The First-Timer's Guide to Traveling the Middle East
Here we go with the much awaited post on traveling the Middle East and North Africa. And by much awaited, I’m entirely referring to my own anticipation- this post has been in my drafts folder for nearly two years now. Haha. I'm a dork.
I want to preface this by saying my two year delay was not caused by a conflict of feelings or lack thereof. Rather, I feel an imperative duty to do this topic justice. I want to address and repair a cultural perception that our media outlets have so carelessly tarnished. To have written and published this with haste and without full confidence in my words would have undermined the very point I have been trying to make all this time.
After rounding up the questions you asked on Facebook (thanks to everyone who chimed in!!) as well as those I'm repeatedly asked in-person, I got to work articulating responses that were as honest and thorough as possible. This time around, I've coped with my post publishing anxiety by recruiting two of my very best (and very well traveled) friends, Gurks and Allie. These two are bringing their knowledge and extensive experience to the table, which means more well-rounded and complete answers for you.
I swear nothing but honesty on my part, and these two know the drill too. Let’s get to it.
(Also, a note from me for technicality purposes: what qualifies as the "Middle East" depends on who you ask and thus the interests you're seeking to serve. Since my goal is to discuss travel experiences as they relate to the social and religious norms of a culture, the term "Middle East" is going to be used in its broad context. Strict classifications of Middle Eastern countries sometimes omit Morocco, Turkey, and a few others. A more appropriate and overarching label would be "Arab regions" or "Muslim World". However, for the sake of this post, I'm employing the term "Middle East" in its broad context. )
First things first. Credibility check. Who's advice are you getting here, anyway?
Sydney: It's your girl. Want-to-be permanent resident of the road. Creator and curator of this here travel blog. Probably the most questionable advice-giver?
Experience in the Middle East: I lived in Morocco for Ramadan two summers ago. Since, I’ve traveled to Egypt.
Next on her list: Turkey. But Jordan and Iran (in my dreams) are so high up there.
Allie: The baddest, coolest, most well-traveled gal I've ever met. Though she hails from Arizona, we met in India two summers ago and have traveled to Egypt and Guatemala since. She also happens to be my best friend. I dare you not to drool over her insta.
Experience in the Middle East: Allie has travelled to Morocco when she was young with her family. Since, she's been to Egypt (twice in one year!), Jordan, Qatar, and Turkey.
Next on her list: Tunisia or Algeria.
Gurks: The Australian with the biggest heart and most adventurous soul. I met Gurks in Morocco two summers ago and we've been close ever since. He's a philanthropist, a world traveler, and his blog is something you do not want to miss.
Experience in the Middle East: Gurks has traveled across United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Morocco, where he's spent 2 Ramadans volunteering.
Next on his list: Syria.
Q #1: Is the Middle East safe to travel?
Sydney: For the most part, yes. As an overgeneralized statement, the most dangerous aspect of the Middle East (aside from the war-torn or truly dangerous areas) is the fear that society has instilled in us.
Allie: Short answer: yes. Obviously there are countries that are a no go for any tourists right now, and there are parts of every country that I would take heed when visiting, but overall, I would consider it safe.
Gurks: I wouldn’t say it’s unsafe but that also depends on where you go. I personally never had a problem with my safety while traveling through these regions.
Q #2: Ok, the Middle East is safe. But did you ever feel unsafe?
Sydney: No, not at all. I had one freak incident in Egypt that had the potential to go horribly awry (I wrote a post on it over here- it's the first lesson on the list). Honestly though, crazy things can happen in quite literally any country, even your hometown. I think a tour guide, a native Middle Eastern friend, or a travel buddy who is familiar with the area are invaluable assets when it comes to traveling anywhere in the Middle East for the first time.
Allie: There is no one occurrence where I can say that I didn’t feel safe. In Egypt I was always with Arabs who took me under their wing, and in Jordan I was traveling solo but never felt in danger; Arabs are incredibly welcoming and hospitable and are always looking out for foreigners.
Gurks: Only on one occasion where I prioritized saving money over my safety. I took a late train to Marrakesh because it was slightly cheaper. My hostel was in the medina, which I later found was not accessible by car. This meant that I had to walk through the medina to get to my hostel, at 2am. I was approached by two guys that asked for some spare change, which is normal in many countries. In exchange, they offered to walk me to my hostel which was nearly impossible to find on my own. Fortunately, nothing happened and I paid them a few dollars each – but you could imagine the implications this may have if I were a girl. So a few tips:
- Avoid traveling late nights unless you’re getting dropped off at your door.
- Surround yourself around people or open areas when walking the streets alone
- Don’t walk around dark streets alone
- Plan your trip and prioritise your safety
Q #3: Would you travel the Middle East solo?
