Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East

Istanbul Blue Mosque.

Middle East Map

“Did you experience any anti-Americanism?”

“Was it dangerous?”

“Did you eat your body weight in falafel?”

These are common questions I get after traveling to the Middle East. I think many Americans view the entire region as one big country where conflicts and problems are widespread. Truth is, the Middle East is a great place to travel and is in fact one of my favorite regions. I have been to Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Egypt, Dubai and Turkey and have loved every minute of it. Let me tell you why.

The Middle East is Safe

I know it sounds counter-intuitive to think of the Middle East as a safe place to travel due to the volatility and unrest in the region, but the areas that are safe are extremely safe. You either have war or security, and little in between.

During our time in the region, we’ve never felt unsafe. It is extremely rare for a tourist to be a victim of a mugging or robbery. I feel completely comfortable walking around with my DSLR camera or walking around at night, with no fear that I’m going to be robbed.

In Central America and sub-Saharan Africa, homes and businesses have multiple layers of visible security. First, almost all gates and walls are topped with decorative, barbed spikes just waiting to impale any would-be intruders. Intertwined among the spikes or placed atop the walls is a skein of barbed wire and in some cases, electrical razor wire. (I really want to touch the electrical wire, by the way. Does it give a mild shock, or blast you to the ground causing you to pee your pants?)

In addition, there is the prominent ADT security sign on all houses than can afford a security system. Locals warn you frequently of the dangers and armed guards are everywhere.

There are armed guards everywhere in Israel, but there is no such security measures anywhere else that I’ve been in the Middle East.

The Middle East is in many ways safer than the USA and parts of Europe. To illustrate this point, take a look at the below chart I made using data from the un.org. The homicide rate in the Middle East is extremely low, with most countries being as safe or safer than the United States and on par with Germany, Japan and Canada.

Middle East Murder Rate Chart

And I know it may sound crazy, but it is possible to visit northern Iraq, Iran and Yemen right now. Don’t believe me? Check out this post, this post, or this post, by some of my favorite travel bloggers.

In fact, according to this eye-opening report on niqash.org, 93% of the violence in Iraq is happening in one half of the country. Half the country is extremely dangerous; the other half is as safe as Canada.

Middle Eastern People are Friendly and Hospitable

Egyptian women

The people of the region are very helpful, friendly, welcoming and hospitable. We’ve been invited to drink tea and chat with locals on numerous occasions and with the exception of Egypt, it is a hassle free place to travel.

One example of Middle Eastern hospitality: we were in Cairo and decided to have a little adventure by taking the local city buses to the Pyramids of Giza. We went to a bridge where the buses depart and found the situation to be pure chaos: buses would pull up, people would pile on and off and the bus would take off quickly. All the writing on the buses was in Arabic.

A camel and Pyramid at sunset. Kristi asked a local man for help and he made it his personal mission to assist us. He asked around, then put us on a bus and shouted at the driver over all the chaos, telling him where we were going.

Kristi sat up front with the driver and some women, while I went to the back of the mini-bus where I was a celebrity. The locals were unaccustomed to seeing westerners on the local bus and they were very excited to talk to me. Somebody even paid for our ticket, refusing to let us pay.

When it came time to change buses, the driver recruited a lady to help us. He shouted something to her in Arabic, and she took us under her wing. She was a middle-aged lady that didn’t speak English, but she indicated for us to stay with her.

Another bus pulled up, she yelled something at the driver, then put us onboard. That bus took us magically to the Pyramids. We put our trust in the people and they totally took care of us.

4 Out of 5 Calls to Prayer

Blue Mosque TouristsI love the call to prayer. Well, at least the noon, afternoon, sunset and evening call to prayer. I don’t like the 5am call to prayer. I doubt even the most devout Muslims enjoy being awoken so early by crackling speakers blasting out the morning call of the muezzin.

