Chicago isn’t a ‘hellhole.’ Neither are many other places dismissed as ‘dangerous.’

Many places around the world are deemed dangerous. Violence does exist in these locales. But as in Chicago, there’s more to the story, and if a living hell exists for some residents here or elsewhere, it’s because someone is stoking the fire.

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Pigeon Rocks, also known as the Rock of Raouché, in Beirut.

Pigeon Rocks, also known as the Rock of Raouché, in Beirut.

Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times

The United Airlines flight attendant nudged the cart forward through the cramped aisle.

“Chicken, pasta or vegetables?” she asked passengers hours before we landed in the city Republican gubernatorial hopeful Darren Bailey twice proclaimed a “hellhole” a day before.

When the cabin crew member glimpsed me, my younger sister, Almas, and our friend Deba — also of Indian descent — she slightly tweaked her recitation of the menu selection: “Chicken, pasta or masala vegetables?”

We all smiled and chose the Indian fare, of course, almost forgetting we were annoyed we had to pay $150 for our checked baggage.

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Almas and I, longtime members of United’s loyalty program, were told we didn’t qualify for the perk of a free checked bag because the first leg of our flight from Lisbon was via Lufthansa. Oh, the joy of air travel in 2022.

But as the late Anthony Bourdain said, “Travel isn’t always pretty.” Still, as the wanderlust-filled chef and author also would attest, the journey is always worth it.

Our overseas jaunt was a momentous reprieve of sorts, since we were initially scheduled to leave for Portugal on March 17, 2020 — right before coronavirus restricted our every move.

For me, it was also a reminder of why I value venturing outside our borders, sometimes in locales many Americans would dismiss as “hellholes,” à la Bailey.

I’m among those who take issue with the downstate Republican’s oversimplified remarks about Chicago. Bailey upped the ante again last week, calling my hometown the “OK Corral.” Gun violence has devastated the city. No Chicagoan will say otherwise. But in our midst there are kaleidoscopic gardens, cozy bungalows and a resilient group of upstanding, diverse residents as showcased in the photographic retorts to Bailey’s comments on social media.

Chicago isn’t the only place maligned by outsiders and dog-whistling politicians too lazy and arrogant to look beyond the headlines. The birthplaces and residences of thousands around the world are often deemed dangerous or uncivilized. There is violence, political unrest and oppressive regimes in many of these cities and nations. But as in Chicago, there’s more to the story. Just from chatting with locals or witnessing the pulsation of hope roaring up against the turmoil and heartache, preconceptions can be thrown out the window.

The author at the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon in 2011.

The author at the Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek, Lebanon in 2011.

Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times

When I flew into Iran, it didn’t take long to learn the Western Asian country is a hotbed of colorful street-style fashion, wondrous geometric architecture and the arts.

I was floored to learn Lebanon is a paradise for snowboarders and skiers and home to Baalbek, arguably the most impressive Roman ruins in existence.

And yes, Tunisia is where George Lucas found inspiration for his Star Wars films — but its glistening beaches, desert sand and ancient structures stun even without the glare of a light-saber.

On my latest international excursion, I was amazed that most commuters on trains observed a mask mandate, and when a police officer or conductor asked a rider to mask up, there were no entitled objections.

While I don’t have the swagger of Bourdain, I am of the same mind frame. The more you use your passport, the more your intellectual humility grows. Stereotypes are turned on their heads, and there is a realization that laughter and beauty can emerge anywhere.

Al-Zaytuna Mosque, also known as Ez-Zitouna Mosque, in Tunis, Tunisia.

Al-Zaytuna Mosque, also known as Ez-Zitouna Mosque, in Tunis, Tunisia.

Rummana Hussain/Sun-Times

Travel, which I do recognize is a privilege, can also rub your face into the ugly past, forcing you to contemplate the horrors of the present.

Before we traversed atop breathtaking views of the Azores island of São Miguel and combed through the bustling streets of Lisbon a few weeks ago, we made a pit stop in Poland, where Krakow’s charming Old Town filled our hearts and Auschwitz abruptly deflated them.

The shorn hair, eyeglasses, shoes and other personal belongings of the over one million Jews who perished at the concentration camp remain — a testament to the depravity that is allowed to flourish when a group of people are “othered” and dehumanized by those in power.

The Nazis couldn’t have imposed their reign of terror without the world standing by, bathed in indifference.

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I couldn’t help but think of many right-wing American politicians’ reaction to mass shootings and their refusal to impose gun restrictions.

The death toll mounts and they shrug their shoulders and drone on about protecting the Second Amendment instead of people. Their reaction to this modern day atrocity is telling. A living hell only exists if someone is stoking the fire.

Rummana Hussain is a columnist and member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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