Sydney: As a general rule, no. I say that because I am so hyper conscious about respecting cultural norms. Having a friend or a tour guide holds you accountable for your actions. They can explain things you might be oblivious to and keep you from coming across as disrespectful. Plus, a travel buddy is just an extra safety net. Whether or not "safety in numbers" is something you buy into, it offers peace of mind if nothing else.
I would say the exception to my no solo travel rule would be arriving alone with the intentions of making friends at hostels or through volunteer programs. As long as you have plans to tour around with people, I think you're fine. Then again, I don’t have a particularly impressive list of solo travel, so take that with a grain of salt....
Allie: Certain countries, yes. Egypt is a tricky one because there are many places where English is not spoken, so to get around without a tour guide can be a bit tough. The Middle East has such a rich history that I would travel with a guide just to learn more about the history and current situation of any country, and also able to respect the local culture to the best of your abilities. For example, when I was in Egypt the first time, I was wearing a short sleeve shirt when approaching Islamic Cairo, and my Arab friend told me to wrap my scarf around my shoulders just to be more respectful. Without him, I would have had no idea that the area was a place to be extra modest.
Jordan is totally doable solo, just be ready for more common cat calls when you’re not with a man, but be firm and unwavering and you will be fine. In Turkey I was with Arab friends, one who was living there, but going back I could have done it solo as well.
Gurks: It’s not the worst place you could travel solo, but that also depends on which country you’re visiting. They are all somewhat different which depends heavily on their culture. Many people I know try to avoid it but that’s also because they’re either ignorant and believe what they see and hear on TV, or too lazy to do their research and ask for advice. One thing I know for sure is you’d be missing out!
My recommendation would be to research the country you’ll be traveling, understand their customs and culture, read blogs and forums and if you are traveling solo, stay in a hostel and make friends that you can tag along on tours and popular sights with. If you’re not comfortable going solo, try to find a friend that would want to travel with you- but don’t let them be the reason you don’t go.
Q #4: How did you convince your parents to let you go?
Sydney: I come at this question from the perspective of someone with insanely overprotective parents- apologies for the length. I have been begging my parents to let me go to Morocco and Egypt since I was a child. For Morocco, I went through a group volunteer organization. My parents and I spent months researching the program and talking to people who had participated in it. Going to Morocco for the first time through an established, reputable volunteer organization was a phenomenal way to ease my parents into Middle Eastern travel.
As for Egypt- that’s a different story. Obviously, Egypt has made the news a whole lot more than Morocco, and not in the good way. My parents told me I could go if I could pay for it (assuming that I couldn’t). Long story short- I had more than enough money to pay for things -and no, I did not book the plane ticket without their permission- but it was a 24 hour rollercoaster of emotions after I told them, as you might imagine. My mom went from "no," to “yes, we can’t control where you travel to forever,” back to "definitely not," and finally to “ask your dad”.
We had to have a major talk about the situation, and eventually, they agreed to let me go because saying no right now would be only effective for the time being. As soon as I graduated, I would have control of where I traveled. Putting that into perspective, they realized Egypt was not a question of if, but when. Allowing me to go while I was under their roof meant mandatory check-in calls and other extra safety percausions that I probably wouldn't have had if I had waited until after graduation, which made them feel slightly more at ease. I thought that was the most grown up decision of my over-protective parents' lives :')
They absolutely would have put their foot down had I not been going with a friend (s/o to my girl Allie) and through a tour guide. My parents and I skyped Mohamed, my tour guide, quite a few times before I had the full all-clear. We talked to other friends who had been to Egypt and their parents, and really dived into our research. All in all, getting my parents on board felt like overcoming the impossible, and it was so difficult for me knowing that my parents were so nervous. Don't let your dreams die out, people! *shakes clenched fist in the air*
My main tip: don’t underestimate the power of communication. Hands down, reaching out to past volunteers on social media before Morocco and to my tour guide over the phone before Egypt was what had the greatest influence on my parents’ mindset. Regular communication and multiple perspectives makes a nerve-wracking situation a lot more comfortable for all parties involved. And speaking from the perspective of someone who gets reached out to a lot, I love sharing my story and offering advice. Don’t be scared to reach out and talk to people.
Allie: To be honest, I don’t really think I let my parents really give me their opinion when I made up my mind to travel to Egypt for the first time. I think my mom tried to tell me I couldn’t go, but I gently reminded her that I was funding the trip completely by myself and that it was my call. The first time I visited, I was traveling with a guy from Iraq that I had met on a previous trip to India, so my parents definitely felt better knowing I was with an Arab who was obviously accustomed to the Middle East. Since then, no where I travel really worries my parents. Of course I am their child, but they also trust that I am a capable and smart traveler. I always tell my family that there are things within the United States that could do me harm, and that there are things abroad that could do the same, but it’s important not to live your life in fear and instead go out and explore the world.
