Cultural Awareness When Planning a Trip to The Middle East

Some background information to avoid cultural blunders when travelling in the Middle East

There is a saying that East is East, West is West and never the twain shall meet. But that is a phrase from a long time ago and the world is a smaller and ever more connected place.  More cultures are meeting, mixing and evolving under each other’s influence.

And yet, anyone traveling to places that are culturally different from their home should always be aware of some of the common differences they may encounter. After all, you travel to expand the mind and to experience the lands and lives of people very different to your own and you can only do that by knowing and embracing the fundamentals of those cultures. Nowhere are these differences more pronounced than for a Western Traveler exploring the Middle East.

The Middle East, a region largely dominated by the echoes of ancient kingdoms and Arab culture is a fascinating blend of forward-thinking businesses and ingrained traditions, strict religious doctrine, and high tech cities. The past and the future live side by side.  The Middle East can be a confusing mix of customs and traditions, but with a little research and by following a few simple rules, the area can be one of the most rewarding destinations on the planet.

When it comes to the Middle East, one might assume that women travelers have to be the most careful.  But men need to be just as diligent in their behavior and how they present themselves in over to avoid offense and embarrassment.

First impressions are always important anywhere you travel, and the first thing people notice about you is the way that you are dressed. Dress codes are a critical cultural component.  The dress code at a western hotel is going to be different than that in areas that are frequented by locals.  There’s generally no need to run out to buy new clothes, but do try to fit in.

A woman traveler at the amazing Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

A woman traveler at the amazing Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey

Women should wear long pants or skirts, and long sleeve shirts covering the chest and nape of the neck. Despite the hot climates, native light, loose clothing is quite comfortable and often better than wearing shorts.  A headscarf is often optional for foreign women but is a good way to blend in, show respect and avoid unwanted attention.

When visiting Mosques and sites connected to the Islamic faith a few extra points of dress code should be noted. Women must wear a headscarf. At some sites, men are often required to wear some sort of head covering as well. Shoes must be removed and you must remain quiet and respectful of worshipers. In the Middle East, many ancient sites rather than museums are the center of an active part of the daily life.

Greetings also have a few points of etiquette that you need to know.  When greeting someone it is customary to use the phrase “Asalamu Alaykum” which means Peace be Upon You.  Men will shake each other’s hands and often hold that shake for a very long time. Men do not shake a woman’s hand unless she extends it first, and even then it is iffy. If she does not extend her hand, a simple nod and an Asalamu Alaykum will do.  As you get to know people, you may find that they will offer a kiss on the cheek and a hug. But this is only once you are very familiar with them and only if they offer first. As always, follow the lead of those around you and if in doubt opt for the more modest greeting.

With luck, you may find yourself attending or even hosting a social gathering. Locals of the Middle East are socialized to be generous and giving. Hospitality is extremely important.  A common invitation is to come for tea. Whatever the occasion, be sure to bring a token of your appreciation. Figs, sweets or pastries are appreciated.

American students visiting a Chechen Mosque in Abu Gosh (Between Tel Aviv & Jerusalem)

American students visiting a Chechen Mosque in Abu Gosh (Between Tel AvivJerusalem), Israel to learn about Islam and Arab culture

Be sure to remove your shoes before entering a house (sometimes slippers will be provided) and never show the bottom of your feet when sitting. Always wash your hands before your meal. Use only your right hand for taking and eating food.

Beware of being too complimentary of people’s home furnishings, decor, and personal objects, as many will feel obliged to give you the item that you have just praised.  It is very bad form not to offer up the admired item.  Although the compliment is well intended, it can result in an awkward and stressful situation.

It should be noted that public displays of affection are frowned upon in the Middle East and should be saved for private moments. Even a couple holding hands can cause a few disparaging looks. On the other hand, it is not unusual for people of the same sex to hold hands or arms in public.  A physical connection is common.

Travel to the Middle East may require a bit more research than other places you might choose to go, and there are rules that need be followed. But once you embrace the customs and traditions of the Middle East, travel there can be the most rewarding of travel experiences. Contact one of our CityPals in Egypt, Israel, Turkey or other Middle Eastern destinations to get more information or to book a tour.

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