Fascinating landscapes straight out of Arabian Nights, buzzing cities, eclectic and delicious cuisine, sweet tea by the bucket load and hospitality that warms the soul – all this and much more awaits you when you go travelling in the Arab world. However, despite this, it’s not a popular place to visit right now, even when it comes to the region’s more fashionable destinations. This is especially true for women who enjoy travelling solo, but fear not, we’re here to tell you all the reasons why you should travel to the Middle East, what to expect, how to prepare and a few other tips to get the most out of your Arab adventure.
Wadi Rum, Jordan 📷Lucy Schulze
You’ve got to be really passionate about going somewhere, if you want to and are able to face the inevitable conversations you’ll have with friends and family. Of course, there are unfortunately some preconceptions that will turn out to be true. But, all in all, the amazing, once in a lifetime experiences you’ll have while travelling in the region will make up for everything else.
The Arab world is vast and eclectic in equal measure, being made up of 22 widely varying countries. There are even big differences between different regions within the countries themselves. Travelling to an Arab country, whether it’s Morocco, Jordan, Oman, or somewhere else, is bound to change your perspective, as well as how you think about the Arab world and the people who live there. In fact, it’ll probably keep drawing you back to experience its wonders.
No matter which one of the many Arab countries you end up in, you shouldn’t let yourself be put off by the shocking reports you see on Facebook and in the news etc. Especially if you’re a woman, you’ll often hear things like, “isn’t it dangerous for women there?”, or “you won’t be taken seriously” or “won’t you have to cover yourself up there?” before you go. If you’re planning to travel to the Middle East, there are a few things you should read up on and keep in mind if you want to have a successful trip.
Amman, Jordan 📷Lucy Schulze
We’re Deborah and Lucy, two Business Arabic students from Bremen. Both of us discovered our love for the Arab world and its culture on our year abroad in Egypt and in Jordan. We’ve put together a list of tips based our experiences of everyday life around Cairo and Amman as a pair of blonde women. This should give you an idea and overview of what to expect.
Reasons For Women To Travel In The Arab World
Firstly, why go at all? Below are some of the things that make a trip to the Arab world so worthwhile:
- The food – the tastiest food, from taboule, falafel, hummus, tagine, mansaf and koshari to kanafeh and shawarma
- The Arab shisha and café culture – sit with your friends for hours on end, chatting and having fun while drinking the best mint and lime cocktail you’ve ever tasted.
- Dabke – wanting to dance and properly celebrate.
- The nightlife and clubbing scene in Beirut and the United Arab Emirates.
- The starry night sky and Bedouins in the desert, e.g. Wadi Rum – the undisputed highlight of a trip to Jordan.
- The eclectic, colourful and interesting youth culture and subcultures in large cities like Cairo, Beirut and Amman. These forge their own path between tradition and modernity, displaying lots of creativity in the process.
- The untouched and diverse natural landscapes in Morocco, Jordan (with its Wadis), Aswan in Egypt, as well as the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and national parks in Lebanon and Oman.
- Absolutely beautiful old architecture and cultural sites in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan (e.g. Petra and the Desert Castles).
There aren’t many regions as varied as the Arab world. In Dubai and the Gulf States you can see how modern Arab princesses and princes live. If you want to experience the old traditional Arab way of life, you can do this too, by taking a desert tour or visiting countries that are still deeply rooted in tradition, such as Oman, Egypt or Morocco.
Partying into the night on a typical little boat (Falouka) on the Nile (Cairo, Egypt) 📷@deborah0409
You’ll encounter a completely different culture that’s sure to captivate you with its friendliness, generosity and warmth. That’s not all, you’ll also become familiar with another part of the world and perhaps gain an understanding of it. The way the region has been portrayed in media means it has gained a negative image and become associated with war and terror. However, there’s so much more to these countries, which are full of things that will surprise and amaze you.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, it’s worth travelling to the Middle East so you can form your own impressions, meet the locals and come to understand their point of view. Open and outgoing people will show you a level of warmth, helpfulness and support you might not have expected.
If you’re prepared to respect certain customs, morals and traditions, open to experiencing something completely different and throwing yourself into a whole different world, you’ll have the the time of your life. Yallah!
Find and read as much information as you can about the country you want to visit. This includes things you should be aware of, what you should wear, the history and current developments in the country, the different communities and the dynamics between them. There’s also the question of where’s good to eat, whether there are places you shouldn’t go, what it means you go for coffee with a man and whether it’s OK to just accept when families invite you somewhere.
Knowing a bit of Arabic is always helpful and can open doors if you want to meet new people or even just to buy a souvenir. For example, you’ll get by easily in the Maghreb if you know French. From Egypt to the Levant and the Gulf, English is widely spoken, but not by everyone.
Is It Safe For Women To Travel Alone In Arab Countries?
