Travelling alone in the Middle East: why you needn’t worry

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Fascinating landscapes straight out of The Arabian Nights, bustling cities, eclectic and delicious cuisine, that wonderful sweet tea fresh from the pot, soul-warming hospitality… Travelling to the Arab countries is all this and much more. But despite this and the number of tourist attractions in this region, right now it is not one of the most popular destinations, especially among women who like to travel alone. If that’s you, 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 tips to help you get the most out of your adventure. Here we go!

Travel to the Middle East - Woman standing in the desert with a camel

WadiRum, Jordan 📷 Lucy Schulze

To begin with, if you want to go to a place like this you have to be really convinced and know that your family and friends will probably lecture you about it. Unfortunately, they are probably right in some respects, but it is also true that the experiences you have in this part of the world are so special and unrepeatable that they more than make up for everything else.

The Arab world is vast and eclectic in equal measure, and is made up of 22 very diverse countries. There are vast differences between regions and countries, but whichever one you choose – Morocco, Jordan, Oman or whatever – it’s likely to change your perspective on the Arab world and its people and leave you longing for more of its wonders.

Whatever the country, don’t be put off by all the information on Facebook or in the news. As a woman, it’s quite likely that before you travel you’ll hear phrases like “isn’t that place dangerous for women?”, “surely they don’t take you seriously” or “won’t you have to cover your face?”, but it never hurts to keep a few things in mind if you plan to travel to the Middle East and want everything to go smoothly.

Travel to the Middle East - Four woman on a bench in front of ancient ruins in Amman, Jordan

We are Deborah and Lucy, two business students from Bremen. During our exchange year in Egypt and Jordan we both developed a great love for the Arab world and its culture, so based on our experience in Cairo and Amman we bring you a list of tips to give you a general idea of what to expect.

Reasons why a woman should travel to the Middle East:

First of all, if you’re wondering why should I go? Here are just a few of the things that make the Arab countries worth travelling to:

  • The food: it is extraordinarily tasty and the variety is enormous (from tabbouleh, falafel, hummus, tagine, mansaf or koshari, to kanafeh and shawarma)
  • Shisha and Arabic coffee: you can sit with your friends for hours chatting and having fun while drinking the best mint and lime cocktail you’ve ever tasted.
  • Dabka: this is a type of dance that will get you moving and having a great time
  • The nightlife and nightclubs of Beirut and the Arab Emirates.
  • Starry nights in the desert with the Bedouins. Going to WadiRum, for example, is a must on any trip to Jordan.
  • The interesting youth cultures and subcultures you’ll find in major cities such as Cairo, Beirut and Amman, all of which are eclectic, colourful and creative, halfway between tradition and modernity.
  • Natural landscapes as varied and undisturbed as those of Morocco, Jordan (with its Wadis) and Aswan in Egypt, as well as the Red Sea, the Dead Sea and the national parks of Lebanon and Oman.
  • The incredible ancient architecture and cultural sights of Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Jordan (such as Petra and the Desert Castles).

Not many regions of the world have such a variety of contrasts as the Arab world. In Dubai and the Gulf states, for example, you can see how modern Arab princesses and princes live versus the ancient ways of life still seen in the desert or in countries where tradition is still deeply rooted, such as Oman, Egypt and Morocco.

Travel to the Middle East - Boat party on the Nile River in Cairo, Egypt

Party on the Nile in a typical boat called “falouka” (Cairo, Egypt)📷 @deborah0409

You’re going to encounter a completely different culture that will captivate you with its friendliness, generosity and warmth. And that’s not all. You will learn to understand a part of the world that until now you didn’t know or of which you probably had a distorted and negative image associated with war and terror because of what you saw in the media. But there is much more to these countries, things that will surprise and delight you.

Whether you are a man or a woman, it is worth travelling to the Middle East to be able to judge things with your own eyes, to meet the people there and to get to understand their outlook on life. They are open and outgoing people with a degree of human warmth, kindness and support that you probably wouldn’t expect.

If you’re willing to respect certain customs and traditions, experience new things and throw yourself into a completely different world, you’ll have a great time! Yallah!

How to prepare for your trip

Find and read as much information as you can about the country you want to visit. We mean all the things you should be aware of, such as what kind of clothes you should wear, the country’s own history and current development, the different communities that live there and the dynamics between them. It’s also good to know where you can go to eat and if there are any places you shouldn’t go, what it means to have coffee with a man and whether it’s OK for families to invite you somewhere…

Knowing some Arabic is always useful and can open doors whether you want to meet new people or buy a souvenir. In the Maghreb, for example, you can also get by easily if you know French. And from Egypt to the Levant and the Gulf there are plenty of people who speak English, but not everyone.

is it safe for women to travel alone in Arab countries?