The call to prayer serves as an atmospheric reminder to pray and think about God.  You don’t have to be a Muslim to need a reminder to pray in this busy world. It also serves as a reminder that I am somewhere exotic.

One of the most magical moments in all of my travels happened in Jerusalem. Our guesthouse was in the Muslim quarter and we had a view of the Dome of the Rock plus eight other mosques from our rooftop. At sunset, the call to prayer erupted from one speaker, and was joined by another and another. In time, the intermingling calls of the muezzin were ringing out in all directions as we watched the orange sky. It was a beautiful moment of peace in one of the most contentious places on earth.

Middle Eastern Food is Delicious

Doner Kebab in Turkey

Kebabs. Popular with dogs and people.

Middle Eastern food is totally underrated in the ranks of world cuisine. Healthy, fresh and full of flavorful spices, I love the food there.

One of the great joys of Middle Eastern dining is ordering something simple, like kebab or kofta, and getting seven plates delivered to the table. Hummus and/or tahini, a hot sauce, pickled veggies, tomatoes and cucumbers, olives, and flat bread, usually accompany each dish.

The Middle East has Amazing Things To See

Petra Jordan from Above

The Middle East has a seemingly endless supply of awesome places to see, provided you like ancient mosques, rock cut churches, Egyptian temples, charming old cities and 5000-year-old pyramids. To me, the pyramids of Giza may have been the 4th or 5th coolest ancient site in Egypt. They might not even be the coolest pyramids in Egypt.

Petra in Jordan is my favorite ancient site, probably because it combines the desert scenery of Utah with colossal rock cut facades that happen to be older than Jesus. It was possible to hike high above the ruins and get a great vantage point of the site and avoid the crowds.

On top of that, there are several very interesting geographical places, like Cappadocia, Wadi Rum, Siwa, and the Sahara.

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I hope to visit the Middle East again in the near future and fill in the gaps on the map where I have not been. And if you haven’t yet been, you should go too.

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Have you been to the Middle East?

Do you agree or disagree with my assessment of the safety issue?

Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.

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31 Comments on “Why I Love Traveling in the Middle East

  1. The Middle East is steeped in history, the hospitality you experienced in Egypt extends to the Caucasus states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan…but might also involve copious offers of alcohol…

    • The Caucasus states are on my to-do list in the near future. I didn’t get much alcohol in the Middle East outside of Turkey so that would be nice. I was offered tea countless times though!

  2. Without fail, everyone I know who has traveled to the middle east LOVES it, for all the reasons you note. Possibly the most hospitable people on earth. People are not their governments, and the people are not terrorist groups.

    • Great point. People are not the governments or extremist groups. I think that is why I’ve been treated so well as a traveler – people can distinguish between US government and its people. I’d hate to be judged by our military and the Tea Party.

  3. Thanks for this post! It made me happy! Im glad u like traveling in that region. My boyfriend is from Jordan and his family is actually always worrying about his safety in US, which probably would seem ironic to most people, bc most people don’t know any better. When he was in Jordan this past spring, his elderly grandmom was crying and begging him to stay in Amman bc she was worried about safety in the US. I think though that while Americans tend to have an inaccurate view of the Middle east, other countries have an inaccurate view of the US as well. For some reason I always have a lot of Arabs asking me about gangs in the US, like they have this idea that gang violence is something that an everyday American has to worry about. I’ve also met a lot of Europeans who think that all Americans own guns. I guess people often just really need to experience a culture first hand to know the truth!

    • Jen – Great insights. That is fascinating that your boyfriend’s grandmother would be worried about him in the U.S.

      I wonder if the gang fear comes from movies, music or the media? Do you happen to know?

      We need a giant worldwide travel/home-stay exchange to bring about world peace. We will send Americans to the Middle East and Arabs to the U.S. for a start. In the words of Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

      • The gang fear from the Arabs I’ve talked to comes from movies. It’s his whole family that’s worried not just the grandmom lol. He was there about a month after the bombings in Boston (which is where we live) so that’s why she was very upset. But they were worried even before that happened.

