Having lived in the Middle East for 3 years now, and having travelled solo around almost half of the 22 Arabic countries, I want to share my knowledge with you, as a Western woman, about travelling around Arabic countries.
Arabic countries are not usually the top of most people’s holiday destinations, infact France alone sees more tourists than all of the 22 Arabic countries added together! Tell a friend you’re going to travel round an Arabic country as a female solo traveller and they will instantly tell you “be careful!”. The Western world seems to group all the Arabic countries together as one, and has the idea that all Arabic countries are dangerous, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Westerners are often reluctant to travel to the Middle East and North African countries due to a number of reasons: visa issues, political unrest, potential terrorist threats, harsh climates and the lack of facilities. Many Westerners are also skeptical about the area, feel intimidated by the huge culture differences, and how they see these countries are portrayed in the media. As a result, sadly many Westerners are ignorant to learning about and discovering this part of the world, but there are so many beautiful places to be explored and so much history and cultural heritage to discover. Most Arabic countries are also very cheap when compared to Western countries, and the Arabic people are also soooo friendly, infact they are some of the funniest and happiest people I’ve ever met! They are so hospitable and look after you so well and really want you to enjoy their country!
Typically Arabic countries are not places where women travel alone and it can seem intimidating at first. Here are my top 10 tips for a Western woman travelling around Arabic countries:
- The most obvious but probably the most important one: please dress conservatively. This doesn’t mean covering yourself from head to toe, but just don’t wear anything skin tight, and try to keep your chest, shoulders and knees covered. It is much better to wear a long loose fitting dress/skirt as opposed to fitted jeans or leggings, where the shape of your leg can be seen. Not only are you showing respect by dressing appropriately, but you won’t be unnecessarily drawing any unwanted attention to yourself.
- Always bring a scarf with you, even if you just leave it in your bag, at least you have it if you need it. I have found in certain countries more than others, that wearing a headscarf will often ward off any unwanted male attention, much to my relief.
- Learn basic Arabic, it will really help you and the locals will really appreciate it. All Arabic countries speak the Arabic language, amongst other languages, so learn basic Arabic phrases such as salam aleikum (peace be with you – used as a greeting), shukran (thankyou), aywa (yes), la (no), and they will get you a long way in many countries. In the North African countries of Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria they are also fluent in French too (thanks to them being colonised by the French), so make use of that French you learnt in school! Speaking a little of one of these languages will also prevent people from trying to rip you off.
- If you are taking public transport, stay near local women. Most buses and metro systems in Arabic countries will have a ‘women only’ area so make sure to go there to avoid any unnecessary male attention. This is a concept I hadn’t even heard of before I visited an Arabic country as it doesn’t even exist back home, but it is definitely worth sticking to these ‘women only’ areas if you’re alone.
- One important piece of advice is to not go out alone after dark. Whilst we do this all the time in the West and think nothing of it, do it in an Arab country and people will get the wrong idea about you and think you are easy. I once had a group of women escort me back to my accommodation in Tunis one evening, which I found so strange and unnecessary, and I thought they were just being over protective, but they were adamant I wasn’t walking back alone as they knew how people would look at me and possibly say something to me. This is just one example of Arabic people looking out for you – I had only met these girls on the train and they were already going out of their way to help me. Their small gestures really go a long way and so often I am touched by how thoughtful they are.
- Another piece of advice that I found strange as this is actually considered rude in Western culture, but it is advisable to avoid eye contact in the street, especially with men, as it may be taken the wrong way and they may misinterpret your glance to mean something more than it is.
- Alcohol and bars do exist in Arabic countries, contrary to popular belief! I wouldn’t even suggest to drink any alcohol if you are a female travelling alone, but if you do, just be very careful and always be aware that you’re in a world completely different to your own, inside a culture where people think and behave very differently than you are used to.
