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Why I Traveled the Muslim World After 9-11 and What I Learned

09/14/2010 04:00 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Beirut. That was the first thing that came to my mind when I stood in Ground Zero surrounded by the wreckage of the Twin Towers, a few days after September 11th, going in to dig for bodies alongside my police officer former brother-in-law.

Beirut, a city that destroyed itself as citizens fought and murdered each other, arguing over religion.

Before I stood in that dusty, sacred rubble, I had never imagined that I would ever in my lifetime live in a city that had become a warzone, but that is what my beloved New York had become. At heart, I knew the attacks on New York were in some ways a form of cultural misunderstanding, and I strongly feared in response that the attacks on the Twin Towers would be used by many Americans as a reason to justify attacks on Islam, a religion, that at the time, I myself knew very little about.

I am nothing more than a travel writer, but that day, I swore I would no longer write only about beaches and pool bars, but about places Americans knew little about - Muslim countries. Admittedly, until then, my travel writing was rather vapid. Tahiti's honeymoon hotels were a highlight of my travel schedule that year. Along the way, I learned that we Americans were just as misunderstood by citizens of Muslim countries.

The wicked Islamaphobia and the battle over Park 51, the mosque and community center being built close to Ground Zero, have made me think long and hard about the journey I have taken since then. Wanting to learn more about Islam, not to denigrate it, was my personal reaction to the tragedy that was September 11th.

My first hopes were to visit Afghanistan, a country I had not given much thought to since I was a child in the Carter era Russian invasion which set the current tragedy in the motion.
I began to learn about Afghanistan through the movie Firedancer, which examines the difficulties of Afghan refugees living in New York. Filmed before September 11th, the Twin Towers were a backdrop as Afghans reminisced of what war has destroyed in their homeland.

It was not hard as a New Yorker to sit in a darkened theatre and tear up, completely understanding the loss the characters express about a distant land. I became friends and eventually traveled to Afghanistan with Baktash Zaher Khadem, a star of the film, when he and his mother went to help Afghan women widowed by war. Baktash told me Afghans "suffered a 9-11 everyday," with war a never ending part of their lives. For several publications, I would write Afghanistan travel articles, revealing the rarely discussed warmth and hospitality of the country.

I also learned how little Afghans knew about America, many not believing September 11th happened, that it was a ruse to invade the country. Much of the argument I encountered at the time was that when we invaded Iraq and killed Saddam's sons, we showed their dead bodies on American television as proof. But where were the dead bodies of Americans killed on September 11th? As a witness to the events and explaining how I dug through the rubble myself looking for those very bodies, I made this event real to them.

But there were many more areas in the Muslim world to explore, like Jordan where, for the first time, I met Iraqi war refugees. They were members of the dance troupe Mardoch, who showed me a video of a dance session where the stage began to shake, due to American bombing of Baghdad. The play was about Adam and Eve, and in my ignorance, I asked them how they knew of the story that opens the Bible. From the Koran of course, but until that moment, I never realized this book so denigrated within America since September 11th is filled with all the same characters as the Bible. Why else would Issa, Miriam and Yousef - Jesus, Mary and Joseph - be such popular Muslim names?

My Jordan trip coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, and as I watched the crescent moon, the sign the holiday has started, rise over Amman, I felt like an eight year old seeing Santa Claus in his sleigh, so exciting was the anticipatory mood in the city. Yet, seeing the crescent moon brought a sense of shame that as someone who considered himself a cosmopolitan New Yorker, I never until that very moment knew why the crescent is the symbol of Islam. Did I really have to travel to the Middle East to understand this? I shared my first Iftar, or Ramadan dinner, with those Iraqi refugees that night.

I would eventually visit Baghdad, learning there was a time when it was among the most religiously progressive cities in the world, and a major Jewish center. Lost in a dark, ancient bazaar in the city's downtown, I looked up at shafts of light through windows in the shape of Stars of David. I gasped at the sight of them, and local vendors were as shocked to see a foreigner. A few hugged me, mentioning when synagogues once dotted the cityscape.

What all of my travels in the Muslim world have taught me is few religions are more hospitable to foreigners than Islam. Islam was a religion born of the desert - if people do not share food and water, welcoming strangers, there is no way the religion would have survived, spread as it was by caravan merchants from one oasis to another across the region's vast sands. Judaism and Christianity were born earlier in the same region, but both of these religions have largely been reborn in Europe, leaving behind their Middle Eastern ways. Hospitality and an understanding of foreign ways should not be one of them.

The role of the travel writer is to bring people to places they never see, to explain things to them, to make the unknown, the forbidden, the intangible, known quantities, things to no longer fear. So I have tried with the Muslim world, since September 11th. Some may have used, and continue to use, September 11th to tear people apart. I believe it is a lesson, something we can use to bring people together. It is the only respectful way to honor those who died that day, and the American soldiers who continue to die, protecting our freedoms, religious freedom among them.

Last year, on book tour, I finally made it to Beirut, to stand for real in the rubble that Ground Zero brought to my mind. Much is said about the city's architectural rebirth since the civil war ended, but the truth is, Beirut's center still remains a ruined former war zone. I found a city where mosques, churches, synagogues, religious structures of all kinds, were laid to waste by religious hatred, citizens killing citizens over which book they read.

The fighting over Park51, the stabbing of a Muslim taxi driver and the horrific anti-Muslim rallies on September 11th that I witnessed this year have made me worry the United States might suffer the same fate, destroying our cities, but this time, with our own hands. God willing, I never want to think of Beirut in any part of America again.