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The different faces of the Middle East  | © Filip Gierlinski/ flickr
The different faces of the Middle East | © Filip Gierlinski/ flickr

13 Things No One Tells You about Traveling to the Middle East

Picture of Jessica Harn
Updated: 17 November 2017

Humans have been traveling to the Middle East for time immemorial. Ancient accounts from the courts of China have described the wonders of Arab civilizations, while traces of Viking goods and trade have been discovered in the most unlikely of places in the Middle East. From the deserts of Morocco to the bazaars of Cairo, from the glitz of Dubai to the delicious street food of Jordan; here is what no one tells you about the best and the worst of what to expect when traveling to the Middle East!

All your friends and family back home will be worried sick about you the entire time – no matter how many times you tell them it’s safe

The mass media doesn’t help – and for many, the very idea of the Middle East means war zones and bandits waiting to pounce on the nearest tourist. Of course, while there are danger zones in the Middle East like any other region in the world, it is completely safe to travel to if you do your research and use your head (but good luck telling your folks back home that).

If you go in late spring or in the summer, be prepared to sweat outside like you’ve never done before

It really is not an exaggeration that summer in most parts of the Middle East will be sweltering hot. Get ready to sweat, sweat, and sweat some more if you’re in the Middle East for those burning hot and sometimes humid summers.

Most of the time you won’t be able to drink tap water and be careful of drinking water in restaurants

Just to stay safe, never drink the tap water. We’ve all known (or secretly been) that person who accidentally takes a sip of bad water and ends up seeing more of the toilet than the sites around the city – oh and there are not usually that many public toilets so more reason to be wary of the water or to bring some powerful stomach medicine for emergencies.

Just accept it, sooner or later you will have “stomach” problems

Speaking of bad tap water,  it will take time for your body to adjust to not only the water but the change to your usual diet as well. It’s completely normal to, ahem, have a delicate stomach for the first few days you’re traveling around.

Believe it or not, falafel isn’t that popular

Although the falafel has had immense popularity in the West with everyone associating it with Middle Eastern cuisine; it actually won’t end up being the best thing you eat in the region. The different cuisines and dishes from around the Middle East are just too colorful and too delicious to pass up, and you’ll be doing yourself a favor if you skip the falafel and order something new instead.

And don’t expect hummus to be everywhere

Hummus in most parts of the Middle East is just one of those little side dishes that are on the table for those who are starving and literally cannot wait for the main course. If you’re in the Levant area of Lebanon, Syria, or Palestine; then hummus may be a bit more popular but anywhere else and you’ll be surprised at everything else that is amazing to try.

Unfortunately, in many places, if you are a woman, you will get catcalled a lot

The one thing that is extremely unfortunate, for both the local women and foreign women who visit, is the annoyance of men catcalling you on the street. You can find this anywhere in the world, and sadly many parts of the Middle East have this problem as well (although to be honest you most likely won’t be able to understand what they’re saying so it will be easier to ignore).

But also the majority of men in the Middle East are as chivalrous as they come

As if to make up for the creeps on the street however, the majority of civilized Arab men are very chivalrous. The gentleman-esque culture is still alive ladies, and you will be treated with much respect and politeness.

You might see some older Arab men holding hands – don’t congratulate them on being progressive; more likely than not they’re just acting as friendly Arabs do with each other

Many tourists are shocked when they land in places like Cairo or Fez and see older men strolling along and holding hands. In most cases this doesn’t mean they are in a relationship, many older generation men hold hands or link arms while walking just to express their close friendship.

Arab women hug and kiss a lot

Greetings, greetings, and more greetings. It’s good to know that if you’re going to meet your Arab girlfriends for brunch, half of that time will be spent hugging and kissing each other in greeting as most Arabs like to take time to show that they truly are happy to see you.

You’ll feel awkward every once in a while for not knowing the culture or standing out

While Arab culture is immensely diverse within itself, it can be very closed off to anyone who isn’t an Arab. There will be many times where you feel like you just stick out so much in crowd because of your “foreignness”, but try not to worry too much as Arabs are some of the most generous and friendly people on earth.

The mosques are truly beautiful and worth going inside – but for tourist attractions get ready to pay double or more because you’re a foreigner

Mosques aren’t just for Muslims, anyone is welcome in almost all mosques and it is well worth visiting the historic or culturally important ones. One thing to keep in mind, so you won’t end up feeling too mad at the entrance, is that in most cases they will charge foreigners double or more to get in.

The people are really, really nice and don’t all hate the West

The best secret of the Middle East is that the people are truly, without doubt, some of the nicest people in the world. They will welcome you into their homes with open arms, feed you and shower you with gifts just to show how grateful they are to be able to take care of someone new.  You’ll come away from the Middle East with the simple joy of knowing that despite all the bad in the world, there will always be more good.