Queen of the desert (Wadi Rum, Jordan) 📷Lucy Shulze
In general, the countries that you can actually travel in (everywhere except Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria) are similar to Europe in terms of safety. Of course, as a woman, there are things you’d do in Europe without any problem, without even stopping to think, that you shouldn’t when you’re in an Arab country. Most people have probably heard at least one horror story about the region, given that it’s possible to fall in with the wrong people in Arab countries, just like everywhere else in the world. Still, don’t let yourself be swayed by sweeping judgements about how safe the region is. For example, in Amman, Jordan, you’ll never really feel unsafe at night. There are always a lot of people out and about, and there’s an all round relaxed, going-out vibe after the heat of the day has faded.
But if you need some help, say if you’ve gotten yourself a bit lost, the person next to you might cotton on and take you to where you want to go without even stopping to think (even if it’s totally out of their way) and continue on their way afterwards. Neither of us ever ended up in a situation where we were too scared to go on. Even if something unexpected does happen, these are exactly the sort of situations where people in Arab countries show their hospitality and willingness to help. For us this was a reminder of why we felt so at home in this region, particularly in Egypt and Jordan.
However, it’s impossible to completely avoid unwanted come-ons. Unfortunately, such situations occur perhaps more often than you’d expect. It’s good to mentally prepare yourself in advance. You should never let yourself be intimidated by wolf-whistles or comments. We’ve got some advice on what to do in situations where you feel uncomfortable: directly approach someone around you – whether it’s a man or a woman – and ask them for help, go into busy shop or call a taxi. In Jordan, you’ll often be offered help even if it’s because you’re standing around looking a bit lost. On the foreign office website, you can find up-to-date information on how to keep yourself safe and which regions to avoid (if any).
Tips For A Safe Trip
Is there any better way to get from A to B? 📷Lucy Schulze
It helps to remember the old saying “prevention is better than cure”, especially when you’re travelling. This means there are certain things you should avoid and rules you should follow. We’ve listed some here:
- When you’re alone, don’t go off with men you don’t know. When you’re out at night, stick to areas you already know.
- If someone is harassing you make it absolutely clear that what he’s doing is out of line and not wanted, don’t just say nothing and let it drift over you. In Arab countries, unwanted come-ons are frowned upon just like anywhere else. As soon as other people get wind of what’s going on, he’ll stop what he’s doing out of embarrassment.
- If you should find yourself in an uncomfortable or threatening situation, shout and scream loudly! This will get people’s attention and some of them will come and help.
- Don’t wear clothes that are too revealing and avoid flirting a lot with too many men – this will be taken as a sign that you’re “easy” and means you’ll lose people’s respect.
- When visiting a Muslim country, you should never drink alcohol in public places outside of tourist areas. If you’re carrying alcohol around with you, make sure that any bottles you’ve got with you are always kept sealed in opaque bags. As well as this, it’s important not to go out or take a taxi alone when you’re visibly drunk.
- Always try to make sure your phone is fully charged before leaving the hostel. Save the numbers of people you trust, or the number of your hostel at the very least. It’s worth noting down the address of where you’re staying. Write it down on a piece of paper too, in case your phone dies.
- Taxi drivers at the airport often charge ridiculous prices, so try to have transport organised before you arrive. Uber is now available in many Arab countries. The app sets standard prices and allows you to trace the route, making it significantly less likely you’ll be ripped off.
- Try to travel during the day rather than at night. There are, however, some bus companies who offer safe night trips with coaches of a similar standard to Europe.
- It’s better to be overly wary than too naive – even though most Arab people are just really curious and like to show hospitality, you should exercise a bit of caution. This is especially true when it comes to young men who want to show you around the area or take a photo with you. It’s possible that when you’re looking through Facebook you’ll stumble upon the picture with a caption like “me and my German bae.”
Who knows? You might find your one true love on your travels. It’s actually not that unlikely, especially not when you look at either of us or our friends and acquaintances. However, it’s important to bear in mind Arab men who seem to get involved with Western women often have a more conservative and family oriented side too. This often comes out when things start getting serious. It’s important to remember that the people you’ll meet will have grown up in different environment and culture with its own values. Such differences sometimes make things a bit complicated, but shouldn’t be a problem with a little intercultural understanding.
Things You Should Bear In Mind
Say you’re visiting an Arab family and you compliment the hostess on the pretty vase on the table – suddenly she takes it and offers it to you. You’ll definitely find yourself in similar situations like these more than once – Arab people like to share and will never accept a compliment by just saying “thank you”. It’s also possible that when you compliment a friend’s jumper she’ll offer it to you. However, this is only meant as a gesture, so obviously it’s best to politely refuse.
Nevertheless, there are some things you can and should say yes to. As mentioned above, Arab people like to share and are very willing to help. If someone offers you food, transport or to go on a trip and they insist you’re invited and don’t have to pay, politely accept a couple of times. However, remember not to go over the top, even if people do everything they say they will, as this generosity can sometimes get out of hand. Respect, politeness and fear of embarrassing someone means that people won’t say when something’s “too much”.
