8 Things to Know Before Visiting the Middle East

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.”

middle east life

Dress Conservatively/Respectfully

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.

ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

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.

muslin women

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.

Turkish Coffee

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.

Kebabs

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.

Rostislav Glinsky / Shutterstock.com
Rostislav Glinsky / Shutterstock.com

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!

middle east currency

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.

ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com
ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

The 10 Most Dangerous Cities in the Middle East

Home to numerous important ancient religious and cultural structures and cities, the region recognized as the Middle East consists of the countries located centered on Western Asia and Egypt. With very corrupt governments in these countries, popular uprisings began to occur throughout the region in 2011 during what is known as the Arab Spring. The resulting uprisings have led to a number of civil wars and violent demonstrations. Civil war in Syria combined with the ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq has created a situation with a great deal of very dangerous cities in the Middle East. For this list, cities like Raqqa and Mosul that are currently under control of extremist groups were excluded.

10. Mecca, Saudi Arabia

In comparison to its neighbors, Saudi Arabia saw a minimal amount of upheaval and violence following the 2011 Arab Spring protests that engulfed much of the Middle East. However, a number of hot button issues are still on the minds of Saudis and the country has experienced a fair amount of turmoil. Potential travelers to Saudi Arabia should note that the country does not issue travel visas, and visit duration requests can be listed in lunar months rather than the standard Western months.

This can lead to travelers overstaying by several days, which can result in a near $3,000 fine and incarceration. Although the city of Mecca – birthplace of the prophet Muhammad and the holiest city in Islam – sees a large number of tourists each year, non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the city. Saudi Arabia has also received threats for its support of the U.S. led coalition targeting the Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq. Although the city of Mecca is not an incredibly dangerous place, it is a destination that should be avoided for travelers of non-Muslim faith, and for those unfamiliar with the culture and customs of the region.

Zurijeta / Shutterstock.com
Zurijeta / Shutterstock.com

9. Peshawar, Pakistan

Serving as the link that connects Pakistan to neighboring Afghanistan, the area is regularly struck by outbreaks of violence. Due to the proximity to Afghanistan, and many of the beliefs held by locals, this region can be very unkind to Westerners. Travel at night in Peshawar can be very dangerous, with reports of criminals blocking roads and robbing or kidnapping motorists, both local and foreign.

While the city itself can be friendly to foreigners, tribal authorities rule the surrounding outskirts and subsequently can be very dangerous for unsuspecting travelers. The diverse collection of ethnic and religious groups in the area occasionally results in large demonstrations that can sometimes turn violent. The ongoing conflict between the Pakistani government and the Taliban in the area also causes violence to flare up. Bombings are not unheard of in this region, and it is strongly recommended that visitors avoid drawing any extra attention when in Peshawar.

thomas koch / Shutterstock.com
thomas koch / Shutterstock.com

8. Kabul, Afghanistan

Although generally considered to be one of the safer places in Afghanistan, Kabul is still under the threat of bombings and kidnappings from extremists. A helpful tip for traveler safety is to stay away from restaurants that are popular amongst expats and wealthy Afghans. These locations along with police or military buildings and embassies are the most common targets for attacks. A change in policy has seen the kidnapping of foreigners in Kabul no longer being reported.

For visitors to Afghanistan staying a longer duration, it is suggested to vary routes and timings on a daily basis as a means of staying vigilant. Because Kabul is the capital and most populous city in the country, the political turmoil within the nation is reflected by the occasional riot or demonstration. Though there are dangers, the Afghani people are traditionally welcoming and kind to guests, and the city is home to a number of five star hotels as well as the bonus of excellent cellular reception that lets American and European phones work on the local network.

Kabul, Afghanistan

7. Sana’a, Yemen

The capital of Yemen – and the largest city in the country – Sana’a is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world (a list that also includes Aleppo and Damascus, Syria). Travel to Sana’a is strongly discouraged due to a serious risk of kidnapping as well as civil unrest and general lawlessness in the country. The threat to Westerners posed by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is very real and should not be taken lightly when traveling to Yemen.

Visitors unfamiliar with the area should find a local guide, and should not be alarmed by the sight of firearms being carried. Many men hold or own a gun for traditional reasons. The Old City of Sana’a is a declared World Heritage Site by the United Nations and has been home to civilization for more than 2,500 years. With tensions seemingly rising in Yemen, the city of Sana’a and its unique cultural sights are at risk as unrest spreads through the nation.

Stefano Ember / Shutterstock.com
Stefano Ember / Shutterstock.com

6. Gaza City, Palestine

One of the most densely populated areas in the world, the Gaza Strip and West Bank is a 25-mile strip of land that is home to some 1.8-million people. While the area is no longer under occupation by Israeli forces, it is still under an extremely strict border control. The Israeli military regularly launches raids inside the region to engage militants who conduct attacks against Israel from inside the border.