Travel to the Middle East - Woman sitting on some rocks in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Queen of the Desert (WadiRum, Jordan) 📷 Lucy Shulze

When it comes to safety, most countries that are safe to travel to maintain similar standards to Europe (except Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Syria). It is true that, as a woman, there are some things that you would do in Europe without any problems or even think about, but in an Arab country you should avoid. In fact, most people will have heard of a horrible story or two that took place in this or that country, or of someone who was unlucky enough to cross paths with the wrong people, just as you can in any other part of the world. Don’t be swayed by such judgements. In Amman, for example, you’ll never be afraid to go out at night because there are always lots of people on the streets and the atmosphere is calm and festive after the heat of the day.

But imagine that for whatever reason you get lost and need help. The first thing you should know is that the person next to you will probably help you and guide you wherever you want to go without a second thought (even if it’s totally out of their way!). We never get scared in a situation like this. What’s more, it is when something unexpected happens that the people of the Arab countries show their hospitality and their willingness to help you. This was one of the reasons why we felt so at home in this region, especially in Egypt and Jordan.

Obviously you can’t avoid 100% that unwanted things happen. These are situations that unfortunately happen more often than you would expect, so it is best to be prepared and never be intimidated by people’s whistles or comments. If you ever feel uncomfortable, here are some tips: approach someone around you directly, whether male or female, ask for help, go to a busy shop or call a taxi. In Jordan, they will always help you, even if you’re a bit lost. You can find up-to-date information on how to feel safe and which regions to avoid (if any) on the website of the foreigners’ office.

Tips for safe travel

Travel to the Middle East - Lucy Schulze riding on the back of a camel

is there a better way to get around? 📷 Lucy Schulze

It’s good to remember the old saying “prevention is better than cure”, especially when travelling. This means there are certain things to avoid and certain rules to follow. Here are a few of them:

  • When you are alone, don’t go with men you don’t know. And if you go out at night, only go to areas you already know.
  • If someone is harassing you, make it absolutely clear to that person that you don’t want anything and that what they are doing is out of line. Don’t keep quiet and don’t let him or her get to you. As soon as you make it obvious to other people what is going on, he or she will stop harassing you out of embarrassment.
  • If you find yourself in an uncomfortable or threatening situation, shout loudly! This will attract people’s attention and some of them will come and help you.
  • Don’t wear too provocative clothes and avoid flirting with too many men; they will interpret this as a sign that you are ‘easy’ and you will lose people’s respect.
  • When visiting a Muslim country, never drink alcohol in public places away from tourist areas. If you carry alcohol with you, make sure the bottles are in an opaque bag. It is also important that you do not go out or call a taxi when you are visibly drunk.
  • Always make sure your phone is fully charged before leaving the hostel. Keep the numbers of people you trust, or at least the number of your hostel, and write down the address of the place where you are staying on a piece of paper in case your phone dies.
  • Taxi drivers at the airport often charge exorbitant prices, so it’s best to organise your transport before you arrive. In many Arab countries, Uber is already available, an app that sets standard prices and allows you to track your route, so you’re far less likely to be ripped off.
  • Try to travel during the day and avoid the night. However, some companies offer night travel on safe buses with standards similar to those in Europe.
  • It’s better to err on the side of caution than naivety: although most Arabs are only curious about where you’re from and just want to be hospitable, you should be a little wary, especially of young men who want to show you around and take photos with you. Chances are that when you go on Facebook you’ll find a “me and my girl” photo.

who knows? You might even find the love of your life in one of these countries (in our circle of friends and acquaintances it has happened on more than one occasion), but in these cases don’t forget that Arab men tend to have a conservative and familiar side that usually comes to the surface when things start to get serious and the relationship becomes more formal. They are people who have grown up in different environments and cultures with their own values, differences that can sometimes complicate things but with a little intercultural understanding should not be a problem.

Things to keep in mind

In general

Travel to the Middle East - Damanhour, Egypt

Grandfather Mohamed shows Deborah the Egyptian fields (Damanhour, Egypt) 📷@ray.7ana

Imagine you are visiting an Arab family, you compliment the hostess on how beautiful the vase on the table is and she goes and picks it up and gives it to you. I’m sure you’ve been in a situation like this more than once. Arabs like to share and will never accept a compliment by just thanking you. It can also happen that you tell a friend that you like their jumper and they offer it to you, but in this case it is only a gesture and the best thing to do is to refuse, obviously.

On the other hand, there are some things you should say yes to. As we said before, Arabs like to share and are very willing to help you, so if someone offers you food, transport or a ride and insists that you are invited and that you don’t have to pay for anything, politely accept a couple of times. Be careful not to overdo it, though, because even if people do everything they say they will, you should not abuse their generosity. Respect, politeness and embarrassment make people shy away from setting a limit.

