Keeping Your Mouth Out of Trouble In the Middle East

Jordánsko a Izrael 2011 379

kocicka (51)Middle East* is the most wonderful part of the world! Well, at least for me.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Jordánsko a Izrael 2011 379

Four Countries and Eight Passport Stamps – All in One Day

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orientoholic

The story about the shortest road one can take to go from Jerusalem to Beirut, is part of a bigger picture. It was a three months’ long trip of the Middle East  – I had some group leading, exploring and relaxation tucked in the program. I started out in Syria, did Jordan and Lebanon, then flew from Syria to Egypt, from Egypt via Turkey to Tell Aviv, did a tour of Israel and Jordan, and ended up having a couple of free days in Jerusalem. Then the message came – we need you to lead a group in Sri Lanka, and your flight is Beirut – Dubai – Colombo.

So far so good.

I was in Jerusalem, and I needed to get to Beirut. Obviously, this wasn’t a straight-forward thing of just crossing the northern Israeli border, since there is NO crossing point there. Or rather, there are, at least two that I know of, but the crossing is not allowed, due to non-existent diplomatic relationship of the two neighboring countries. To keep the story short, I had to cross two other countries to get from Israel to Lebanon. These two other countries were Jordan and Syria.

I set out early in the morning, taking the bus from the main bus station in Jerusalem heading to the Dead Sea. I had King Hussein/Allenby border crossing in mind for entering Jordan. I got off the bus near Almog, before the bus turns right on road 90, and took a taxi going the other direction. He took me to the Allenby border where I left Israel behind and got on the border shuttle to cross to Jordan. The policeman comes to check the passports and I’m getting in trouble …

I cannot enter Jordan. The reason for this is that they don’t issue visa at this border, or rather, they don’t take money for it. So, I could not pay for my visa, and therefore I couldn’t enter. I did have Jordanian visa nevertheless – the one issued to be about three weeks ago at the Jordan Valley/Sheikh Hussein border, but it was the group visa and now I was alone. I don’t want to go into details about visa requirements for Jordan, so let me just say that I had to leave the bus, and board another one on the way to Israel. Back in Israel, they were surprised at how quick my trip to Jordan was, but I didn’t encouter any problem getting in the country again.

I took another taxi. This time, the journey was longer, it took over an hour to get to the other Israel/Jordan border crossing, near Bet Shean. I didn’t have much problems getting out of Israel either, and my entrance to Jordan (finally) was a smooth one. I was just a bit delayed – not really in a hurry for anything as my flight to Sri Lanka was still two days away. I did, however, want to make this trip in the shortest time possible, and I was not doing the best at this point.

Once in Jordan, there was a taxi that offered me a ride straight to the Ramtha/Deraa border, and I started to think: How am I going to do it with my two passports? I got the Jordanian entrance stamp in the passport with Israeli stamps. Then I have a second passport, for the Syrian and Lebanese stamps. This is where I need to get the exist stamp from Jordan, otherwise I am in trouble.

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The ride to Ramtha takes about an hour, and some kilometers before the border I’m dropped off and pick up by a Syrian taxi. I have a fellow traveler now, a Palestinian girl, coming from Nablus and traveling to her university in Syria. She also has Israeli stamps in the passport (from Allenby crossing) but in her case it doesn’t matter, obviously, and I envy her.

I have to say that the Jordanian officers at Ramtha were really nice and understanding. I did get my exit stamp in the passport I was about to present to their Syrian counterparts. I just explained the situation, and they got the idea. There were not trying to make it hard for me, and it this wasn’t the only time that Jordanian border was merciful. Thank you Jordan.

The taxi takes me and my new Palestinian friend to the Syrian terminal. The officer, seated below the photograph of Bashar al Asad is reading my passport almost like a book, page after page. I smile, I am at ease, no Israeli stamp will be found in that passport. But he is looking for something else. When did I enter Jordan, and how??

Now, this is a tricky question because I did enter Jordan from Syria over a month ago, but then came back to Syria, flew to Egypt, and the last two times I entered Jordan, I came from Israel. The good thing is that there are way too many stamps in this passport, so he gets really confused, and frankly, I am confused as well. Too much travel.

He lets me go.

I board the same taxi again, and get off at the Deraa bus station to take a bus to Damascus. It’s well into afternoon now, and I have one more border to cross. Changing bus for a taxi again at Karajat in Damascus, I head over to Lebanon. This border crossing is the least dramatic one as far as my visa and passport are concernet, but! To make it just a bit more interesting, my driver from Syria is actually Jordanian, and there is some kind of a problem with his documents, so the Lebanese official keeps him waiting much longer than it would normally take. When the sun is long behind its horizon and the passengers of my taxi are starting to think of abandoning him and take a different taxi to drive us to Beirut, he is finally given consent to enter Lebanon.

The last hour of my today’s trip is quite uneventful, and I’m just resting on the back seat of the taxi. It’s been 13 hours since I left my hotel room in Jerusalem. Quite a journey, it can be done in a day even with some detours. Two passports are essential, and so is a bit of patience, lots of good mood and some snack. Saw four countries in the single day, got 8 stamps in my passport.

What a trip.

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What Is YUMMY in the Orient (3) – the Betrayal of Biryani

koláž

Biryani! Oh how I loved when it was on the menu at Em Nazih for lunch! Rice with pieces of chicken meat, spices and nuts. Yummy, yummy. Filling, but not too heavy, so I could continue studying the Lebanese dialect for couple of hours in the afternoon while digesting. Great with labneh on the side.

But then I went to Iran.

In Esfahan, shortly after my arrival to the city and after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I went on Chahar Bagh street to look for something yummy. On the window of one little place, I saw biryani written in Persian. Great! I went in, and it was really a small, small restaurant, with no written menus. I saw they were making some kind of meal with minced lamb, and I order biryani.

I thought I was getting biryani.

I went to sit upstairs, and there were three guys sitting there by the table, all having the minced lamb. It is good thing they have biryani too, I would hate to have the minced lamb, I thought to myself. I never really eat red meat, and I definitely don’t like it minced.

Finally a guy comes upstairs with what I thought was biryani. Well, wrong. My Lebanese biryani was NOT what I was served here. I got the same minced lamb sandwich that the other visitors of the restaurant were enjoying. How could they dare, I thought while reluctantly eating the biryani that was just introduced to me. I was really hungry, so I tried it. Not that it was bad, but it was still lamb meat, and it was still a betrayal. Biryani is supposed to be rice with chicken … well. The world does not evolve around what I think biryani should be, right?

Sometimes you think you know while you are up for a surprise and an adventure.

Up: Iranian biryani

Down: Lebanese biryani