      • The Boston bombings would explain a lot. That was a pretty intense time.

        America, like a lot of places, is dangerous if you are in the wrong place.

  4. I think naming the Middle East “safe” is a too big generalization. There is not even a general definition of what “the Middle East” includes. The region is just too big and diverse to be labelled a single “destination”, and there are huge differences even between neighbouring countries in the Middle East. While parts of the region are certainly safe, others are absolute no-go areas, and the tourist should be very aware of that. And that things can (and do) change very quickly.

    • Good points. Lebanon is a great example of a volatile place. Although I think it is safe to visit right now the situation can change very quickly there. But in the countries like Turkey, Jordan the UAE and even Israel, the odds of unrest happening right now are slim.

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  6. Interesting post. I think it is a shame some Egyptians can be so harasive particularly in tourist areas. My husband studied Arabic for 9 months in Cairo and moving to sudan was a welcome change as the people are definitely more gentle and less aggressive towards foreigners. Again though Khartoum was a place of contrasts. On a daily basis it felt incredibly safe and I could walk around alone as a woman with no fear and we never had any problems with crime. On the flip side things can change quickly before we arrived an American diplomat was shot when driving home from a New Years party and after we left the embassy was attacked. Another example where the majority of people are wonderful but sadly there are also some extremists…

    • Thank you for the insight. We think of Sudan as such a wild place, and yes there are huge problems, but we don’t realize that some places are safe. That is interesting that you could walk around Khartoum and be safe.

      Egypt was strange because we met some of the nicest people we’ve ever met there, and we were harassed worse in Egypt than anywhere else, even India. Thank you for commenting.

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  8. Thank you for the mention, Jeff! Love your article, including both the commentary and statistics. I think it is wonderful how you absorb, and appreciate, all of the many positive aspects of the Middle Eastern lifestyle and culture. Keep up the great work!

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  10. Hi Jeff. Great post! I haven’t been to the Middles East yet but it sure is on my dream places to visit.

    Just to note on this: “the 5am call to prayer. I doubt even the most devout Muslims enjoy being awoken so early” I am a Muslim and this has got to be the most beautiful way to be woken up. And every Muslim, devout or semi-devout, will attest to this 🙂

    • Hi Parvis – thank you for commenting and adding your insight. Are you sure you enjoy the 5am call to prayer? That is SO early!

      I bet that is a beautiful way to be awoken. I am not a morning person so it is a shock to me, especially early on in my trip when I’m not ready for it.

      • I do. And by the way, Muslims wake up BEFORE the call of prayer is made. So it’s not technically being woken up by it. But I’d rather prefer that to wake me up than a dreadful alarm clock!

  11. I do agree with Parvis, there is nothing more beautiful than the 5 am prayer call especially with a Muzzin (The man who calls for the prayer) of a beautiful voice like the one who calls for prayer in Dubai.
    It is just fascinating how you would leave the comfy of your bed for your creator , and trust me the morning prayer has a special thing about it. Among all 5 prayers of the day it is the one where you could really feel the link between yourself and your creator.

    Enjoy the middle east, and you’re always welcome here 🙂

    • Thank you for the comments, Aziz. I like hearing insight from you and Parvis on this – it has totally changed my opinion on the morning prayer. My first experiences with the 5am call to prayer were shocking because I wasn’t ready for it. I am also not a morning person. Thank you for sharing.

  12. I do agree with Parvis, there is nothing more beautiful than the 5 am prayer call especially with a Muzzin (The man who calls for the prayer) of a beautiful voice like the one who calls for prayer in Dubai.
    It is just fascinating how you would leave the comfy of your bed for your creator , and trust me the morning prayer has a special thing about it. Among all 5 prayers of the day it is the one where you could really feel the link between yourself and your creator.

    Enjoy the middle east, and you’re always welcome here 🙂

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