There are some things Europeans are happy talking about that aren’t generally considered suitable topics of conversation in Arab countries, except perhaps between close friends. Examples include the “forbidden triangle” of sex, politics and religion, as well as family problems. Of course, sometimes these topics are discussed openly, especially by young people. Lastly, you should bear in mind what is considered appropriate (halal) or inappropriate (haram) in terms of the local customs and culture.
What To Wear
Wadi Rum, Jordan 📷Lucy Schulze
Take the country’s customs into account when deciding what to wear. There’s a time and a place to wear for wearing hot pants a crop tops, for example, when you’re in a club. However, in Arab countries, it’s still appreciated if you don’t show too much bare skin. Long trousers, skirts and shirts (either long-sleeved shirts or t-shirts depending on where you are) will spare you from being the subject of a lot of uncomfortable stares, prevent a lot of awkward situations and feel more comfortable in the desert.
It’s not necessary to cover up (you don’t even have to cover your hair) unless you’re in Saudi Arabia. If you want to visit a mosque (which is an absolute must) it’s always good to have a scarf with you so you can cover your hair inside. If you’ve just washed your hair, it’s also easy to make a cultural gaffe, so be careful: in some parts of Egypt and Jordan, there are still sometimes long-established rumours that when you go out with wet hair, it’s because you’ve probably just had sex, since naturally you wash your hair afterwards. It’s better to be careful and leave time for your hair to dry, using a hairdryer if necessary.
Children in Aswan 📷@deborah0409
When it comes to wearing clothes that are suitable for your destination, it’s not advisable to wear t-shirts that aren’t too low-cut or skin-tight and that cover your shoulders. We’d also advise you to cover your knees too. Long trousers, such as harem pants or long skirts, are recommended. Despite the fact that in many Arab countries you travel in a t-shirt without any issues, you should always carry a lightweight, long-sleeved cardigan with you, or something similar, in case you make a spontaneous visit to a more conservative or rural region. The same goes for tinted sunglasses, for when don’t want people to take notice of you or what you’re looking at.
Arab Countries: Our Highlights
Boats at Aswan (Upper Egypt) 📷@ayshaaek
If you’re passionate about nature and want to enjoy the peace, quiet and beauty of the Nile, you should definitely visit Aswan, in southern Egypt. Taking a trip on the Nile in an old fishing boat is an unforgettable experience, and includes the chance to take a dip in this famous river. It’s also worth planning a visit to a Nubian museum. This will let you can get an insight into how the Nubian community (an ethnic minority living in Egypt and Sudan) live. Most local hostels also organise Nubian nights, which allow you to experience the way of life, the delicious food and hospitality of the Nubian people.
Wadi Rum, Jordan
If you’d like to feel the magic of the desert, experience its majestic silence, be charmed by the Bedouin lifestyle and take in the clearest starry night sky you’ll ever see, you’ll love Wadi Rum, in southern Jordan. Visitors are attracted to this legendary desert landscape for its red dunes, granite rock faces, hidden wells, ancient inscriptions and the company of the Bedouins who live there, who are famed for their hospitality.
Off-road 4×4 tours, camel rides and treks through the desert on horseback or camels make for unforgettable experiences, especially as many of the tours are still led by experienced Bedouins who grew up in the desert themselves. This means they can give you a fantastic insight into into their way of life. Monolithic mountains provide a challenge for climbers, while hikers can simply enjoy the silence of the seemingly endless landscape. You can also go on hikes through the desert, from Wadi Rum to Petra for instance. If you venture just a bit further south you’ll reach Aqaba, Jordan’s gateway to the Red Sea, where there are many more exciting things to discover.
The Arabian Souk in Tangier 📷@ deborah0409
Near Tangier, you’ll find the Caves of Hercules, located right by the sea. The views are incredible, and the mouth of the cave, which looks out onto the sea, resembles the shape of Africa. Tangier itself boasts a beautiful old town with a typical Arab souk (market). The large number of steps in the city and little passageways mean that it’s definitely worth a visit. In the souk, you’ll find yourself drawn into the little shops to have a look round.
One of the less well-known emirates and one that lies entirely on the Indian Ocean. Its beautiful landscape, ideal conditions for surfing and historic walls make it a nice change from the concrete jungle of Dubai.
Are you planning to travel to the Middle East? Where do you want to go? Is there anything holding you back? Let us know in the comments below.
About the authors:
Lucy and Deborah are originally from Bremen and Frankfurt and met each other while studying Business Arabic in Bremen. While at university, Deborah decided to spend her semester abroad in Cairo, while Lucy chose to make the Jordanian capital of Amman her home for a year. Lucy has finished her masters and is now travelling the world, while Deborah decided to move to Cairo for work and for love.