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40 Days and 1001 Nights (Summary)
During a total of 200 days in the Islamic world, I didn’t get beheaded or abducted. I learned that Islam is not the same in every country. It adapts and accommodates cultural differences. Some cultures are more willing to share their religion and philosophies with a foreigner than others. Like in the Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or Buddhist worlds, the level of adherence varies, but militant fundamentalism is still fringe. Extremism is dangerous, whether Muslim, Christian, or any religion that manipulates people by mixing faith and politics. Most ordinary citizens haven’t encountered such fanatics and don’t share their interpretation of God’s word.
Exploitation has existed since the dawn of history, with stronger, richer nations ruthlessly dominating those who are unable to defend their resources. We haven’t outgrown that, but finding vestiges of ancient music, medicine, and art fused with the modern world makes me realize that we are living in a special moment in history. Communication face-to-face and via electronic means brings us closer than ever to understanding one another. Once we look beyond our perceptions, life has more beauty than ugliness and the world is a fascinating and wonderful place.
Although I visited only four of Indonesia’s 17,000 islands, I found the teeming metropolis of Jakarta possessing extremes of wealth and poverty, historical Javanese palaces in Cirebon, an intellectual haven in Bandung, and one of the world’s last matrilineal cultures (which happens to be Muslim) in West Sumatra. Aceh, a land decimated by thirty years of war and a tsunami that is beyond anyone’s capacity to imagine, is a testament to human faith and resilience. Passion and strength are reflected in their unwavering devotion to Allah.
Siwa Oasis, Egypt
Although Siwa is veiled in the illusion of innocence and natural beauty, this long-time closed society is in danger of losing its way of life unless they set some limits soon. It risks the introduction of AIDS. The environment is suffering, and salt water may drown the unique farming culture. Yet people continue their ancient methods of date and olive farming, transporting their produce in wooden donkey carts, and baking bread in palm-frond-fueled ovens in sun-baked mud homes. Women are slowly being introduced to the modern world via the internet, and their embroidery skills are being seen on high fashion runways in Europe.
I experienced an island of sultry, melancholic music, tender with the sounds of a forgotten era. A cycle of darkness and corruption continues to eclipse the sunshine, enveloping the land. Sorrow from slavery, revolution by mass killing, poverty, disease, and now young men’s futures dimmed by heroin addiction permeate the stones of forgotten mansions that slowly crumble away. Despite the hardship, people still meet every night at sunset to sit on benches, sip coffee, and share the simple pleasure of one another’s company.
Jordan’s benevolent monarchy is universally loved. Though it may not be the most beautiful or artistic nation, peace prevails. The strongest message Jordan gave me was that people want peace and peace is not impossible.
Having a lust for life and steadfastly surrounding themselves by beauty and pleasure define the Uyghurs. They have been unknown to much of the world, dominated for centuries, and sold as a tourist attraction. Nonetheless, they continue honing their exquisite dance skills, listening to the music they’ve played for centuries, enjoying splendid varieties of food, experimenting with herbs in search of new ways to heal, and decorating in grand style. Uyghurs epitomize self-expression.
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