At first, I avoided telling people I was visiting the Middle East.
‘I’m travelling overland between Istanbul and Cairo,’ I’d say vaguely. If people didn’t realise which countries came in between those two cities that wasn’t my problem, right?
Their first question is usually – was it safe? What is there to see except sand and camels? Did I travel with a male companion? No?! Was I crazy? And did I have to cover my hair?
As I discovered, with careful research, planning and a bit of gumption, even women on their own can travel safely and successfully through the region, home to some of the most fascinating and friendly countries on earth – not to mention some of the cheapest.
While the following tips focus on women travelling to the Middle East they also make a helpful starting point for anyone planning a trip to the region.
Atmospheric ruins and souqs, exquisitely tiled mosques, breathtaking desert canyons, cedar forest, hidden cities and hilltop monasteries – the Middle East is as diverse as it is vast.
Take the long way and follow the King’s Highway through Jordan, dive the Red Sea in laid-back Dahab in Egypt or get lost in the Christian quarter of the Syrian city of Damascus. With short travel distances between sights, you can see a surprising amount in a short period of time, even travelling overland.
Unless you’re travelling to a part of the Middle East that requires you to do so by law (such as Iran, Yemen and Saudi Arabia), there is no need to cover your hair.
In fact, if you’re not a Muslim and choose to wear a hijab, many locals will find it confusing. You should, however, dress respectfully.
Look around and see what local women are wearing. You’ll receive much less attention if you’re wearing long pants and a t-shirt that covers your shoulders and midriff.
A scarf, always a funky accessory anyway, comes in handy on the odd occasion you visit a mosque that requires your hair to be tucked out of sight before you enter.
There are some places where you can get away with wearing less – any of the Dead Sea beaches and major tourist sites like Petra and the pyramids. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Dressing modestly shows that you respect local customs and culture. Plus, it means you don’t need to worry about shaving your legs!
Arabic is the primary language of much of the region and although English is usually pretty widely spoken particularly in countries like Lebanon and Jordan, as in any other part of the world locals appreciate any effort you make to speak their language.
I’ll never forget the smile that broke out on an old man’s face in a pharmacy in Damascus when I greeted him with salam alaykum (literally, peace be upon you) and thanked him by saying shukran.
Because it’s so common for Westerners to visit countries like Syria to learn Arabic, people might even think you’re more fluent than you are.
In many parts of the world, the Middle East included, it’s not considered intrusive to question a stranger about their marital status, income and family situation.
It’s nothing sinister, just genuine curiosity. And people (especially taxi drivers!) are particularly curious about women travelling without a husband, brother or father accompanying them. You will definitely be asked where your husband is and you can also expect to be asked whether you’re travelling in a group.
It’s up to you whether you answer these questions truthfully. It can be a great segue into asking about the questioner’s life, but if you feel uncomfortable it’s okay to fib a little. Whenever taxi drivers asked if I was married I always said yes. And if I was asked where the rest of my group was I’d say vaguely ‘at the hotel’. Which hotel? I can never remember the name of it.
Use common sense and when it comes to how much you reveal to a stranger, trust your gut instinct.
In many countries in the Middle East, it’s rare to see women working outside the home or in the service industry. This means hostels, guesthouses and hotels are often staffed entirely by men. This can be disconcerting at first and you might even go days without speaking to another woman.
Often guidebooks will mention specifically whether a hotel is or isn’t suitable for solo female travellers and if you’re uncertain, do a quick search online for reviews from others who have been to your destination recently.
Okay. The Middle East is hot. You get sweaty. When you’re travelling, it’s difficult to wash your clothes as often as you should. You’ll frequently take long bus rides without toilet stops.
If you’ve ever, at some point in your life, had some kind of delicate infection that could possibly recur, bring some medication for it.
Trust me. It’ll be much easier than trying to explain what exactly you think might be wrong to a local (male) pharmacist who doesn’t speak a lick of English and is likely to call up five friends to come and assist with interpretation.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The bad press the Middle East receives isn’t always undeserved. It’s a volatile region and the situation changes daily. While a country or city may be safe to visit one month it may not be the next.
Keep up to date with your government’s travel advisories, read online forums for trip reports from recent travellers and follow the news carefully. Once you’re in the region, ask locals for advice.
Constantly having your guard up means it can be difficult to have genuine interactions with the local population, particularly with men.
But trust your instincts – most people are actually not out to get you, and chatting with people about their lives is one of the most fun aspects of travelling. If feel like it’s okay to have tea with someone or visit their home, it probably is!
About the Author
Megan Czisz is a scribbler of notes, a taker of photographs, a lover of food and a beginner at yoga, she left her job and Australia in May 2010 to travel around the world. Her blog, On My Way RTW, chronicles her trip as she makes her way around the world.