Photo: Frank Meffert
IF YOU WERE TO BELIEVE the version of the world presented in the mainstream press, you would think that not only is it is a scary place, but that’s it’s getting even worse. In the past it was only the “developing world” that was pegged as scary and dangerous by news reports about poverty, crime, and violence, but those characterizations have now been extended to some of the world’s largest cities.
Terrorist attacks in Western cities are often reported in a way that ignores possible motivations, and makes people believe that they could occur absolutely anywhere — everyone should have their guard up. However, my experiences in traveling to some of the places where these attacks have taken place have taught me a very different lesson.
I’ve never been one to accept the fearful narratives of the mainstream media, and my beliefs have been supported by my travels. The first time I left North America — in 2013 — I flew to Turkey, even though many people I knew were terrified because of the Syrian conflict that had recently been in the media. But no one ever noted the danger inherent in traveling to the United States with its high rate of gun deaths.
The media often gives a very one-sided story about what happens not just in international news, but also what happens domestically. However, it’s easier to find a bit more balance on what’s reported domestically.
False foreign narratives
As I traveled through the Middle East, what I’d been taught about the region was constantly challenged, especially when I changed my plans to spend two weeks in Iran.
If I was to believe CNN, Iran was a country that hated the West, remained underdeveloped due to sanctions, and imposed a strict Islamic ideology not just on its citizens, but on anyone who visited. I’m not trying to say that Iranian society is a model to be followed, but I found that much of this was wrong.
As soon as I touched down in the country I was disoriented by the lack of English signage and my lack of connectivity. As I wandered the airport trying to find a place to change money and get a SIM card, I heard a call from a café. A young Iranian man addressed me in English and asked if I needed help. Completely lost, I accepted, and I’m so happy I did.
He helped me change money and get a SIM card, then called my hotel and we split a taxi into the city. He made sure I could check in — the man at the counter couldn’t speak English — and gave me his mobile number so he could show me around.
These kinds of experiences were repeated in each city I visited in Iran, and I still look back on it fondly as one of my best travel experiences. And that’s not even to mention the introduction I received to the beauty of Islamic culture in Iran.
The narratives we’re presented about non-Western regions of the world are often relics of the past that don’t reflect their modern realities, which serves to continue the idea of Western superiority. However, such reporting also misleads us as to how terrorist attacks impact the cities in which they take place.
I spent five weeks in Cairo in 2013, and during that time two bombs went off on the city’s outskirts. The first time, I received a text message from my mother asking if everything was okay. At that point, I hadn’t even heard that a bomb had gone off. Not only was everything fine, but life continued as normal.
When the second bomb went off — again, life continued as normal within the city — but I didn’t receive a text from my mother. That evening I sent her a message asking if she’d heard about it. She had, but she told me she no longer worried. At that point I’d been away from home for nearly three months. Clearly my experiences were showing her there was less to be scared of than the media suggested.
While the impact of these bombs was overstated, there was something happening in Cairo that was severely underreported that I thought should’ve received much more attention.
While I was in Cairo the presidential election to legitimize Sisi’s rule took place, and the government did not want to allow the space for protest. In Islamic culture, Friday is the Day of Prayer, so every Friday the military would shut down Cairo’s core. They used stone blocks to create walls across the roads, then they’d guard them with tanks and soldiers, to ensure people couldn’t reach Tahrir Square or the main government buildings.
The media focused on the events that forwarded their narrative about the danger of terrorism, but ignored the very real oppression being carried out by the government that had swept Morsi from power and usurped the revolution to restore a version of military rule.
This doesn’t just happen in the Middle East, but a similar tactic is repeated with the terrorist attacks in Western capitals. My experience on the ground after the Brussels bombing showed me how the media places fear before healing.
Focusing on fear
Less than a week after three suicide bombings in Brussels, I flew into the city from Eastern Europe. Similar to when I first went to Turkey, my family didn’t want me to go because they feared for my safety based on what they were being told through the media.
But I wasn’t scared because I knew the bombers had targeted Brussels precisely because the police presence had gotten so strong in Paris after similar bombings in that city.
There was a greater police and military presence, particularly at transportation and tourist hubs, but what also stood out to me was the evidence of collective healing. There was a massive array of candles, flowers, flags, and letters in front of La Bourse (the stock exchange), and messages of love and hope were written in chalk all around the building’s base.
As I walked around the city, I saw street art responding to the attack. I clearly remember walking by a bus stop, seeing “Bruxelles is love”, and thinking about how different the aftermath was being presented in international media. On the ground, the city had come together in an obvious collective healing process, but the media couldn’t stop talking about fear, ISIS, and the prospect of future attacks. It was completely disconnected from the reality.
Many of our fears about the world are based on media narratives that present us with a biased version of the world, yet it’s hard not to break them without engaging critical sources and seeing how we’re being misled. As the media tells us to fear the wider world, we find it harder to empathize with people outside our narrow communities, and that will only make it harder to solve the collective problems we face.
As travelers we can play an important role in helping to change these perceptions. Not everyone can travel to see how the world is being misrepresented in the media, and fewer people are willing to go to places that are presented as dangerous, but by visiting these places and showing our friends, family, and acquaintances how the reality differs from the media narrative, we can help to break down those barriers and rebuild the sense of empathy that’s absolutely key to addressing collective problems and looking past our minor differences to see the common desires shared by humans all over the world.