For many people who live outside the region, the Middle East can seem like a somewhat confusing and chaotic place. Nonetheless, many are compelled to visit for any number of reasons, ranging from business to family ties and heritage to religion. Some people just want to visit the area; others still go to teach or even relocate to the region after a single visit proves too little time in this amazing part of the world. While many feel daunted by the thought of a visit to the Middle East—by stories of political turmoil, religious strife, human rights grievances, harsh climates, and sheer cultural difference—the many countries of the Middle East are wonderful destinations, full of warm and welcoming people, many of them happy to showcase their homelands to those who are willing to visit and learn. Learning, of course, can start before you land at the airport and anyone who plans to visit the Middle East—whether now or in the future—can benefit from knowing a few things before they take-off for the great unknown. And even if you have no plans to visit the Middle East, take heed—because you never know where your travels will take you.
Each Country is Unique
Anybody who is familiar with the Middle East probably knows that the first thing anyone needs to know is that the region is composed of a multitude of countries, each with their own unique history and culture, and often, with their own religious practices and languages as well. While it’s easy for outsiders to talk about the region as one big, monolithic whole where everyone shares in the same culture, language, religion and ethnicity, nothing could be further from the truth. Much like a visitor to Europe can’t research the customs of Norway and expect things to be exactly the same in France, so too should visitors to the Middle East do research on the customs and norms of the particular country they’re going to visit. While some things might not vary a lot from country to country, other things will be quite different depending on where in the Middle East you are! One of the best things you can do before booking your ticket is to actually stop thinking about the region as a whole or as we generally call it “the Middle East.”
To immediately contradict that, there are some generalizations that you can make about areas of the Middle East. These “rules of thumb” should serve you well in your travels, but always keep in mind that each country is unique and should never be treated as though it is “exactly the same” as one of its neighbors. One thing you can usually assume in Middle Eastern countries, however, is that you’re going to need to show respect to the local culture. One of the best ways to do this is to dress conservatively. This doesn’t necessarily mean donning a hijab or abaya or any other specific type of clothing for men or women, but it does mean covering up. Both men and women should engage in conservative dress. Low-riding jeans that slide down when you bend over are a huge social faux pas and sleeveless tops are considered rude for both sexes. Shorts (especially short-shorts, ladies) are generally frowned upon, as are crop tops. It might be hot, but most of these clothing items violate social expectations for dress. Although people in the Middle East are often too polite to say anything about how you choose to dress, “letting it all hang out” is actually incredibly rude and shows disrespect and insensitivity toward the cultures of these countries.
Most Women Aren’t Forced to Cover Up
Speaking of clothing and cultural norms, you might be asking about veiling. Above, it was indicated that you might not need to don a headscarf in most places, and, in some areas, putting one on might even be considered a little bit disrespectful. In other countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, women will need to wear a headscarf in order to be respectful. As they say, “when in Rome, do as the Romans do,” and nothing could be more true in this case; following local customs is a sign of awareness and respect for the culture. That doesn’t mean that you should assume that a headscarf or any other form of veiling has been forced on a woman; in most Middle Eastern countries, the decision to wear a hijab or another covering is entirely up to a woman and insinuating otherwise is insulting to her! The decision to wear a headscarf or not, in most places, is part of a woman’s identity, much the way wardrobes in the West are used to showcase individual identities. The exceptions to the rule are Iran and northern Pakistan, as well as Afghanistan under the Taliban. Even in Saudi Arabia, no one is exactly forcing women to wear head-coverings, although it is frowned upon to do otherwise.
Don’t Refuse Coffee
Another custom that might seem strange to visitors is that it is considered incredibly rude, almost forbidden, to refuse an offer of coffee at a store. While you’re out and about, you might decide to do some shopping. If you’re offered a coffee while you’re in a shop, don’t refuse, especially if you plan to make a purchase or if you’re already at the register putting the transaction through. The offer is simple hospitality throughout much of the Middle East and rarely refused.
