I didn’t know when I first went to the Middle East in 2003, that I was going to fall head over heels in love with it. At the time, I was looking for a trip that I considered ‘daring’, and so I booked an overland excursion from Istanbul to Cairo.
No one would go with me. I suggested the idea to a few friends, espousing the journey as an adventure of a lifetime, an Indiana Jones dream trip with opportunities to run amok in crusader castles and ride camels through Lawrence of Arabia’s desert. But nope. Not a single person wanted to come with me.
Because the Middle East is a dangerous place to travel. Or, so says the media.
Media is so omnipresent. It constantly reaches into our days on the little devices in our pockets or on the big screens in our living room. News, especially, has a way of skewing stories depending on which network is reporting and what their agenda is. And, we as humans, are expert at filtering information so that just those bits that support our way of thinking are the ones we allow to penetrate.
In so many ways, the Middle East is a victim of this. My beloved, beloved Middle East.
We hear about everything from war and terrorism to religious extremism and denial of woman’s rights. If those are the only stories that reach us, then, of course, we are going to think that the Middle East isn’t a place to explore. But, I have a different story to tell – a love story.
I have been to this area of the world numerous times over the past 15 years; spending most of my time in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. In this time, I have travelled freely as an uncovered, non-Muslim, single, white, Canadian woman. I have walked the souks in Aleppo and shopped in the spice markets. I have bartered for wares in the back streets of Damascus; with 10 guys running around trying to find me the perfect hadiyya (gift). I’ve hopped aboard public buses and headed to Amman for the weekend, and shared service cars across the border to Syria. I’ve wandered the streets of Beirut in search of the perfect kebab and ended up feeding half that kebab to stray cats. I’ve marvelled at how Cairo never goes to sleep and found midnight sheesha cafes. All by myself.
In all the cities and villages that I’ve visited in the Middle East, and, in all the situations I’ve found myself in, I can say honestly that I have never had a bad encounter (or a bad meal).
Every time I pack my bags to head back to the Middle East for a visit, friends and neighbours always ask, “Aren’t you scared…with everything that is going on over there?”
And I always counter with, “Why? What’s going on over there?”
Cue the top 10 things that they have heard on the news, or read on the internet, or discussed over coffee at the local Tim Hortons. Sigh.
People seem to have a way of gathering all of their worries and putting them in one place. All the bad things are happening ‘there’, wherever we decide ‘there’ should be. My dad was brilliant at this. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Iran were all the same place to him, and he would refer to these countries simply as ‘over there’.
“You can’t travel over there,” he would say, “there’s a war going on!”
I wasn’t going to Afghanistan, I was going to Beirut. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t convince him that it was a long walk to Afghanistan from Lebanon. So, as I was soaking up the Mediterranean sun in the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, dad was at home watching the news and having a panic attack.
To me, this is so sad, on a number of levels. Mostly because it prevents people from travelling to this incredible place in the world because they are told to be afraid. Of course, problems don’t just happen in the Middle East, we hear about other countries too. It just takes one bad thing to erase a million good things.
Sure, at the moment, you probably don’t want to head out on an excursion to Syria and Iraq. But, are there safe parts of Syria and Iraq? You betcha. But you’re not going to hear about them because that’s not where the media hangs out. Should you go there for a holiday, absolutely not. But, is it fair to paint the entire Middle East with the same brush? Hard ‘no’ from this girl.
Go to Jordan, and walk the lunar landscapes of Wadi Rum and hike the 650km Jordan Trail. Head to Egypt and sweat it out as you circumnavigate the gigantic pyramids of Giza or take a cruise down the storybook Nile. Crawl through the fairyland underground world of the Jeita Grotto in Lebanon and smoke nargila in a chic outdoor café. Drink sweet tea with the Bedouins and listen to them play the rababah. Go see for yourself.
Now is probably the most opportune time to visit some of these great countries, for two reasons: 1) it is cheaper to travel around the area when tourism numbers are down, and 2) there are less crowds to negotiate your way through. Since the war in Syria, the visitation numbers in Petra have decreased drastically. Instead of 5000 people per day, they are getting 600-1000. What a phenomenal opportunity to explore this site without having 20 tourists in every one of your shots. But, it will not last this way for long, as tourism is creeping back up.
