Featured Travel

5 Rules for Travelling In the Middle East

Note: Our friends Matt and Cayla are the world travellers of tomorrow. They don’t just go places to explore and experience. They stay so long that the obvious adventures become mundane, and real life in that place begins to reshape them.

I don’t have plans to visit the Middle East soon. But Matt’s rules for travelling there make me a think a little harder about how I live in rural Illinois, or urban California, or anywhere in between. Cringe if you want to at the cliche — it’s no less true that we’re all travelling, wherever we are, however long we’ve been there.

There once was an Idiot who moved to Thailand.

As if towering over most Thais and wearing dorky Rob Bell glasses weren’t enough, the Idiot was sometimes insensitive and obtuse, pointing his feet at people, neglecting to give monks his seat on the metro, and the like. Thankfully, Thais just smiled it away (mai pen rai!), and the Idiot was none the wiser.

Then the Idiot moved to Iraq, and that all changed.

Last month marked my second year of living in one of the most challenging countries on earth, and, needless to say, this idiot has learned a lot—the hard way. Two years of travel throughout the region, among countless tribes, and in several tense cities like Tikrit and Fallujah has helped me see that Thailand was a coconut-cakewalk compared to the challenge of Iraq.

In the Middle East, the cultural rulebook is impossibly thick and can be pretty intimidating for outsiders, but here are five tips worth considering before you and your friends brave this part of the world:

NOTE: Before the trolls skip down to the comments section to decry my rules as generalizations, let me go ahead and beat them to it: these are generalizations. But they’re generally true—even in modernized, expat-ridden cities like Dubai and Cairo (both cities where Westerners frequently make the news for their cultural duncecappery).

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

1) Slooooow. Dooooown.

This is first for a reason. Most of the Middle East moves at a slower pace. Even larger metropolitan cities emphasize a relationship-first mentality, and it can seem a little plodding to even the least scheduled Western mind.

In many traditional shops, one doesn’t simply make a purchase. They sit, drink tea, chitchat about whatever is on TV, and discuss family. Then, once you’re tired of sitting there, you talk a bit more and eventually get to business.

My advice? Don’t fight it. You’ll never win, and you’ll waste a lot of time feeling frustrated with people—something they’ll pick up on. My local friends are often surprised at how fast I walk, talk, type, and eat. Sometimes they even assume they’ve done something wrong or offended me; why else would I be rushing?

I was taking it all at my usual pace, and it was sending all the wrong signals. Slow down.

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

2) Don’t photograph people without asking—especially if they have guns.

If you’re going to make the effort to visit the Middle East—especially the more uncharted areas—it seems like a waste to not take pictures. But traveller beware.

My poor mother used to freak when she heard I’d had a gun pointed at me, but I think she’s finally getting used to it. The times it’s happened almost all involved me sticking my lens where—according to the powers that be—it didn’t belong.

A few days after arriving in Iraq, I walked downtown to get a look at a protest someone told me about. There were fires everywhere; thousands of people’s cheering was starting to sound less and less cheerful; at one point it started looking like it could turn into a riot.

I only hit the shutter a few times before I was eye-level with thick-black-mustachioed cop, shouting “Mistah, no peek-chas!” Rather than yelling back or taking off, I deliberately put my on my lens cap, sat down, and chatted with him awhile. We got to know each other for a few minutes (See tip #1), let the tension thaw a bit, and I asked him again if I could please take a few pictures. He relented, and he even sent a buddy to make sure I got access to a hotel rooftop overlooking the entire protest.

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

3) If they haven’t been cooking it for 1,000 years, don’t even bother.

For the most part, the Middle East is where Western food goes to die.

Standard North American eats here just make me sad. Little did you know that chicken nuggets can actually get worse. Cakes aren’t sweet enough. Burger patties have weird spices and leftover lamb ligaments (fun to say) in them. Pizza sauce is actually just offbrand ketchup, and the toppings include corn and beans.

Again, these are generalizations. Tel Aviv, Cairo, Istanbul, and plenty of other huge cities will have over-priced, better-quality options.

But, really, who cares? You have access to some of the best food on the planet—eat locally! In Turkey, try iskender. Get munsaaf in Jordan.

Ask locals what they like to eat and try that. If you wanted to play it safe, you would’ve gone to Europe—dig in!

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

4) Throw what you thought about modesty out the window.

At the risk of reinforcing bloated stereotypes, it’s essential to touch on the radically different definition of the word ‘modesty.’

What is and isn’t acceptable between the sexes can be tricky, and we don’t have the time to cover it all here, but it’s worth noting that the average Muslim I meet is very concerned about the deterioration of the traditional family paradigm.

If you’re wrestling with issues of dating, cohabitation, homosexuality, and the like, you may have more in common with Muslims than you thought. They may frame conversations differently, but they’re still deeply concerned over a perceived moral decline in the way we do family.

That said, in most of the Middle East there are still massive cultural differences. Think 17th century Puritans and you’re getting close to what I mean. In more conservative Iraqi cities, it’s shameful for women to show off their ankles—they’re sensual.

Our home city isn’t quite that conservative, but, even in our ‘liberal’ area, we often have to remind our Western visitors that smiling and laughing at someone of the opposite sex (who isn’t a close friend or relative) does not communicate friendliness, it generally communicates sexual interest.

The real principle at play here is sensitivity.

You’re a guest. Just because you have a return ticket doesn’t mean you’re free to act however you want, so pack clothes that make you feel unsexy and over-covered.

Research photos from your destination and see what people are wearing. It will attract people to you for the right reasons, and I promise it will serve you well.

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

5) When in doubt, stick to the beaten path.

Or, put positively: if you see 5 other people doing something, you’re probably OK (unless they’re lobbing molotov cocktails at cops—I’d avoid that).

When you land, check your neo-liberal, Western upbringing at customs. Pushing your ‘rights’ into people’s faces and blazing the individuality trail will rarely serve you.

If you drive East for an hour and a half from my house, you’ll wind up at a gorgeous waterfall straddling the Iran-Iraq border. You may remember several Americans who decided to take a hike beyond the fence, and it landed them rent-free accommodations in Tehran for over two years.

There are dozens of theories about what ‘really happened’ floating around, but one travel lesson resounds: stick to the beaten path. The adventurers out there may cringe at this, but land mines, fanatical groups, and dehydration are just a few of the many good reasons to avoid trail-blazing—especially when you’re near an ethnic or international fault line.

© Matt Willingham
© Matt Willingham

So, based on my own experiences, those are my top five tips for you. In hindsight, I wish I had considered this list before my years in Southeast Asia as these tips can be applied to most anywhere. Slowing down; being sensitive in how you relate to others, dress, and take pictures; eating locally—these are all things worth considering regardless of place.

But what did I miss? What other tips would you proffer to a traveller in the Middle East or elsewhere?

I’d love to hear from you!