Gurks: I initially went to volunteer which was difficult for them to say no to, but I added a lot of other countries to my travel plans which they couldn’t really do anything about while I was already on the move.
If you’re having trouble convincing your parents, you need to assure them you’ll be safe because that would be the only reason they would stop you from going. Give them a copy of your flight details, airport transfers, details of the hotels or hostels you’ll be staying at and the contact details of you and your friends if you’re traveling with any. You could also tell them life is short and the world is big and you’d love to see as much of it as you can (worked for me).
Q #5: How does western stereotyping feed into the stigma that currently characterizes the region, and how might that affect my desire to travel to the Middle East?
Sydney: Unfortunately, our perception of the Middle East is largely controlled by what the media feeds us. And that’s not to blame the media- they’re just doing their job. Anti-islamic stories (sadly) are the ones that garner the most attention. All too often, stories and news are one sided- and not in the favor of the Middle East. There are many people who blame the entire religion of Islam for regional and international ills, which is a textbook example of how fear of other cultures is not only born, but instilled through perpetuation. Rather than explaining the theology of Islam (the word literally means peace in Arabic) and differentiating radicals (who, by the way, are fundamentally non-Muslim in that their principles are against Islamic doctrine) from true Muslims, the media has painted a picture of the Middle East that could not be further from the truth.
Allie: When I read headlines about the Middle East being so dangerous and the people being malicious, the image that always pops into my head is when I was walking through a market in Cairo. I was out and about shopping and a man popped out of his shop and yelled, “Welcome Miss America! Egypt is so happy to have you and we love your country! You are most welcome here whenever you please, enjoy your time!” This idea that Islam is a vindictive and dangerous religion could not be farther from the truth. People in this region are so warm and caring and want you to know about their very much peaceful faith. I don’t want to sound like I’m yelling FAKE NEWS at the media, but what we see is only the worst of the country, and often portrayed in a negative light. There is so much good and love in that side of the world.
Gurks: How it happens is evident. The media. But I encourage you to make a Muslim friend and go have dinner with their family. Visit a mosque, read their book, understand their values, ask them questions, wear their clothes, listen to their call to prayer, if you’re courageous and curious enough, pray with them. This is the best way to understand what their faith stands for and you might eliminate that stigma within yourself.
Note from Sydney- YES!! I don't know if Gurks remembers this, but we were bench seat buddies on a 10 hours bus ride into the Sahara Desert. I quite literally grilled him about Islam for 10 straight hours- not in a condescending way; I was simply curious and knew nothing. He patiently and graciously answered all of my questions ("But like, what's the difference in 'Muslim' and 'Islam"'and 'Islamic' !!!?"). I learned more in 10 hours about Islam than I felt humanly possible. I'm by no means an expert now, but that encounter was definitely the precursor to my current religious, cultural, and lingual interest in Islam.
Q #6: How should I dress?
Sydney: As a woman and out of respect for the culture, you should dress very conservatively. Opt for pants that go past your ankles, shirts that cover your stomach, chest and shoulders, and nothing too tight. I highly recommend wearing a scarf around your neck- you can drape over your head and shoulders in situations where you want to blend in more or use it as shade from the sun. A google search won’t let you down when in doubt.
I'll say this: one of my biggest pet peeves is seeing all these instagram celebrities traveling through the Middle East in culturally inappropriate clothes- shorts, halter tops, crop tops, tight wrap dresses. It sets a horrible example for the rest of the travel community as they prepare for a trip to the Middle East. You travel to expand your mind, not to be seen in trendy outfits.
Allie: My rule is always dress more modest than you think. When I’m in the Middle East I have seen foreigners wearing shorts and tank tops and I want to run up to them and wrap them in a scarf. There is a place for your fashion statement, the middle of Cairo is not that. I always wear pants, preferably loose and light ones for the sweltering summer temps, and the most scandalous shirt I will wear there is a short sleeve. I always have a light scarf tucked into my purse because you never know when you will need to cover your head around a religious sight, and it also keeps your face out of the sun or blowing sand.
Gurks: Modest. This applies to both males and females: If you’re dressing to impress, you’ve got it all wrong. The level of strictness varies among different countries but as a general rule you would want to avoid tight or short clothing which exposes too much skin. Examples of things you can wear if it’s hot are:
- Men: 3 quarter pants, T-Shirt (avoid muscle fit shirts and tank-tops)
- Women: Anything loose that covers your skin. Try to cover your bum with whatever you’re wearing on your back. Google helps!
Another handy tip would be to observe what locals wear and try match that.
Q #7: Should I respect the customs I don’t agree with?