As I moved about these countries as a solo female, I was never treated any differently, except maybe more gently and respectfully. I did keep a couple of things in mind though. I dressed conservatively. This meant shirt sleeves below the elbow and skirts well below the knees, and no shorts. I’ve read numerous travel blogs that have said that it is okeedokee to dress how you want in certain parts of the Middle East. I’ve got to tell you, it’s not. The locals will take note and you may get unwanted attention from males. The way I look at it is, if I’m on their turf, I’m going to keep in mind the conservative nature of the culture. This is not the time or place to make a statement. As travellers, we are observers. Blend in!
I also smiled, a lot. And I got a lot of toothless grins shining back at me. Middle Eastern people are extremely hospitable and friendly. It just takes one sweet interaction to have a tea invite escalate to dinner /sleep overnight/live with us/stay one year. And they are serious.
The locals will go above and beyond to help. The last time I was there, the Bedouins I was camping with were on a country-wide search for size 13 shoes for a traveller that they had met. His shoe had got a hole in it, and they were focused on fixing this problem. Sure enough, at close to midnight, a guy who was a friend of the local goat herder’s-cousin’s-teacher’s-mother showed up with size 13 shoes. And they refused to accept money for them. The Bedouin grapevine works faster than Twitter.
Unfortunately, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 have tainted travel to the area for years. There is a feeling that if the terrorists that flew those planes into the twin towers were from the Middle East, then the entire population of the Middle East must be cut from the same cloth. It’s an absolutely insane idea.
I met a man in Jordan named Ali. Ali had a hotel in Petra, a small trucking company and a wee grocery store in the village. After September 11th, tourists stopped coming to Jordan, even though it was perfectly safe. Because of this, his hotel suffered. He sold his trucks first, then his grocery store. He tried desperately to hold onto the hotel because he felt the tourists would eventually come back. But they didn’t, and he lost the hotel.
“I lost my life because of terrorists, Carla,” he said, “how can the people think we are like them?”
I think we forget that the people of the Middle East are also victims of terrorism. They are moms and dads, grandpas and grandmas, store owners and farmers, teachers and stone masons, doctors and barbers. All of them making their way in life, just like the rest of us. They are also the guardians of ancient touchstones to our human race. They are waiting for us to come see them, and their treasures, and to show you that the Middle East is not a scary place. Far from it. It is beautiful and evocative…and safe.
Of course, safe is a matter of perspective. Cape Town, South Africa is constantly listed as one of the most dangerous cities in the world but I just got back from there unscathed. I didn’t see a whisper of danger while I was eating my warthog ribs at a local eatery. One of the guys I was travelling with had just got back from hanging out in Afghanistan, for fun. The five times I went in and out of Syria, the only problem I encountered was being swarmed by children that wanted hugs – all – the – time!
I still keep in touch with Ali. He’s back in the tourist game at a more modest level. He and his brother have built a hospitable, little Bedouin camp perched on the edge of the Wadi. There have been many weeks and months where his camp was empty, but he stood vigil, believing that ‘if you build it, they will come’. I reached him at the camp a few days ago. I asked him if he had any visitors. Yes…15! You see, travellers are finding their way back.
Perhaps you can take the word of a girl on the ground? The Middle East is my safe place. A place where I feel entirely loved and supported by the people I lived and played among. I have been back 15 times since 2003, and stayed for periods of one to six months at a time. It feels like home to me. I guess that may be why I’m so keen to have people go there; we all like to show off our homes.
As Bilbo Baggins so aptly said, “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door.”
But oh, how dull life would be if we didn’t venture outside our comfort zone every once in awhile. Turn off the news, challenge yourself to look at the Middle East through different eyes, and go and see for yourself. Trust me, you will not be alone; there are many, many like-minded travellers already there.
…and…as you watch the sunset over the Dead Sea, have a glass of sweet Bedouin tea for me.
Do you want to discover the wonders of the Middle East, under the guidance of an expert local leader? Book your small group tour with Peregrine today.
All images by Carla Powell.