There seems to have been a mini spate of Americans worried by Middle Eastern-looking travellers recently. Towards the end of last year, there were reports of Arabic-speaking Americans not being allowed on a plane because their fellow flyers were scared of them, and of a group of Middle Eastern-looking men being ejected from a flight because they had asked to sit together.
Ahmed Al Menhali, a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, dressed in traditional thobe and ghutra, was forced to the floor and handcuffed by police (see picture) after they received a call saying he had been talking on a mobile phone outside an Ohio hotel “pledging allegiance to ISIS”. The details are a little unclear, but reports suggest that the receptionist at the hotel panicked at the sight of the Arab man talking on a mobile phone. She then hid at the back of the hotel and contacted her sister who, it seems, called 911 and added the embellishment about jihadism. Mr Al Menhali, who has a history of health problems, collapsed shortly after the police uncuffed him after realising he was doing nothing untoward.
Following the incident, the UAE foreign ministry warned its citizens against wearing traditional dress while in America. That is surely an overreaction; still it is a sad state of affairs when travellers from different cultures feel they can’t go about their business in foreign-looking clothes.
Mr Al Menhali’s mode of dress was innocent enough. But such matters are not always straightforward. Many of us, when we travel abroad, adapt what we wear. Women, for example, know not to bare too much flesh when they go to certain parts of the Middle East or Asia. And that seems fair: there is a balance to be drawn between being culturally sensitive and not offending your hosts, and the freedom to dress as you would at home.
But where would, for example, having your tattoo on show in Japan fall on that spectrum? Should inked Westerners feel they should cover them up, because they are frowned upon in the country? What of the Maori woman who was barred from a Japanese resort because of her elaborately painted face?
And then there is the question of how to deal with a dress code when it forms part of the law. Following the Ohio affair, the UAE also advised women to abide by rules not to wear the veil in countries such as France, where it is forbidden. In some nations the opposite is true. Gulliver remembers interviewing two women who were doing business in Saudi Arabia who had, against all their principles, reluctantly agreed to wear headscarves. Compared with blazing a trail for their sex in a patriarchal country, they thought that the lesser of two evils. That was a matter for their conscience. But what of Air France stewardesses, who were compelled by their bosses to wear headscarves when the airline resumed flying to Iran?
Gulliver wishes he could think of a hard-and-fast rule for how to behave in such circumstances. The best that he can come up with is that if you have chosen to visit or do business somewhere then you should generally accept the cultural norm. But if your conscience doesn’t allow for that, then be strong and make a stand. And culture, although important, doesn’t trump everything, particularly if it is simply a veil for repression. Naked prejudice, as seems to have been case with Mr Al Menhali, should not be tolerated wherever you are in the world.