Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw

Andy StoneThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado

We were on a flight from Paris to Rome perhaps five years ago and there was a Muslim family sitting across the aisle from us: a man, a woman and their daughter.All three were in what might be considered traditional Islamic dress. The man wore a skull cap and a robe. He had a full beard. The two women were heavily and completely veiled.As we began to taxi toward take-off, all three, folded their hands, put their heads down and began to pray.With 9-11 not all that far in the past, my wife and I became distinctly uneasy. Muslims! On our plane! Praying as we took off!Who wouldnt be concerned?Well … pretty much everybody else on the plane, as a matter of fact. No one else seemed to even notice. We were, after all, flying out of Paris, where Muslim immigration has been going on for decades and although some people consider that a bad thing, no one is surprised to find Muslims on their flight out of Paris.And the family next to us certainly didnt cause any problems. They were most likely just nervous fliers, for whom prayer on take-off was comforting.But to us they were most certainly other. They were alien, they were a little scary. They were unknown.I mention all this because we have just returned from nearly a month in two seriously Muslim countries: Tunisia and Morocco.These are two of the most moderate Islamic countries and the people we encountered were often quite warm and friendly and, at worst, cool and indifferent.But, since we spent our time in the more conservative southern reaches of both countries, there was no question that these were Muslim lands. And I have been told by experienced travelers that both countries have become more orthodox in their Islamic practice in recent years, despite efforts by their governments to maintain a more secular society.In most of the communities we visited, a strong majority of the women wore loose robes with shawls covering their heads and many wore the all-encompassing robes with veils that left only a small slit for the eyes. The men wore skullcaps, full beards, flowing robes jelabbahs often with pointed hoods.The pressure on women was so strong that my wife a fiercely independent woman, a warrior who never backs down often wore a scarf to cover her head.She wore that scarf, she said, out of respect for their culture, their world.And this, I think, was the key point: This was their world.I mentioned that family on the plane in Paris. Their presence and appearance made us uneasy because we sensed them as an intrusion a potentially dangerous intrusion in our world.But now we were surrounded by hundreds and sometimes literally thousands such as in the grand square of Djemaa el Fna in Marrakech of men any one of whom on the streets of Aspen would have had us calling Homeland Security.But now we were in their world. And it was our alien appearance that sparked a reaction.As I said, the reactions were almost always benign. Although in the Djemaa el Fna the reaction was mostly a demand for money from the snake charmers (who carried around semi-conscious, de-fanged snakes to drape over tourists shoulders, no charming involved).But those positive-to-indifferent reactions helped drive home the point: This was their world and they didnt really care one way or the other about us.I felt that perhaps most strongly in a southern Tunisian town where we stopped briefly during a long days cross-country drive.In a way we were perhaps more out of place there than anywhere else on our trip.Unlike, for example, Fez the edgiest, most nearly hostile place we visited there was no tourist industry in this little city. When we walked the streets, we were the only non-Tunisians in sight. There was, in a sense, no room for us in the city. There was nothing that even remotely catered to tourists except, perhaps, the cash machine at the local bank, which offered instructions in French as well as Arabic.A few people certainly did glance at us as we walked the streets in that town. We were most definitely objects of curiosity when we went into a caf for coffee and mint tea. The two women in our group were the only female customers in the place and the crowd of men, almost all in their late 20s or early 30s, unquestionably did notice. One glanced up from his water pipe to give my wife the once-over.But again, no hostility. Just very reasonable curiosity.They say travel broadens. It certainly does in my case and not just because of the all-you-can eat buffets at several of the Tunisian hotels we stayed at and the vast quantities of food that comprise a Moroccan dinner.Waist measurements aside, this trip was a series of revelations.We traveled deeply into a very alien culture, from the medieval medina in Fez to a desert nomad encampment in the Sahara in Tunisia. I got yelled at for taking a picture of a pile of goat heads in a butchers stall. We were awakened time and again at dawn by the sounds of the call to prayer echoing from low-quality loudspeakers on minarets in every town and city we visited.And I got a glimpse perhaps only that, but at least that of a world in which veiled women and men in flowing robes with pointed hoods are not an oddity, but are indeed, an absolute standard of how people look and how they live.And I realized that the family I saw on that plane out of Paris five years ago might have only been praying for a safe flight.Or they might have been praying for me to stop staring at them.They were just living their lives.

Andy Stone is former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is


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