Traveling in the Middle East can be quite an experience, and more and more travelers are making this region their to-go place for adventure, relaxation, food, exploration, and shopping. While visiting the area can be daunting for many first-timers, there seems to be something about the Middle East that draws people back to it—and with the growing number of expats in cities such as Dubai, many people choose to make it their home. For those who have traveled around this vibrant region, or for those who want a heads up, here are 17 things that are guaranteed to make you a Middle East expert.
Sailing down the Nile on a wobbly felucca is a must for anyone who wants to say they indeed survived Cairo and experienced the wonders of the Nile River up close. You’re only a true expert, however, if you know how contaminated the water actually is and, just like the locals, made it a top priority to not let it touch you!
The timelessness of the Sahara Desert has been calling travelers and wanderers for ages, and you’ve only properly experienced this part of the Middle East if you’ve immersed yourself in the desert! Enjoying the bright red sand dunes and dazzling starry skies at night are only slightly dampened by the occasional scorpion or desert snake.
You really do have to see and experience the magnificent Pyramids of Giza at least once in your life. But for those who have been around the Middle East, the most important part of the Pyramid experience is knowing how to properly avoid the tourist traps (don’t look anyone in the eye and act as though you don’t speak any of the languages they try on you).
Unfortunately, for those first-timers in the region, most have been ripped off by a taxi driver who conveniently tells you at the end of the ride that they don’t have a meter, and you’ll have to pay whatever he tells you. Any expert in the region will always advise you to double-check that there is a (working) meter inside the taxi before hopping in.
Although there is certainly a lot of hype about the Burj Khalifa in Dubai being the tallest building in the world, most locals also know what a tourist trap it can be to pay hundreds of AED just to go to the top to see the surrounding desert. For those who have experienced the true essence of the UAE and the Middle East, most will be content with gazing at the Burj Khalifa while enjoying (an affordable) Arabic coffee below.
Anyone who wants to experience the diversity and beauty of the Middle East will often have Jerusalem at the top of their travel list. Being able to see the ancient Jewish Wailing Wall, taking in the beauty of the Muslim Dome of the Rock mosque, and pondering the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in one day is one way to experience the magnificence of the region.
Contrary to popular belief, the rolling desert of the Empty Quarter is the largest stretch of sand in the world! For those who have visited the soulful sand dunes and blistering heat of the Arabian Desert, this experience can easily change how you view the beauty of the earth and its natural wonders.
Forget the glitz and riches of Dubai, if you haven’t drunk the 25-cent spiced milk tea from a tea stand in the UAE, then you haven’t really experienced the country or the Middle East. Some of the best things in the region are best represented by the small, simple joys of enjoying tea with friends.
Both the pride and the comfort food of any Egyptian foodie, koshari has unfortunately become mainstream, now often geared towards tourists, and in some cases, the ingredients or the presentation has even been changed to better accommodate foreigners. The real experts of the Middle East, however, know that the best koshari is experienced in the small corner restaurants where older men sit outside and smoke after a hearty meal.
Visiting Istanbul will awaken many of your senses—with the syrupy sweet desserts, dazzling colors of mosques, and most importantly, caffeine. No proper day in Turkey is complete without downing at least half a dozen small cups of rich black coffee or sugary red tea.
Nablus is the birthplace of what might be the Middle East’s most loved dessert, kunafa, which brings in food pilgrims from all over the world to pay homage to this incredible sweet treat. Eating kunafa in Nablus warrants you the title of an experienced traveler of the Middle East no matter what.
Although the colors and the excitement of the Khan El Khalili Bazaar will be one of the highlights of your trip to Cairo, nothing can bring it down like getting ripped off by a local merchant while shopping. For those who are more experienced in the Middle East, however, their pride lies mainly in the fact that they’ve managed to bargain like a true Egyptian when it comes to getting the best price.
Beirut’s nightlife is one of the highlights of the Middle East, and for the many travelers who have traversed the region, surviving the city’s nighttime adventures is one of the most memorable moments. And most importantly, being able to withstand the night without embarrassing yourself as the blundering foreigner is even better.
It’s one of those useful Arabic phrases that you swear you’ll never use, but end up wholeheartedly using it while traveling around the Middle East. Late for the airport in a slow taxi? “Yallah!” Trying to bargain and the merchant is almost giving in? “Yallah, akhi!” At an Arab wedding or party and need something to say to start dancing? “Yallah shabab!”
One thing that genuinely showcases your experience in and around the Middle East is your ability to detect where someone is from based on the dialect of Arabic they use. From the sparkling North African dialect to the warm-hearted Egyptian Arabic, from the deep Iraqi accent to the fluttering Lebanese pronunciations, you’ll be able to distinguish each dialect’s unique sounds and words after spending a little time immersing yourself in the local cultures and languages.
With the ability to distinguish the different Arabic dialects comes preferences as well. Most experienced Middle Eastern travelers pounce on anyone speaking their preferred Arabic dialect with tears of joy, as it reminds them of visiting that specific country where the accent is from.
Greetings in most Arab cultures entails a lot of guessing on when to stop kissing the other person’s cheeks and which side to start on. Once you’ve mastered the person’s body language when it comes to greetings, you can officially call yourself an expert in the region.