- Hostels are not common in Arabic countries: only now are a few of them starting to pop up in some countries, but not at all to level of the West or Asia. I found a couple of really cool hostels in Beirut and, as was to be expected, the dorms were female only and male only. But apart from that, many of the capitals in other Arabic countries don’t even have one hostel. Therefore it is especially important to always sort out your accommodation beforehand as choices may be limited if you are on a budget, and you don’t want to be traipsing round town after dark trying to find a roof over your head. Bear in mind also that some countries may not allow a male and female of certain nationalities to share a room together if they are not married, so take this into consideration if you are travelling with your partner or a friend of the opposite sex.
- Whilst you may love solo travel like me, it is advisable to travel with a friend or companion around Arabic countries. Not that I’ve felt unsafe necessarily, but I’ve definitely felt intimidated a few times. I know I stand out and look different, and sometimes people will think I am naive and try to take advantage, and quite honestly, this really bugs me as I’m pretty well travelled so I’ve seen all the tricks in the book and know when someone is trying to take me for a fool. At least if you’re travelling with someone else, you’re much less likely to get approached by people.
- When purchasing goods, haggling is common practice and a tradition in Arabic countries. Bargaining is meant to be light hearted and fun, but some sellers can seem pushy and intimidating and even rude in Western standards. Stand your ground and don’t be afraid to say no and walk away if you don’t think a price is fair. Often they will call you back and give you the price you asked for anyway when you do this!
There are many cultural differences between the Western world and the Arab world and sometimes it’s hard to get your head round some of the customs or expectations – even three years later I am still learning; something that people would not even blink an eyelid over, or that is considered normal in a Western country can be considered inappropriate and totally misinterpreted in Arabic cultures. But it’s all about learning and respecting other cultures and I’m so glad for the opportunities I’ve had to discover this fascinating culture.
Something that I feel is important to mention is the big misconception the majority of people in the West have about Arabic women: they feel pity on them for being ‘forced’ to cover up and that they are helpless secondary citizens who are controlled by their men. Let me tell you Arabic women are strong minded proud women and don’t appreciate this stereotype, and they often CHOOSE to cover themselves up more (The Quran states women only need to cover their hair, not their face as well).
One thing I also noticed about Arabs is that, as a majority, they aren’t as big on travelling and exploring other cultures as Asians and Westerners are. I’ve been backpacking for years and I can actually count on one hand the amount of Arabic travellers I have met. They are generally more cautious than Westerners when it comes to travelling.
If you haven’t been to an Arabic country and are interested to visit as a solo female traveller but don’t know where to start, I would suggest visiting Jordan or Lebanon first. They are both very open-minded countries with a large percentage of Arab Christians and it is so refreshing to see the two religions coexisting in peace. Jordan is one of the safest and most stable countries in the region and has never suffered from political unrest. They are used to tourists in Jordan and Lebanon and the majority of people in the tourism industry can speak English very well. Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, also has a wild party scene if that’s what you’re after! Check out my blog post 10 reasons why female solo travellers should totally check out Beirut HERE! Both Lebanon and Jordan are steeped in an incredible history, unlike for example the UAE. Whilst the UAE is undoubtedly the safest and most popular Arabic country to visit, it has more expats than local residents so apart from going on a desert safari and visiting the mosque, it can be hard for tourists to get a deep insight into the Emirati culture and heritage as pretty much all the buildings were built in the last 30 years. The buildings are very impressive, there’s no denying that, but you often won’t get much interaction with the local Emirati people.
Many Westerners think Morocco would be the obvious choice for a first trip to an Arabic country, based on its location just a stone’s throw from Gibraltar, but many Moroccan people are far less open minded than the people in Lebanon and Jordan and even the UAE, so I wouldn’t recommend it as a first stop for female solo travellers to Arabic countries. Of course it is a fascinating and beautiful country and I definitely recommend visiting it, but solo female travellers may find it more of a culture shock than Jordan, for example. Each and every Arabic country has beautiful sights and I absolutely loved parts of each Arabic country that I have visited and I met some absolutely wonderful people. Remember there are many different kinds of people and different cultures in the Arabic world – some more open than others and sometimes sadly the uneducated people in some of these countries can be pretty narrow-minded.
Travelling around Arabic countries is definitely not as easy as travelling in Asia and the West, but with a bit of preparation and planning, you’re sure to have the best time and make some amazing friends, I know I certainly have!
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