From the odour of spices coming from the captivating food stalls in Israel, the ever-so-mysterious superiority of Egyptian Pyramids, the sand-kicked up by your camel’s hooves as you ride across the sand dunes of Wahiba in Oman to standing at the crossroads of ancient religious scriptures in Jerusalem, the Middle East is most definitely a fascinating mix of cultures, smells, sights and sounds.
Due to shrewd media coverage, the image of the region is often fogged with negativity and can be a startling admission for a distant traveller, like me, to say that they are planning a visit to an ancient or rather ‘forbidden’ belt of the world.
The Italian poet and novelist, Cesare Pavese has famously said “If you wish to travel far and fast, travel light. Take off all your envies, jealousies, unforgiveness, selfishness and fears.” This is particularly true in the case of the Middle East. The more you travel and aim to discover, the more open minded you become.
Needless to say, my trip to the Middle Eastern range was highly unique and in fact one of the best. The things I learned to do or rather painstakingly avoid during my time there made me realise ‘border’ is only a social construct. People living off far and wide are not so different from us after all. Here is a short list of the real-arab-elements I brought back home.
- Communicating with Locals is the Best Thing Ever
I would often find myself in places, surrounded with people who had nothing in common with me. People who did not have English as their first language, who belonged to a country I had only read about in books or seen pictures on the internet.
Interestingly, I found these individuals to be the most fascinating. Learning about their way of life in their home country, their distinct culture, broadened my perspectival horizons. One meeting really stands out for me, when I was standing at a spice stall next to a Jordanian man whom expressed his enthrallment and curiosity with the United States. He told me how he loved Hollywood cinema and Tom Hanks was his favourite actor because he ‘liked the way he talked’. It was a very casual conversation but so close to my heart.
- Female Travellers, Carry a Dozen Scarfs
Cultural/social standards vary from country to country. The Middle East is culturally defined by being predominantly Islamic and by most of its countries being ruled under the Islamic law. This means that we need to be aware of the customs and traditions to avoid drawing unwanted attention on the streets (or possibly even from the Arab Feds).
Taking a couple of light weight headscarves is highly recommended for female travellers. I have to admit, walking around the food markets of Marrakech with a cloth on my head saved me from a lot of staring and irrelevant grinning teens to full grown, middle aged men.
However, more importantly, it is more respectful of culture. It’s useless bringing too many tank tops or shorts, even in summer. When visiting a mosque or a shrine, you are required to wear a headscarf as a sign of respect. No exceptions. Of course, it is always your preference, but if you want to travel as obtrusively as me, dress modestly in these countries. Follow what the local women wear and your trip will go a whole lot smoothly.
- Striking Food Markets
A visit to the land of dates, pita, turmeric, hummus and exotic tabbouleh can be a brilliant vacation for your unacquainted taste buds. As a perpetual foodie, I could not hold back from indulging in the regionalism of various dishes.
The food markets, where spices delight your senses, the odourful steam rises from cooking pots and you can marvel at the skilled hands and speed as mouth-watering, new-fangled dishes are prepared right before your eyes.
Food and drink can have important roles in various customs, religious observations and seasons. The barrage of languages and variety of Middle Eastern flavours highlights, once again, how many people call this place home and have passed through over the centuries.
- The Wrath of Persistent Vendors
Teasing, harassing, getting back with anger or abusive words is not the way to deal with persistent hawkers. If you think about it, they are just trying to make a living to feed themselves and their family. We are, no doubt, better off buying local souvenirs from online bazaars but don’t make the mistake of lecturing vendors in your native language of why you don’t want to buy from their cart. A simple ‘No, thank you’, preferably in Arabic ‘La, Shukran’ should suffice. Be strong and brisk but rudeness is just displeasing.
- Greetings, My Friend!
When meeting someone in the Middle East, it customary to say hello using the phrase “Assalamu Alaykum”. Men will shake each other’s hands and often hold that shake for a very long time. It did seem unusual to me at first but you get used to it eventually. Men do not take a woman’s hand unless she extends hers first. As you get to know more people, you may find that they will offer a kiss on the cheek or a quick hug. Don’t worry, this is only once you are familiar with them. Just follow their lead and you will do just fine.
- Save Affection for Private Moments
As harsh as it may sound, do not make it a necessity to hold hands while exploring the exoticism of the Mideast. Save the affection for your private moments. Public display of love is frowned upon by a majority of Arabic regions and can cause a few looks on the streets. If you squander around, you will notice most people of the same sex holding hands. When you’re travelling with a group of friends, do give it a try. Immersing yourself in a custom that might be ‘alien’ to you makes the travel experience that much more enjoyable.
- There is Always Something to Do
There is always something or the other to pursue – especially in the Middle East! If you are not into taking a walk by the beach, inhaling natural salt of the sea while in UAE, you can always go dune bashing through the deserts on a guided tour. Attending local festivals is also an option. Going hiking through a wadi (like the one on Oman) can make you crave for more endless possibilities.
Of all the regions of the world, Middle East promises to give you some of the most intriguing experiences. Surely, the culture is very different from that in the West, and while some may be content to make judgements from afar, it is better to go and understand a place known for its hospitality first-hand. You are more likely to be humbled than anything else.
Traveling is all about discovering new places and witnessing the amazing sceneries of this beautiful world of ours, and being a part of the historical and awe-inspiring cultures of various nations is a dream come true. Plan your vacations and forget about the worries of your everyday life because a change in routine is a positive change in your health as well.
ABOUT Alycia Gordan
Alycia Gordan is a freelance writer. She loves to read and write articles related to health, travel and lifestyle. She is crazy about chocolates and you can find her on Twitter: @meetalycia