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Sharing Stories: Is TOASTMASTERS the cure to Peace in the Middle East?

The Middle East. What comes to your mind? Muslim terrorists? Dangerous people? Oppressed women?

When I accepted an invite to speak at District 20 Toastmasters Annual Conference in Muscat, Oman, my friends spoke up.

“Judy, you’d be crazy to go.”
“It’s too dangerous. There are TERRORISTS there.”
“You would really need to ‘Jew-Down'.”

The truth is I WAS scared. I watch CNN, which makes me NOT at all an expert on the politics of the Middle East or even the geography. When I got the invite to go to Oman, I said, “Great! Where is that?”

“It’s in the Middle East,” Mahmood Safar Alqassab, whom I met while speaking at the International Toastmasters convention in Cincinnati, told me.

“Middle East? Great! I could fly to Chicago.”

As it ends up, Oman is FAR from Chicago. After 23 hours of travel, I was picked up by Mahmood and Harish Bilgi, their heads covered by the traditional muzzar, both wearing traditional Omani dishdasha (a white ankle-length gown). Men in dresses? Hey, I’m used to that. I live near West Hollywood!

They hugged me and didn’t seem scary at all. I immediately felt their warmth. Telling jokes and laughing, we headed to my hotel, I mean my palace. Yes, I was staying at the Al Bustan PALACE. A 5-star resort on the Gulf of Oman. Walking into the hotel, waves of Frankincense calmed my nerves. And that’s when I learned that everything about Oman is sweet: the air, the customs, the people.

“Is it safe for women to walk late at night downtown in the marketplace?” I asked.

“But, of course. After all, this isn’t LOS ANGELES!” They had me there…

It took a while for me to get over my fears. At the Souq Muttrah, (one of the oldest marketplaces in the Arab world), seeing a man holding a five-year old girl, I assumed that he was kidnapping her, or worse. Then I noticed many men pushing their children in strollers, kissing and hugging them.  So un-terrorist like.  You don’t believe me? Watch this amazing YOUTUBE playlist of my adventures in Oman.

I’d tamed down my presentation, showing a restraint I didn’t know myself capable of. No one was more surprised than I was when during a humor exercise, Sheer Al Balushi came onstage and stripped down to his Muslim underwear, giving me a chance to see traditional Omani underwear (note: not Calvin Klein, see FULL photos on FB).

New York women dress in black, but here, I thought the women were covered in black because they were forced to, denied making choices in life, another aspect of their being oppressed. But no, most of the women I met were university educated, free to make choices, some preferring to wear the traditional sirwal, some choosing marriage, some choosing careers. And underneath their sirwal – guess what? Victoria’s Secret. The women were no pushovers.
In the end, it was I who learned so much from THEM.

At one point, when speaking about being authentic, I had to confess that I hadn’t been authentic with them. I came clean, telling them about my fears and misconception, admitting that I had a secret. “I’m Jewish,” I said. They tossed flowers. They hugged me. It was a love fest.

Anytime we tell our stories, we connect. Whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist, our stories are the glue that bind us; there is no “other.” We are all grappling with the same things: hoping to get along with our family, looking for love, and trying to lose ten pounds or twenty kilos.

There are plenty of people in this part of the world who never make it onto CNN, where the focus is on the mentally ill terrorists.  That group is truly a minority. Their story is not the story of the rest of the population.

Thank you, Toastmasters, for striving to master storytelling, comedy and speaking. You all rock, and I hold you in my heart. I hope we continue to learn from one another. You might just think you are just telling a story, but you might bechanging the world. And we have another reason to wear clean underwear: you never know when you’ll be going onstage and stripping.


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