Those visiting Gaza should stay away from demonstrations, and off the streets at night when most violent clashes occur. Areas near the border are prone to gunfire and airstrikes, while police stations and government buildings are often targets for larger scale Israeli operations. Hamas imposes strict Shariah law in Gaza, so travelers should be familiar with cultural expectations before landing in the city. Because of damage sustained from Israeli airstrikes, the Gaza power station lacks the ability to operate at full capacity, leading to frequent outages. A large number of generators are used in the city, some of which could be poorly maintained causing a potential risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com
Ryan Rodrick Beiler / Shutterstock.com

5. Kashmir, India

The Jammu and Kashmir region is the most northern area occupied by the state of India. Kashmir is often described as the prototypical idea of “heaven on Earth” because of the serene landscape; however, the area is heavily disputed between the governments of India, Pakistan and China. India and Pakistan in particular have gone to war two times as a result of disputes over the borders of Kashmir. As recent as October 2014, troops have engaged in gunfire across the boundary, and the two countries tested nuclear weapons in 1998 before fighting broke out in Kashmir in 1999.

With violent demonstrations and extremist activities in the area, neither foreign governments nor India can guarantee the safety of visitors to the region. Currently Kashmir is experiencing danger from severe flooding on top of the border turmoil. While there are numerous great sights to see in Kashmir, visitors should be sure to stay far away from the Pakistani border where the conflict is at its most intense.

Kashmir, India

4. Baghdad, Iraq

Since the invasion of Baghdad in 2003, the city has become one of the most dangerous in the world. Following a lull in the violence, large-scale attacks in Baghdad have been on the rise since 2012. Many governments strongly suggest traveler’s stay away from the area because of the extremely volatile situation, where the threat of a terrorist attack or kidnapping is certainly possible.

A common suggestion for staying safe in Baghdad is simply just to not go there. Most visitors to the city hire a security detail for safety, and it should be noted that travel outside of the International Zone is incredibly dangerous. Roadside and car bombings are a daily occurrence in Baghdad. And while the tides seem to be turning against ISIS, the terrorist organization is still in control of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, located north of Baghdad and certainly has eyes on the nations capital as it looks to expand its caliphate should it be capable.

Baghdad, Iraq

3. Karachi, Pakistan

The second-largest city in the world in terms of population within the city limits, Karachi is now home to some 23.5-million people, and a population density of more than 15,500 per mile. Over the past decade, millions of residents of northwestern Pakistan fled fighting and settled in the city, the commercial heart of the country. The 12.3 per 100,000 residents homicide rate (25% higher than the next closest) makes Karachi the most dangerous mega-city in the world.

The former capital of Pakistan has been overrun with political strife, gang violence and a growing threat of militant incursion. Karachi is even known to be home to “target killers”, individuals who are known for assassinating victims on motorbike for a relatively small fee. Gangs run smuggling rackets, rob banks and oversee the administration of ruthless justice. It is not uncommon for heated gunfights to be drawn out over days between multiple gangs, or gangs fighting the police.

Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com
Asianet-Pakistan / Shutterstock.com

2. Damascus, Syria

Starting with peaceful protests in 2011, Damascus and the rest of Syria escalated into a full-blown civil war and has turned the city into an incredibly dangerous place. The city came under heavy attack in 2012, although the Syrian government managed to repel the attacks and maintain control over its capital. Damascus is considered by the U.N. to be a world heritage sight, but because of the civil war and subsequent attacks in the city, ancient ruins have sustained damage from the numerous battles fought through the city.

Those opposed to the Syrian government including ISIS will certainly look to continue attacks in Damascus in hopes of capturing the city from government control to gain a very significant victory. Travel to the area should not be done without an armed companion. Foreigners are under severe threat of attack or kidnapping, potentially from either side of the conflict, and the region should be avoided at all costs.

Damascus, Syria

1. Aleppo, Syria

The largest city in Syria, Aleppo has been, and still is home to some incredibly fierce fighting going on between the Syrian government and opposition forces. Fighting began in Aleppo during February of 2012, and the battle has been the site of atrocities committed by both sides, including barrel bombs allegedly dropped by Syrian military helicopters, and indiscriminate gas cylinder bombings by opposition forces in government held territories.

Although diplomatic measures are trying to be arranged to establish a ceasefire, the Syrian army is pushing forward with a major offensive effort to surround the city. Tragically, Aleppo is also considered to be a world heritage site by the U.N. and much of the ancient city has been irreparably damaged by the heavy bombardments in the area, with no sign of tensions easing any time soon. Travel to Aleppo is nearly impossible, and no visitor should expect even a remotely safe trip to the once great city.

Aleppo, Syria