Travelling in the Age of Terrorism : From the perspective of a Muslim woman and tourism professional

I am a South East Asian, non-hijab wearing Muslim woman. What this means for me as a traveller is that aside from curious immigration officers remarking incredulously ‘ I didn’t know there were Muslims in Singapore?’(New York, couple of years ago), my religion as stated in my passport has hardly been a source of religious profiling in the same way that it would have been for a Muslim male from the Middle East or South Asia. The most difficult time I’d had as a Muslim clearing immigration was in Marrakech where I’d been suspected of being in possession of a stolen passport. Again, that there are Muslims in Singapore required a temporary suspension of disbelief that lasted long enough for me to finally be waived past the gate.

As the founder of Urbane Nomads, a luxury adventure travel company I’d started eight years ago, I’d done more than my fair share of travelling, both professionally and in a personal capacity. Currently, I am living in Istanbul, a place Musa Cerantonio, identified as ‘one of ISIS’ two most important “new spiritual authorities” ‘,(Graeme Wood, The Atlantic, Mar 2015) believes would be the setting of the final battle between the caliphate and Dajjal (the anti-Messiah) before the end of days. In the aftermath of the Ankara bombings during the pre-election period, there were multiple bomb threats daily in Taksim. Even today, riot police assembling on Istiklal Caddesi is a common sight, especially over weekends. Certainly, this is a departure from my life in Singapore, where the riot in Little India two years ago marked an end of 40 years of freedom from riots for the city state, once described by Wired magazine as ‘Disneyland with a death penalty’.

 Over the course of my travels, these were the times where terrorist acts had either directly impacted my travel arrangements or where I felt like I’d narrowly escaped the attacks: 1) I was supposed to be in Bali for work during the 2002 Bali bombings. Instead, my uncle was there, staying at the Hard Rock Hotel, a mere 500m from the bombed Sari Club. 2) In 2004, I was on the train to Spain from Morocco when I read about the train bombings by trying to discern some meaning from words that were familiar to me in a Spanish language paper. 3) The one that affected me the most were the Mumbai bombings in 2008. This was a year of intensive travel and between my trips to Myanmar and Bhutan, I’d almost literally only had time for one cycle of washing and drying my clothes before packing again for the flight to Bhutan via Bangkok. This was during a time when I’d felt invincible, as if none of the travel-related horrors reported in the press could happen to me. I’d badly wanted to visit the Burmese Himalayas, both for its ridiculously remote and difficult to access locale as well as the promise of a luxury lodge set up by a visionary couple in the coordinates of nowhere. When informed that the flight I’d intended to take had been cancelled but that a local flight company with a safety record so poor locals joke about having to use an umbrella in the plane when it’s raining, my only concern was whether I’d get back to Yangon on time in order for me to get to Bangkok for my connecting flight to Bhutan. A plane crash was something that only happened to other people, I thought. The Mumbai attacks happened when I was in Bhutan. At around the same time, news of the airport seizure in Bangkok by rioters reached us. Bangkok was the main gateway to Bhutan at the time. The other ways into and out of Bhutan were via Calcutta, Delhi and Kathmandu. Calcutta and Delhi were unpopular options due to fear of copycat attacks. There was a lot of scrambling around amongst tourists in Bhutan for alternative flight arrangements. On the SilkAir flight back to Singapore from Kathmandu, I read Singapore’s Straits Times detailed account of the Singaporean lady killed in the bombing of the Taj in Mumbai. The report gave details of her personal life; where she’d gone to school, how she’d met her husband, her friends’ accounts of the person she was. Most terrifying was the reconstruction of her final moments. And I remembered crying, probably less out of empathy than out of the realization that it could have been me. We’d gone to the same type of schools, probably frequented the same places in Singapore and the Taj Mumbai could easily have been the hotel I’d stayed at had I been in Mumbai instead of Yangon, Kathmandu or Paro. 4) Several years later, in 2014, as I was preparing for an expedition in Afghanistan, I found a personal tribute to one of the casualties in the attacks on a restaurant in Kabul on my Facebook newsfeed. That the attack was on a small restaurant signified, to me, that the target and motivation behind these acts of terrorism in Afghanistan had shifted. Previously the targets were big hotels like the Serena. I reasoned that as long as I kept to small boutique hotels in Kabul, I would not have much reason to be worried. When a small restaurant was attacked, this meant that the terrorists were no longer targeting symbols of excess, big chains or even large numbers of casualties. The small boutique hotel in Kabul popular with journalists and aid workers could now well be a target. This again brought things closer to home than I was comfortable with and along with my recent fall off a horse, resulting in a shoulder injury that would have made kiteskiing uncomfortable to say the least, a few days before Chinese New Year, made me decide that kiteskiing in Afghanistan would have to wait. A UK-based fashion magazine later contacted me saying that it was going to send a journalist and photographer to cover the Afghanistan expedition, which temporarily kickstarted preparations for the expedition in Afghanistan again. The death knell for the expedition, at least for that year, was when my application for a visa to Afghanistan was rejected by the Afghan consulate in Kuala Lumpur that had asked me to ‘come down for an interview’. My friend who had accompanied me for the visa interview was amused by the victory jig I did outside the office after having been denied my visa. I had the perfect excuse to not go to Afghanistan now, after all.

