Like anywhere else in the world, the people of the Middle East have particular ways of doing things and these customs can seem strange to first-time visitors. While you should always try to follow local customs, most people in the Middle East will be too polite to say anything if you break one of the region’s taboos. In most cases, an apology and obvious goodwill will earn instant forgiveness.
Eating Never handle food with your left hand; don't blow your nose at the table, but it's OK to pick your teeth.
Religion You're likely to be asked what your religion is; this is not considered rude and is asked out of genuine interest
Clothing Wear clothes covering shoulders and knees at a minimum.
General Avoid public displays of affection, criticism of the country you're travelling in, and losing your patience; always ask before photographing someone.
Middle Easterners can be a hospitable lot, and it’s not unusual for visitors to receive at least one invitation to eat in someone’s home while travelling through the region. While each invitation needs to be assessed on its merits, our general advice would be that eating in a family home can be one of your most memorable travel experiences in the Middle East.
To avoid making your hosts feel uncomfortable, there are a few simple guidelines to follow.
There are fewer etiquette rules to observe in restaurants, but it’s still worth trying to do so, particularly if you’re eating as the guest of a local or sharing a table with locals.
At some point during your travels in the Middle East, the conversation is likely to turn to religion. More specifically, you’ll probably be asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ Given that most foreign travellers come from secular Western traditions where religion is a private matter, the level of frankness in some of these discussions can come as a surprise. At the same time, there’s no better way of getting under the skin of a nation than talking about the things that matter most in life. So how do you go about answering this question?
It’s usually easy to explain that you are Christian or, in some circumstances, Jewish. The overwhelming majority of Muslims won’t bat an eyelid and may even welcome the opportunity to talk about the common origins and doctrines that Christianity, Judaism and Islam share. Traditionally, Christians and Jews were respected as ‘people of the book’ who share the same God. In fact, many a Bedouin encounter begins with a celebration of that fact, with greetings such as ‘Your God, my God same – Salaam (Peace)!’
The question of religion gets complicated when it comes to atheists. ‘I don’t believe in God’ can call into question the very foundation of a Muslim’s existence. If you are concerned your atheism will cause offence, perhaps say, ‘I’m a seeker’, suggesting you haven’t quite made up your mind but may do so in the future. Be aware that Muslims may respond by explaining the merits of Islam to you. If that’s not how you planned to spend your afternoon, try saying, ‘I’m not religious’. This will likely lead to understanding nods and then, perhaps on subsequent meetings, an earnest attempt at conversion. Phrases like ‘You’ll find God soon, God-willing’ are a measure of someone’s affection for you and a reasonable response would be shukran (thank you).
Tourism has the potential to improve the relationship between the Middle East and the West, but the gradual erosion of traditional life is the flipside of mass tourism. Sexual promiscuity, public drunkenness among tourists and the wearing of unsuitable clothing are all concerns to be aware of.
Try to have minimal impact on your surroundings. Create a positive precedent for those who follow you by keeping in mind the following: