Everyone is going to have an opinion on you heading off to travel the Middle East alone. If your experience is anything like mine, plenty of these opinions – often on the negative spectrum – will be from people who have never set foot in a Middle Eastern country before.
I’ve lived in the Middle East for over a decade and still occasionally run into people who want to give me their thoughts on why I shouldn’t travel solo here. My main advice to anyone planning to dive into this region is to block out this background noise and just go. But here are a few other things I’ve picked up on the way.
Prepare to be a curiosity
Compared to the number of men travelling alone, the couples and friends, and the large amount of tour groups, solo females are an oddity. Get used to attention. If you’re from a culture that values individual privacy – where making eye-contact on the tube is a serious faux pas – prepare for a serious learning curve in dealing with a more community-orientated culture. The constant barrage of questions can get a wee bit intense.
“Where’s your husband? You’re travelling by yourself?”
“You’re not married? Why aren’t you married?”
“How many children do you have?”
“You? Don’t? Have? Children?”
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As soon as I accepted both the fact that I was considered a tad weird and that having in-depth personal conversations with complete strangers didn’t mark you out as a psychopath, my patience levels improved substantially. As a bonus, if you’re naturally nosey, this gives you the green light to ask questions that you wouldn’t normally dream of asking someone you’d just met back home.
Sometimes though, these interrogations can be exhausting. Explaining that yes, you’re single and don’t have children and no, you really don’t want any thank you very much, several times a day veers onto the irritating level after a while. That’s why I’ve also learned that it’s OK to tell a little white lie to preserve sanity levels occasionally. There’s nothing wrong with saying your husband is back home or at the hotel to stop any further probes into your lifestyle choices in their track. Though don’t go as far as I did one day in Luxor when I was so wrapped up in a bad mood by the oppressive blanket of heat that I snapped back at someone that my husband was dead. Unless you want to feel guilty for the rest of your life about the sincere outpouring of sympathy this resulted in, don’t do that.
How to revel in the absurd
If I’ve learned one thing in the Middle East, it’s that a well-developed sense of humour is your best friend. I’ve been travelling around the region for years and strange stuff, connected to the fact that I’m a solo female, still happens to me on a frequent basis.
Years ago, a Syrian family I was friends with invited me for dinner at their house. Without my knowledge, they also invited all the single men in their extended family, in what turned out to be a well-intentioned effort to find a husband for their tragically unmarried foreign friend. Male family members drove across the country to be presented to me as candidates for my future husband. To make matters worse, as I lived in Egypt, my friend had prepared the Egyptian speciality of molokhiyya (mallow-leaf stew) as the main dish in my honour. I hate molokhiyya. I spent the entire evening alternately trying not to laugh or gag as I forced spoonfuls of the viscid green stew into my mouth, while enthusiastic young men (most a good 10 years younger than me) sales-pitched me their prospects.
I used to think the absurd situations I found myself in would taper off as I got older. I was wrong. On assignment in Turkey’s southeast recently, a man I was mid-conversation with suddenly put down his tea glass and started doing press-ups on the ground. I presume me bursting out laughing wasn’t the response he was expecting.
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It’s all about perception
With the amount of bad press the Middle East gets, it’s not surprising that many travellers arrive with some seriously skewed perceptions. Once you’ve spent some time talking to, and making friends with, Middle Easterners though, those preformed impressions can begin to crack. Even better, you may get a chance to see how your lifestyle and ‘freedoms’ are seen from someone else’s point of view.
A friend in Jordan took me on a day trip to his family’s village. Having lunch at the family home, his mum questioned me about my life. As I explained to her I’d left home at 18 and travelled to England where I worked in a bar, she let out a wail.
“Your family made you leave? You were made to go out to work?”
Nothing could convince her that this had been my choice. She couldn’t believe that a family would let their teenage daughter head out into the world by themselves with no support network. To her this wasn’t freedom. This amounted to abandonment. My friend tells me that whenever he heads back home his mother still asks about ‘that poor girl’.
Many solo female travellers come to the Middle East with their guard fully up. Travelling around this region isn’t all sunshine and roses – though random bunches of flowers will probably be presented to you along the way – but if you’re going to try to keep safe by building a wall around yourself you’ll miss out on much of what makes travelling here special. Embracing, rather than shying away from, the genuine hospitality that will be extended to you will enhance your travels. And I promise you, you’ll never be bored. I hate being bored. It’s probably why I’m still here.