To aid in character development, I pray 5 times daily, 3 when I’m travelling. I’d prayed in the African bush, above stables, while pretend camping in Norway and in a Kazakh tent in Mongolia as the whole family watched, whispering amongst themselves whilst I prayed. I observe some sort of dietary strictures and do not drink alcohol. I am a practicing Muslim woman enjoying the benefits of a secular world. I have access to travel opportunities that most women living in countries identifying with a more Muslim tradition would not have access to. During my bid to be the first woman to cross the Rub Al Khali, a desert that spans areas in the UAE, Saudi, Oman and Yemen, I was accompanied by a male guide. I was aware that, should anything untoward happen to me during the trip, I would have had no legal recourse as I had willingly travelled with a non-mahram. I have no aspirations towards an Islamic state. While I make fun of my friends’ fear of Turkey becoming like Iran, I would be on the first plane out if it did.

Before the ride up to Erta Ale volcano

The act of terrorism that had the greatest impact on international travel would arguably be 9/11. We are now faced with increased scrutiny and greater security measures. Given the more adventurous and off-the-beaten trek characteristic of the destinations that Urbane Nomads promotes, one of the first questions that we receive from clients would be if a destination is safe. Questions on whether destination XX is safe as a travel destination are common. There have been requests asking for a ‘guarantee’ that it is safe to travel to a particular destination.

In school, I was especially interested in contemporary Middle Eastern politics. My masters’ degree was in Strategic Studies at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, now the Rajaratnam Institute of International Studies. My thesis involved applying James C Scott’s model of peasant resistance to the daily transgressions of Iranian youths against the ruling mullahs. In an alternate life, where I’d persevered with acquiring the necessary language skills, I imagine I would have been a war journalist. Instead, in my present capacity as a tourism professional, I have been called a ‘honeytrapper from the Karakorum’ somewhere in Twitterverse for suggesting that a Westerner visit Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. My short exposure to the academic world has allowed me a more nuanced appreciation of international incidents than the average travel professional and being a Muslim woman affords a more personal insight and response in an age of terrorism that has often been conflated with Islamic extremism.

Right after the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, I decided to travel to Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa or what was previously known as the North West Frontier Province, travelling through Shigar, Hunza and Chitral. Chitral valley was an area thought to be the hiding place of Osama when a videotape of Osama was released in 2003, where the backdrop of trees indigenous to the Chitrali mountain range could be seen in the background and where the mullahs’ response to a directive by Clinton to bomb Osama bin Laden’s suspected hiding place was to call for all foreigners in town to be killed during their Friday prayer sermons. The killing of Osama was still being discussed on the news as I travelled in Pakistan. Visiting the Kalash festival grounds necessitated a trip to the police station where individual travellers find themselves on a tally board as a statistic, sorted by gender and nationality. I was assigned an armed guard. Later on the festival grounds, I met a French NGO worker who had been assigned three. I joked that I should go back to the police station and insist on two more armed guards as a show of protest against them having valued the life of an Asian chick at a third that of a French male. While deploring the disparity in the perceived value of Western versus non-Western lives was and continues to be a common refrain after every terrorist attack on a Western country, from New York’s 9/11 to the recent bomb attacks in Paris runs the risk of being overdone, the double standards, at least vis a vis encouraging tourism to the country that has been attacked as part of recovery measures, are still evident. Three days after the attacks on Paris, Conde Nast Traveller published an article titled ‘How Can I Help Paris’: ‘The City of Light needs our donations, our thoughts, our prayers, yes. But it also needs us to stay in its legendary hotels, to eat in its exquisite restaurants, and to walk its streets that are like nowhere else on earth’. While I am fully behind the idea that cities that have recently suffered terrorist attacks need tourism revenue as part of its recovery process, I feel that the call for ‘business as usual’ should be made for every city that has suffered terrorist attacks. A couple of days before the attacks on Paris, I’d been asked, on Twitter, on my take on an article on ‘Travelling in the Age of ISIS’.

Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Although I’d responded by impetuously pointing out that the travel professionals interviewed were probably all based in the US, suggesting a disconnect with the countries being discussed, the author of the article made an interesting point when it highlighted how some countries, like Morocco and Jordan, with no history of recent attacks, are struggling with attracting tourists whereas France, even in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, were projecting high levels of tourism this year. This can certainly be explained away by confusing the entire Middle East and North Africa as a hotbed of terrorism, as was the case with avoiding the entire African continent due to fears of Ebola but ignorance in this case, creates conditions which allow for terrorism to continue. Cities like Marrakech are especially dependent on tourism and we know that those most susceptible to being recruited by terrorist organizations are not the religious but the ones lacking economic opportunities. Through wilful ignorance, we’re perversely creating conditions ideal for terrorist organizations to recruit new blood.

“Everybody’s worried about stopping terrorism. Well, there’s a really easy way; stop participating in it.”- Noam Chomsky