A caravan, one of the most familiar images of the Arab world, will be crossing the deserts, mountains and cities of the United States, later this year. It is a one-year cross-country journey to promote understanding between Americans of all faiths and the Muslim World.
Modern technology may be making the world a smaller place, but stereotypes and misunderstandings are still keeping its different cultures far apart. Michael Kirtley realized that, years ago when he visited the Middle East as a student. "When I first went to the Arab World back in the 1970s, I noticed how hospitable people are. Before going there people told me you have to be careful, so there was already a stereotype that had been created in my mind, when in fact I found that people there are very much like the people that I came from in Kentucky," he says. "So, I made it a point to start talking to my family and my friends about those people and also talk about America because I found lots of misconceptions about America."
After college, Mr. Kirtley continued his cross-cultural mission as a photojournalist for American and European magazines like National Geographic, Life, Paris Match and Stern. After 9/11, the urgency to improve understanding between America and the Muslim world grew stronger and evolved into the Friendship Caravan.
Mr. Kirtley says it's based on His belief that a positive message can easily reach people when it's delivered in an entertaining way. "At this point I said to myself I have to have something that is not at all about politics, that focuses only on the positive side and reaches the maximum number of people," he says. "And the way to do that is you first of all, have to attract people, which is why we chose the idea of the caravan. A caravan with animals, with children, where essentially before you even talk about anything, you already feel good. You already have a friendly environment."
Ten camels, six Arabian horses, and two trucks carrying walk-in exhibits will take part in the caravan, along with a team of caravaneers. Mr. Kirtly says these men and women are the most important element in the Friendship Caravan. Half will come from the west and half from the Muslim world. At least one will be Arab American, and one will be Jewish. "From the very beginning, we decided that this will be two way. In other words, that we not only talk about the positive nature and the wonderful culture of the Arab and Muslim world, but also about the beautiful hospitality and warmth of the American people because we are going to be crossing America. So we decided there will be eight to ten permanent caravaneers and then many guest caravaneers will join us for different time, maybe a day maybe a week or even longer," he says. "They might be children, scholars, dignitaries, celebrities, musicians or artists."
The guest caravaneers will take part in the caravan festivities, which will include town meetings, musical events, arts exchange, in-school visits and meetings with political and spiritual leaders. The permanent team will serve as ambassadors of the entire concept.
"Right now, we have three people who have been chosen as permanent caravaneers. We already have, for example, one person from Australia, a woman who has recently converted to Islam and she is a songwriter. She is gonna be singing songs, meeting with children, bringing a simple message that we do not have to think of the world as a horrible place, says Vanda Franey, who has already written a song for the journey, Camels are Coming.
The Australian caravaneer says the Friendship Caravan is the answer to her prayers, to be involved in an endeavor where she can give her all, compassion, skills and songs. "It is a part of my life, writing songs. A lot of my songs now seem to be directed towards the Caravan. To me it is a gentle entourage crossing America, just taking what is in my heart and giving it out to the people. I've never been in America before, so it is very exciting for me," she says.
Ms.Franey is so excited about the Caravan that she has stared to practice riding camels. Mr. Kirtley says caravaneers don't have to be jockeys, but they will be required to communicate the love of their cultures and of all people.
Because of this loving message the Caravan has received the support of Rotary International. Linda Smythe, of Rotary Club in Maryland, says the group's mission is to foster goodwill, understanding and friendship through professional organizations. Ms. Smythe, who lived in Bahrain for 18 years, has recently become a board member of the Friendship caravan. "Basically, the Friendship caravan is to be going through grassroots American communities, meeting with school children with organization communities and the Rotary could easily pave the way by organizing events, hosting, and showing Rotarian hospitality. It depends on each club and how much of a role they want to play. Right now, the Rotary Club in Montgomery Village, which is my club, and the three Rotary clubs in Bahrain have taken an active role. Rotary club in Jordan has also gotten involved," she says. "We are contacting the Rotary clubs throughout the country and getting them to facilitate the movement of the Caravan."
Friendship Caravan organizer Mr. Kirtley says one of his goals is to make children hopeful and give them the opportunity to create a better world. With help from the National Council for Social Studies, the Caravan journey will be closely watched by American school children. "Thirty-thousand teachers will be actually following the caravan on the Internet and they will be teaching in their classrooms not only where the caravan is in a particular moment, but all across America there will be an educational program for students to follow the Caravan," he says.
The Friendship Caravan has been endorsed by a number of Arab ambassadors to the United States. Jordanian Ambassador Kareem Kawar sees it as a valuable tool for correcting stereotypes and misconceptions about Arabs and Muslims often presented in American movies. "I think the important part of this caravan, is that it enables people to ask questions they usually cannot ask to the silver screen. So, when they meet people from the region, when they meet friends of the Arab World who have traveled throughout the Arab countries, then they can ask questions, they can learn more," he says. "They can be intrigued by certain aspects of the culture and learn more about it."
Sheikh Khalifa Alkhalifa, ambassador of the Kingdom of Bahrain, agrees. He believes the cross-country journey is just the start of an on-going cross-cultural education. "Well, I see it as a very fluid idea. It is a process and may lead to other wonderful ideas. If some of the people who will be part of the caravan bring their own artworks, cloths and things that are related to the culture, and each come up with his own ideas, it will be like a big show, a big cultural exchange," he says.
That cultural exchange is even more urgent now, during the war in Iraq, than it was after 9/11, according to Michael Kirtley. "The war points out the need obviously. If we were in a world that is so much involved in misunderstanding, we would need to create communication," he says. "Today, there is an opportunity because many people understand that the Arab World and America need to get along, need to communicate better, and today even more than ever."
The Friendship Caravan will deliver that message when it crosses America from one end of the country to the other, from Los Angeles to New York. Unlike caravans of old, however, this one is fully equipped with 21st-century communications, including a web site, friendshipcaravan.org.