Sydney: Absolutely. It is of my personal belief that just because you don’t agree with something while traveling does not mean you’re entitled to speak out against it, especially when it involves a country and culture that is not your own.
Allie: Do not visit a country if you are not going to respect their culture. When I am there, although there may be a plentitude of things I do not agree with, I am incredibly careful about not disrespecting the country and its customs. You will have a richer travel experience if you lean so whole heartedly into a culture and let it envelop you and let the locals show you what their country is truly about.
Gurks: You should respect them the same way you’d expect anyone that visits your country to respect you. If you don’t respect them, it’s best you don’t visit.
Q #8: What’s your #1 pro tip?
Sydney: Read up on Middle Eastern culture before you leave to ensure that you’re educated on the different practices and are respectful towards their customs and culture in all aspects of daily life. Clothing customs and religious observances are huge. There are little things that you should be aware of. Things like the left hand is dirty; don’t ever touch someone with your left hand.
Allie: Sydney already said this, but do your research! There’s so much to learn about these places that it is really helpful already having a little bit of base knowledge. Try to learn a few Arabic words, people love seeing a foreigner try to speak a little bit of their language.
Gurks: Research their customs and traditions. Understand that every middle-eastern country is slightly different in their own way. Read blogs and forums on people that have travelled through there and don’t believe anything you see on TV or from people that haven’t been there.
Q #9: What one memory or story characterizes your time in the Middle East?
Sydney: Perhaps that one time in Egypt a man tried to barter my hand in marriage with some obscene number of camels? Or the time it was like 110 degrees and a man yelled "Welcome to Alaska, ladies!" at Allie and me. Ha, no, I think the most representative story of my time in the Middle East was the time I spent in Morocco during Ramadan. I’m not Muslim, but I wanted to respect the religious observances. When you fast for Ramadan, you don’t eat or drink water between suhoor (the meal before the fasting starts, which was 3:30 am in Rabat) and iftar (breaking the fast, around 7:45 pm in Rabat). I guess my house mom picked up on my nervous anxiety, and out of the kindness of her heart and her genuine concern for me, she would prepare and sneak breakfast and small snacks into my room after her fasting had begun, which is just torture for someone who can't eat it. She cared so deeply- she didn’t want me to feel uncomfortable or uncared for in a country and in the midst of a religious holiday that was so unfamiliar to me. This example goes for everyone I have encountered in the Middle East- their hearts and genuine care for people are unlike anything I have ever experienced.
Allie: Haha I could go on and on about stories from the Middle East. I think a story that really captures the spirit of the Middle East would be how I met Mohamed, who would later be my tour guide in Egypt. I was renting an Air B n B and Mohamed was my host. He went out of his way to pick me up from downtown Cairo and drive me to Giza, where I would be staying. In the car, one of the first questions was if I was hungry and wanted to grab something to take to the AirBnB. (Arabs are so concerned with you being hungry. A phrase I have heard 1,000 times is, “Eat, eat, you look pale!” as they proceed to fill your plate with even more food.) After I declined, we kept driving. At one point we went around a roundabout and out of nowhere, I could see a pyramid right in front of my face. I screamed something along the lines of, “Holy shit that is a pyramid in front of me!” And Mohammed said welcome to Egypt. He liked me and my friend so much that he asked if we wanted to go on a road trip with him the next day, within an hour of knowing us. He owns a stable and even offered to let me ride his personal horse for free if I wanted to. Arabs will go out of their way to make you feel safe and welcome in their country. They care about tourism and want their beloved country to be a destination once again and want people to not be afraid to visit. Mohammed and I would later become great friends and we still keep in touch.
Gurks: One of my favourite experiences was taking a bus with a group of foreign travelers over to the Sahara Desert which took about 10 hours each way. We rode camels through the desert during the sunset and camped out under a million stars. Life-long friendships were made, beautiful sights were engraved in my memory and the pain of riding a camel for an hour is unforgettable.
Q #10: What Middle Eastern country should be #1 on my list?
Sydney: The impossible question. Hm. Morocco for the culture overload and general security for those concerned about safety, I think.
Allie: I’m such a sucker for Egypt. There’s something about Cairo that makes me feel so alive. The food, the people, the history- it’s all so incredible.
Gurks: Morocco is #1 for me simply because you get the Arabic culture mixed with the influence of the Spanish/French. I found the locals to be very welcoming, generous and hospitable. But I would encourage you to research other countries and not be afraid to try something a little more, daring.
We would be remiss to assert that our experiences in these countries is representative of every traveler's time in a Middle Eastern country. However, I do believe that our collective experiences speak volumes and offer clarity about the region as a whole.
Were there any questions I missed? If so, comment them below and I’ll be sure to respond.