Mike White reflects on the people he’s met and the lessons he’s learnt in the Muslim world, and wonders if travel is the best counter to prejudice.
But Brenton Tarrant has seemingly proved me wrong.
The man accused of murdering 50 people in Christchurch wanted to kill Muslims. Thus, in a horrifying quarter-hour, he allegedly gunned down people who’d come to New Zealand from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, India, Turkey, Kuwait, UAE, Fiji, Indonesia, Somalia, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia.
I’ve travelled to most of these countries, and every time came away awed by the kindness and extraordinary care of the people. He travelled to some of these countries and came away with murder in his mind. I simply can’t fathom this. And that’s because I know he would have received the same selfless generosity and instant friendship from Muslims in these countries, the kind of hospitality that can teach us so much about how to welcome visitors.
Countless New Zealanders will have had identical experiences – you cannot travel through countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and not be the beneficiary of incredible goodwill. You cannot travel through these and other Muslim countries and not have your world – and personal – views changed for the better. Or so I thought.
Because, somehow, Tarrant seems to have managed to do this. He evidently travelled to the north of Pakistan, to the stupendous Hunza region and its surrounds. A region where I’ve been fed by pilgrims while sheltering in a mud hut from the snow; where an army officer paid for our entire hotel bill when we were stuck in a remote town; where a widow, whose husband had recently died in a bus accident leaving her with five children under eight and no income in a mountain village, pressed a pair of woollen socks into my hands as a gift.
"You cannot travel through countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and not be the beneficiary of incredible goodwill... and not have your world – and personal – views changed for the better. Or so I thought."
I wonder how this man could not have been touched by these people. And all the people there, and in the rest of Pakistan and beyond in the wider Muslim world. All the people who plucked me off the street and insisted I stay with them and earnestly and honestly told me, “This house is your house”; the strangers who paid for tea and taxis; those who countless times brought me to the front of a queue and told me, “You are our guest, you are welcome.”
Surely, during his travels in the Islamic world, he met people like I have. Like the driver of a car I mistook for a taxi in Iran, who turned out to be a paediatric doctor on his way to work who gave me a lift anyway, and his phone number, and insisted, “Call me anywhere in Iran if you need anything – any help – anything.”
Or the guy who picked me up in a school bus near the Caspian Sea; every house we dropped a kid off at, I was invited in for tea. Or the customs officials in western Pakistan who gave me a bed and fed me when I arrived at a border crossing near midnight and had climbed over the wall into their compound to see if I could continue on to Iran. Or the families living in sagging tents in freezing refugee camps who always insisted I share what little they had. Or the wedding party in Iraq that swarmed around me as I passed by, temporarily abandoning the bride and groom, to make me, a complete stranger, the honoured guest at their celebrations.
And my experiences went far beyond such acts of genuine kind-heartedness, and extended to protecting me. One Christmas Day, I was researching a story about American attempts to stop Afghan farmers growing opium poppies, and drove to an isolated village near the mountains of Tora Bora. Suddenly, about 30 men appeared over the brow of a hill and angrily surrounded our car. They thought I was a CIA agent or other American official intent on pulling out their crops and wanted to get at me. Only the swift and calm intercession of my two minders stopped things getting badly out of hand.
On numerous other occasions, I was quickly bundled into cars to escape danger, or led away from volatile situations by the local people around me, all putting my protection ahead of their own safety. I’m not so sure I’d have been so resolute, in their position.
Much of my travelling in Muslim countries was in the 1990s and early 2000s – some of it after 9/11, when you might have expected antipathy to Westerners. There was none of that. And I’m certain nothing has changed in the intervening years. My nephew and his partner recently backpacked through Pakistan and Iran, and experienced the same hospitality.
I recently flicked through my travel diaries and opened up one at a page where I was in Peshawar, in Pakistan’s northwest, in the wake of the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, which lay just across the Khyber Pass.
I was the sole foreigner in a restaurant, and a group of five large Pashtun men with impressive moustaches were staring at me. As they left, one asked, “Speak English?” I said yes, and sort of prepared myself for a lecture about US imperialism. But the man just carried on towards the door, and I carried on eating. Then he returned and simply said, “Money,” and pointed to the counter – and I immediately knew he’d paid for my meal – because this had happened so often before.
This is what I wrote afterwards in my diary of that day:
“And you walk down the street and people are calling out, ‘Hello, how are you?’ and a bloke grabs me by the hand and shakes it firmly and hugs me and wants me to have kahwa [tea], and you wish George Bush could come here and spend just one afternoon in Shoba Chowk, experience the amazing hospitality, and then maybe he’d be much less ready to drop bombs on Muslim people.”
It was heartfelt. It was also naïve. I still cling, though, to the belief that the best antidote for people’s prejudices against the Muslim world must be to travel there; be welcomed into their countries, their homes, their families; experience the extent of their kindness; and be overwhelmed by their unaffected friendship.
This article was first published in the May 2019 issue of North & South.