When the plane landed in Ashgabat, I was a bit apprehensive about my journey to central Asia because many people had concerns about my safety. However this was my Marco Polo moment in that a childhood fantasy about traveling the Silk Road was soon to be fulfilled.
And then because of my extensive travel in countries where Islam is the religious majority and have lived in the Holy Land for almost a year, I had a preconceived notion of what i would encounter.
I expected to hear the imam chant and broadcast the call to prayer five times a day from the minaret however the governments do not allow this Islamic public manifestation of faith. Not hearing the call disappointed me because when the imam would broadcast the call I would pray my Christian prayers.
There is such a pervasive military presence in the streets, on the metros and multiple internal border checks for both foreigners and nationals that you know that all activity is being monitored to insure everyone’s safety. All of this has given me a sense of freedom and security so my initial concern was quickly overcome. I feel as safe as, maybe even safer, here than I do at home.
Within a few days I remarked to my guide that i did not feel I was in a Muslim country. No call to prayer from the mosque, people dressed in a western fashion. I see more Muslim women veiled at Kroger and on the VCU campus in Richmond than I have seen in central asia.
So this has been a Macro Polo moment within a western context devoid of any public manifestation of the Islamic faith in countries where over 90% are Muslims. I expected to hear the imam’s call to prayer throughout the day and people dressed in the markets as they are dressed in other Islamic countries but neither heard the call to prayer nor enjoyed the exotic visuals. Yet I encountered wonderful people who have extended such a welcome. When they ask: Where are you from? And I answer America there is a wide smile and the response: I like your country or Good country. Although I was disappointed that my Marco Polo experience was devoid of the trappings I expected, I received an even greater gift I did not expect: a warm welcome that radiated the joy of our shared humanity.