Bye Bye Bacon/Alcohol
If you happen to eat out—and you’re likely to visit at least one restaurant on your trip—don’t be surprised if you can’t find any pork dishes on the menu. The tenants of Islam forbid the preparation and eating of pork, so it most definitely won’t be found on the menus of any eateries serving up traditional dishes and, because much of the Middle East is Muslim, most chain restaurants won’t serve it either—even if their counterparts in other countries do. This has to do with strictures about the preparation of food, particularly meat; food must be halal and if there is pork being prepared in the same area, the food would be considered tainted. Another notable absence might be a lack of alcohol; Islam similarly has strictures against the ingestion of alcohol by followers of the faith. While there are certain local spirits or similar beverages that may be served, you shouldn’t expect your Muslim hosts, family, friends or business partners to hit the bar or to have a glass of wine with dinner. The increasing number of foreign businesspersons and international visitors has led to more alcohol being readily available, but it’s still not an embedded part of cuisine and culture like it is in, say, France. You might be invited to partake in hookah, however, which is a Middle Eastern custom in which flavored tobacco, called shishah, is smoked. Nonetheless, don’t assume that your hosts enjoy shishah; it is very much up to individual preference and the customs of the area you’re in.
Haggling is Usually Expected
Customs around money and the exchange of money can also be baffling to someone visiting the Middle East for the very first time. Although customs vary from place to place, haggling is very much the norm in many Middle Eastern stores. While Westerners expect to see set prices when they walk into a store, and to pay those prices when they cash out, most Middle Easterners expect to do a bit of bartering. For that reason, prices in shops may be set high on the assumption that the customer won’t pay that price, but will haggle a bit with the shopkeeper to get a better deal. This is more common in marketplaces and bazaars where individual proprietors can set their prices as they see fit than it is in chain shops, especially those that have parent companies in the West. Nonetheless, you should always be prepared to see if you can get a better deal—especially on things like cab fares—and be prepared to take a bit of extra time to do business. The culture isn’t focused on in-and-out shopping like the West is; in fact, “doing business” is often seen as a way to build social relations and thus it should take time.
Baksheesh is Everywhere
Baksheesh is another Middle Eastern custom around money that, at first glance, might seem familiar to an outsider. Upon closer examination, however, you’ll quickly find that it can seem a little bit strange. Baksheesh is what is known as “tips” in the English-speaking world. The difference is that anyone can ask for a tip for just about any service, whether it’s a necessary service or not. And many people are not shy about asking for a tip. In most Middle Eastern countries, the customer is allowed to decide whether or not they want to tip, depending on how satisfied they were with the service, but it is almost expected that workers in the hospitality industry, including hotel maids, bellhops, valets and restaurant wait staff, should be tipped. This is because these jobs are low-paying and it’s assumed that baksheesh will make up a large portion of the worker’s income. For other “services,” the cultural push to tip is less pressing—you don’t need to tip everyone, even if they ask for a tip, and you especially don’t need to tip if you didn’t like the service!
Everyone is Unique –Treat Them That Way
Not liking a service or being asked for a tip, however, doesn’t give you free reign to be rude to people and you shouldn’t condone or partake in rude behavior others might engage in, even if it seems to be “culturally acceptable,” such as young men being insolent toward women in Egypt. Leaving those incidents—which aren’t approved or accepted by everyone—aside, Middle Easterners are some of the warmest and most welcoming people on the planet and visitors need to reciprocate that hospitality, while also respecting that every country is different and, beyond that, every person they encounter is a different person. In Lebanon, you’re likely to meet a mix of people from different backgrounds, each of them with a different story. Not every person in a Middle Eastern country is Arab, and not everyone is Muslim—assuming this is like saying that everyone in the United States is white and Christian. It’s simply not true. You will meet Muslims and Arabs, but you will also meet Jews and Christians, Kurds and so many, many others. Even the Muslims you meet will be different in every country, every city and every place you visit. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that everyone in the Middle East is exactly the same! Experienced travelers know that some people—perhaps a small minority—will fit into the stereotypes they have of a particular population, but the vast majority of people will likely defy all your expectations—and often in the most pleasant of ways. That’s one of the most compelling reasons to travel anywhere in the world, and meeting new people and sharing in what they have to teach you is one of the best reasons you can have for traveling to a Middle Eastern country.