There are also some topics of conversation that are normal for Europeans, but are not considered appropriate in Arab countries unless you are among very close friends. An example would be the ‘forbidden triangle’ of sex-politics-religion or family problems. Of course these topics are sometimes discussed openly, especially among young people. Finally, be aware of what is considered appropriate (halal) or inappropriate (haram) in terms of local customs and culture.

What to wear

Travel to the Middle East - Three women sitting together in Wadi Rum, Jordan

Wadi Rum, Jordan 📷 Lucy Schulze

When it comes to dressing, first find out what the customs of the country are. The same item of clothing may or may not be appropriate depending on the time and place. For example, tops and shorts could be worn if you are going to a discotheque. However, in Arab countries, it is preferable not to show too much skin. Long trousers, skirts and shirts (either long-sleeved or T-shirts, depending on where you are) will prevent you from being the object of many stares and awkward situations, and you will feel more comfortable in the desert yourself.

You don’t need to cover your face (or even your hair) unless you’re visiting Saudi Arabia. If you’re visiting a mosque (which we 100% recommend) it’s always good to have a scarf handy so you can cover your hair. Going out in the street with freshly washed, wet hair can also attract unwanted stares – in some parts of Egypt and Jordan it’s said that when you go out with wet hair it’s probably because you’ve just had sex, so be careful and dry your hair before you go out, either by air-drying or blow-drying it.

Travel to the Middle East - Playing with children in Aswan, Egypt

A boy in Aswan 📷 @deborah0409

Going back to clothing, I don’t recommend wearing very tight or tight-fitting tops either, and better if they cover the shoulders. Skirts and trousers should preferably be long, harem-style, and above all they should cover your knees. And it’s also a good idea to always carry a long-sleeved knitted jacket or similar in case you make an unexpected visit to a more conservative or rural area and need to cover up a bit; or a pair of sunglasses to go unnoticed and you don’t want people to know what you’re looking at.

The best places to visit in the Middle East are..

Aswan, Egypt

Travel to the Middle East - Boats at Aswan

Boats moored in Aswan (upper Egypt) 📷@ayshaaek

If you are a nature lover and want to enjoy the peace, tranquillity and beauty of the Nile, a visit to Aswan in southern Egypt is a must. A trip down the Nile in a traditional fishing boat is an unforgettable experience that also includes the chance to take a dip in this famous river. It’s also worth planning a visit to a museum in the Nubian region to get an insight into the lives of the Nubian community, an ethnic minority living in Egypt and Sudan. Most hostels in the area often organise Nubian themed nights that allow you to experience the way of life, the delicious food and the hospitality of the Nubian people.

WadiRum, Jordan

Travel to the Middle East - Camels in Wadi Rum, Jordan

WadiRum, Jordan 📷@ray.7ana

If you want to experience the magic of the desert, feel its majestic silence, be enchanted by the Bedouin way of life and enjoy the clearest starry sky you’ve ever seen, then you’ll love the Wadi Rum desert in southern Jordan. Visitors are often drawn here by its legendary desert landscape of red dunes, rocky granite walls, hidden wells and ancient inscriptions, as well as the Bedouin communities who live in this part of the world and are famed for their hospitality.

Both 4WD tours of Wadi Rum and treks on foot, horseback or camel are unforgettable experiences, especially as they are mostly led by experienced Bedouins who grew up in the desert and can give you a fantastic insight into their way of life. The monolithic mountains of Wadi Rum are also a real challenge for climbers. Those who prefer walking can simply enjoy the silence and endless scenery of this part of the world. Desert treks are often organised, for example from Wadi Rum to Petra. And if you head a little further south you’ll come to Aqaba, Jordan’s gateway to the Red Sea, where there are many interesting things to discover.

Tangier, Morocco

Travel to the Middle East - The Arabian Souk in Tangier

In the Great Souk of Tangier 📷@ deborah0409

Close to Tangier and very close to the sea are the Caves of Hercules, a place with incredible views and whose entrance is shaped like the mouth of Africa. Tangier has a beautiful old town with a typical Moorish souk (market) with lots of passageways and narrow streets that are well worth a visit – you can’t help but browse the little shops in the souk!

Fujairah, United Arab Emirates

Fujairah is one of the lesser-known emirates with a coastline that faces the Indian Ocean. Its beautiful scenery, good surfing conditions and historic city walls make it an ideal place for a change of scenery when you come from the concrete jungle of Dubai.

About the authors:

Lucy and Deborah are originally from Bremen and Frankfurt, and both met when they were studying business Arabic in Bremen. During university Deborah decided to spend a semester in Cairo and Lucy spent a year living in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Lucy has already finished her master’s degree and now travels the world, while Deborah has moved to Cairo for good for work and love.

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