirut, Lebanon.
In January, I asked my sister if she would travel around the Middle East with me during my spring break. Friends who had studied abroad the semester prior had travelled to Lebanon and Turkey over their fall break. These friends spent the past few months telling me about their adventures and showing me amazing pictures. Thus, my excitement was understandably high when my sister and I began making concrete plans for our own trip. Unfortunately, throughout our planning, anxiety over the negative comments from parents and friends constantly dampened my enthusiasm.
You might find it irresponsible, but throughout the entire planning process (and even while traveling throughout the two countries), I did not let myself check the State Department travel advisories. I already knew the United States government did not want people traveling in those areas; I also knew that many other universities were preventing their students from visiting either country. I knew that I was taking increased risks. However, as someone who has travelled to Peru, Costa Rica, London, and Spain and lived in France, Morocco, and Jordan, I felt prepared to stay safe. I knew all the basics: Don’t walk around with all of your cash. Keep a copy of your passport with you. Avoid public transport. Avoid large crowds. Don’t walk alone... etcetera.
However, to my surprise, when my sister and I started walking in Istanbul, we noticed many great qualities of the city and its people. First, we noticed the Turkish people's friendliness; seriously, we got so much free tea and dessert! We also noticed that the streets were very clean, public transport was accessible, and the nightlife was fun. Overall, we always felt safe in the city. We walked around—my sister one day in a tank top—without sexual harassment, overt glares, or anyone interrupting our meandering. We easily made friends who were more than happy to show us their city and found amazing deals exploring the Grand Bazaar. A few days later, when we boarded our flight to go to Lebanon, I had two thoughts on my mind. First, I wish I didn't have to leave! Second, how could anyone ever suggest not visiting this amazing place?
Arriving in Lebanon, I was almost as surprised by the beauty we found in Beirut, walking along the beaches and staring into the sunsets. We did not have any negative interactions with pickpockets, strangers, waiters, or taxi drivers. We used the public bus to visit ruins outside of Beirut and a brewery situated right above the ocean. We explored the nightlife, walking back to our AirBnB late at night, and never experienced any harassment.
So, you can imagine my consternation when I returned to Amman and finally decided to research those State Department Travel Advisories, only to find out that both Turkey and Lebanon are considered “Level 3: Reconsider Travel.” As a matter of comparison, I decided to research what France was rated (knowing that I felt considerably less safe in Paris than in Istanbul and Beirut) and discovered that it was only at a “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.” I can’t help but wonder that if Turkey and Lebanon were more closely politically aligned with the United States, and if their respective populations looked more similar to the typical, white, Christian American population, then maybe the U.S. government would be more comfortable with its citizens touring the countries. To be fair, I understand not wanting U.S. citizens spending money in a country that actively exploits and harms minority populations; however, I could not help but feel as though the risks were vastly exaggerated in order to suit political goals. In addition, how can students and citizens ever learn about the world and the people around them if they are not permitted and encouraged to go out and explore the places that might not seem quite as comfortable as Spain or Germany? So, after this experience, I am glad that I did my own research and followed my heart and my intuition to Istanbul and Beirut.