I know that many people come to the Middle East with certain expectations, and quite a few of the leave with mixed feelings. It is NOT the lack of beauty, monuments, sun and fun, that creates the feeling, it is the people. The locals, Jews, Arabs, Druze, Muslims, converts – they all can make you feel at least uneasy, unsure and confused about their attitute towards yourself if you cross certain borders.
The Middle East is a delicate part of the world, it needs to be dealt with that way
Everyone has an opinion about something, let alone about the Middle-Eastern political situation, which is in one way or another presented in the media almost on daily basis. For some reason, it makes lots, lots of people very upset, and they feel they have the long- awaited and long-desired and the best answer to offer. Given the fact that hundreds of learned, studied and experienced professors, specialists, politicians and religious leaders have tried to solve the “problem” for the last sixty plus years and have not reached their goal, you, my fellow world traveler are NOT likely to significantly to help either.
I have been working, studying and travelling across the Middle East for the last nine years, have dated a Muslim, a Druze, as well as a Jew, have eaten meals in the homes of people of various ME countries, have visited mosques, synagogues and churches and have come to the following conclusions:
1. Learn as much as possible before your trip
It is nice to show some knowledge on the ME countries when talking to the locals, and they will appreciate when you don’t eat in front of the during Ramadan or don’t ask them for a ride on Shabat. Knowing the basics of the religions does not hurt, and can open doors. Learn what Baruch hashem and Inshalla means, it will save you some awkward moments.
2. Dress and behave accordingly
This one does not deal with your talking, but if you wish to get closer to people and get to know them/make some personal connections, try to approach them in the way that will not make the feel awkward. Middle East is for the most part a traditional region, and this goes for clothes and behavior as well. Modesty in the way you dress and act in the public can make the locals love you and not pay any attention as well. And if they do pay attention while wearing shorts and tank tops, it is not the kind of attention you were probably looking for.
3. Listen more than speak
They love to talk, and once you make a contact you desired, they will talk and talk and talk. The Middle Easterners are lovely, friendly and cordial people who will want to share their lives and homes with you. They will sure be vocal about number of things, and they do have a lot of interesting things to say, so listen and learn.
4. BE CAREFUL WHEN PRESENTING YOUR OPINION
The most important one, and the reason why I am writing out this piece. They sure WILL ask you about your opinion on the political situation in their country. Opinion is what you think, and while you can think anything, they are definitely looking for the RIGHT answer, in line with what they believe in. What I have learned is that no opinion is the best opinion, and I excuse myself from having to answer any sensitive question by saying that it is something I either have not had a chance to build an opinion on, or something I don’t quite understand. Not saying anything and looking stupid is better than saying something that will spark a fire of an argument.
5. Don’t teach and preach
The worst thing, I believe, that one can do, is to teach them and preach to them. They have their opinion based on their life experience and sometimes religious propaganda, and they will NOT consider new, fresh ideas that you might feel are so revolutionary. If your opinion is contrary to their beliefs, they will most probably think you don’t understand the situation anyway.
6. Beware of seemingly harmless comments
Even outside of voicing an opinion, you may utter something that the listeners will find utterly offensive. Don’t be surprised if the Israelis give you an evil look if your call their country a Zionist entity just because that’s how Lebanese refer to it. Likewise, let it not surprise you when Syrians treat Golan Heights as THEIR land when referring to it. On and on, the best (again) is NOT to make comments which have political content.
7. They don’t need to know your itinerary …
While in one of the four Levantine countries (Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan) it is OK to mention you have been to the other ones, in some of them it is recommended not to talk much in detail about your travels in the region – and you can definitely make out which is which. Even when you have two passports (or four if you are a citizen of Czech republic), you will be frown at if you praise the Tel Aviv beach too much in front of a Beiruti.
8. To sum it up – enjoy the trip!
Have fun in the Lebanese mountains, eat as much of waraq 3nab in Damascus as you can, ride the camels for hours in Jordanian desert and party like crazy in Eilat! Leave the political and religious issues aside as worthless stumbling blocks on your way to the best experience in the most amazing region in the world!
*When writing this out, I was most thinking of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Egypt. It applies less to Morocco or Algeria, though one can profit from following these guidelines in Maghreb as well. And Iran, of course, though it is a special case still.