AS SOON as you step off the plane, you know you are in a very strange place.
Men stand around in white robes with white or checkered head scarves held in place by black ropes. Women wear black robes and black veils.
The street signs not only aren't in English, but they aren't even in English lettering so you couldn't pronounce them if you tried.
And no matter where you go, you see the desert. Which goes on and on and on.
The noise can be amazing. Even when someone is not playing a radio (and someone always is playing a radio) people seem to be chattering or shouting or waving their hands.
You think they are really arguing and will soon start hitting each other. But they are just talking and will often break into laughter and hug one another.
Men not only kiss each other's cheeks when they meet, but often walk through the streets holding hands.
And people in the Mideast don't like to line up like Americans or British people do when waiting to buy an airline ticket or to get into a soccer game.
People in the Mideast like to crowd around. They always seem to be "invading your space" or "in your face."
This is strange to us, but not to them.
When we get sick, even if we don't have something catching, we stay alone in our rooms. Even in the hospital, we aren't allowed many visitors.
But in the Mideast, hospital rooms are often crowded with visitors and family members, who talk and laugh and shout and play their radios.
(Mideastern music can sound really weird to our ears. But imagine how someone from Saudi Arabia might feel hearing Metallica for the first time.)
Everything they do over there seems so strange. But in order to understand different people, you have to understand their culture and history.
In American culture and history, we often admire rugged individuals like Daniel Boone or the pioneer families who lived all alone on the Great Plains.
But in Mideastern culture and history, the family, the unit, the tribe is admired. Survival in the desert was almost impossible all by yourself. You needed family members and friends just to keep alive.
And so different people grow up in different ways.
Sometimes cultures do mix, of course. In Saudi Arabia I saw Frye Boots for sale and Calvin Klein jeans. People drove Toyotas and drank Pepsi. And you could also buy Black and Decker power tools made in Baltimore.
And when I went to a soccer game in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, the stadium was very modern and had artificial turf and a huge electronic scoreboard.
Syria was playing Iraq that day (they call it football) and the people in the stands were going crazy every time a goal was scored. They had brought their own instruments with them into the stands and throughout the game they beat drums and clanged symbols together and tooted on flutes.
So it was both strange and familiar. They liked sports just like we liked sports. And while the cymbals and the flutes seemed kind )) of strange to have at a game, I wondered what they would make of the San Diego chicken.
As I continued to travel throughout the Mideast, I was invited into homes wherever I went: in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon, in Egypt, in Israel and a Palestinian home on the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
What I saw were families living their daily lives. Small children chasing each other through the kitchen while their mothers told them to play more quietly. Older children listening to tapes. Fathers reading the evening newspapers. Teen-agers doing their homework and wondering why anybody ever invented algebra.
And after a while, I learned that sometimes the strangest thing about different people is how they aren't that strange at all.