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Travel Is for Idiotic Idealists: 3 Americans Held in Iran

by Sarah Menkedick Aug 4, 2009
Last Friday, three Americans hiking near the Iran-Iraq border were detained by Iranian soldiers for having crossed into Iranian territory.

The three, identified as Sarah Shourd, Joshua Fattal, and Shane Bauer, have not been heard from since.

In the latest update, Iranian officials have announced that the government is interrogating the three and deciding whether to try them as spies. American officials are attempting to work through Swiss ties (the Swiss have represented the U.S in Iran since the 1979 hostage crisis) to obtain further information and negotiate the release of the travelers.

The incident has inspired a vitriolic and disturbing backlash against the three Americans, and revealed a common way of thinking in the U.S about travel and travelers.

Take these comments on the website of ABC News, for example:

“Let them stew over there for a bit. For to be so educated (as it appears) these children certainly are naïve and STUPID!”

“Dude, the GPS say’s were in Iran.
Hey, lets go ‘break bread’ with the Iranians, we’ll show’em, Americans are goooood, it’s just our government that’s baaaaad…C’mon let’s do it ….we’ll be hero’s for world peace.”

“I hope they spend a couple of years in an Iranian prison thinking about their self-centered stupidity. And, when they get out, I hope the U.S government jails them for another couple of years. Idiots!”

“Ere is a real example of people acting stupidly, and now they ask us for help because of their stupid actions. I say if you want to vacation in the mountains of Iraq, summer in Afghanistan, or frolic in the waters off Somalia north coast then you should do it knowing (because the state department tells us so) that if your picked up on your own—stupid.”

“…they walk around with this dewey-eyed dream of the world…”

“…stupid aspiring writers…”

There are two themes here. One is that travel (outside of the U.S and perhaps Western Europe) is dangerous, reckless, and stupid. The other is that only starry-eyed, pot-smoking hippie backpackers are dumb enough to try it, and they get what they deserve.

One of the striking things I’ve noticed in comments on articles about the hikers is the way people are seething with contempt about the nerve of these “backpackers” to go “on vacation” in Iraq. The mainstream news media runs with this image and perpetuates it, etching out an image of the three as clueless, trust fund hippies singing camp songs round the fire on the Iraq-Iran border.

In actuality, the three were established journalists and experienced travelers, with bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, the L.A Times, New American Media, The Nation, The Christian Science Monitor, Transitions Abroad and Brave New Traveler. Shane Bauer’s story on Iraqi Special Forces took him to Baghdad, where he did extensive research on the political infrastructure behind the special forces and interviewed Iraqi civilians, Iraqi military officers, and American military officers. He speaks fluent Arabic and has lived for years in the Middle East.

Sarah Shourd’s stories on Yemen and Israel also show an insight and skill as a journalist and a shrewdness for travel which betray the convenient idea that she’s a study abroad ingenue with a misguided sense of adventure. She also has lived and traveled for years in the Middle East and was studying Arabic in Damascus.

Yet most Americans would prefer to view them in line with a rhetoric that says, “Don’t go overseas. The world wants to kill America and America is damn smart to just stay at home and let the State Department deal with it.” Thinking this way maintains the neat dichotomy between hippie liberal backpackers who sympathize with those hostile foreign nations and clued-in Americans who understand that in the “real world” these nations all detest us.

The coverage of this story is a direct reflection of the way the U.S news media portrays travel to anywhere that isn’t Tuscany or Disney World: dangerous and inherently stupid, seeing as the rest of the world hates Americans and wants to attack them out of envy and hatred.

Perhaps this is why so few Americans travel and why so many Americans returning home from a trip to Latin America or Africa or the Middle East will be confronted with gasps and wonderment over how they survived.

Because the media doesn’t like to tell the stories of travelers who’ve come back not only in one piece but actually inspired and optimistic, the disaster stories will always reaffirm the same point about travel being for the green young idealist who has yet to get slapped by the “real world.”

And sure, there will always be a certain degree of naïvete and ignorance involved in travel: that’s part of what makes it so difficult and so rewarding. How can a person not be naïve in some respect visiting a different culture and trying to figure it out from square one?

But as most readers of this website could tell you, traveling is something you learn in the same way you learn to teach or to cook. It’s complicated and physically and emotionally trying, and this is part of what makes it addictive, particularly for challenge-oriented people. And oftentimes, the more people travel, the more willing they are to take on bigger and bigger challenges, and the less willing they are to think of travel the way the mainstream media and the State Department paint it.

Therefore, they take risks. And these risks are the basis of some of the most successful reporting and travel writing, the kinds of stories that crack open our awareness of and compassion for life in a particular place.

This is what Sarah Shourd did with her articles on Yemen and Israel; she took risks and put herself in uncomfortable, unfamiliar situations and came out with stories that stick with the reader long after he/she has finished the last sentence. I can still imagine what it must’ve felt like to sit in prayer with so many covered women in Yemen, and I can feel her experience gnawing at my own given ideas about that country.

Yet if Sarah Shourd had been kidnapped in Yemen, I wonder how many people who read her story and enjoyed it would instead be saying, “How stupid!”

It is not only Americans glued to Fox News and spiteful of travel who scorn these travelers. There is also a vibe within the travel community that says, “well, you should’ve known better, too bad.” Whether that is true or not, where is the empathy for travelers when they need it?

Are we willing to marvel over travelers’ experiences when they get home, and dream about how we would’ve liked to have gone and done what they did, and look through the windows they open for us, but not to rally around them when they get into trouble?

This is not to say that travelers never make mistakes or get careless or cocky. This could have been what happened to these three hiking around the border; we still don’t know. There is plenty of potential back and forth about the logistics of their plan: North Kurdistan is a resort area and a relatively safe area for travelers, not the “war zone” people think it is. Other tourists have gone there in the past several years with no problem. The three spoke the local language and had traveled extensively in the region, which would have prepared them for travel in such a volatile area. Then again, one could argue that their experience should have taught them not to get so close to the border.

We don’t know. Traveling is always a series of decisions and oftentimes the travel that teaches the most, and leads to the best and most piercing writing, is a series of calculated risks.

So instead of degrading and condescending to these travelers, maybe we should show some compassion. After all, how many times have you been in a dicey spot on the road, how many times could someone have said to you days or weeks after a disaster, “what were you thinking?”

This is not to diminish the gravity of this situation, or to glorify their travels, or to say, “no big deal, so they made a mistake.” Rather, it’s to counter this widespread way of thinking that sees travelers as clueless, innocent idealists, and travel as an inherently reckless and futile behavior.

This story is more complicated than such straightforward conclusions, and merely writing it off as an example of naivete meets danger not only hypocritically insults these travelers when they most need support, but also degrades the act of travel overall and reduces it to simple formulas of safe vs. dangerous, smart vs. stupid, naive vs. experienced.

Community Connection

To read travelogues from Iraq and Iran, check out this post by Matador editor Tim Patterson.

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