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.
- Bring a small gift of flowers, chocolates, pastries, fruit or honey.
- It’s polite to be seen to wash your hands before a meal.
- Always remove your shoes before sitting down on a rug to eat or drink tea.
- Don’t sit with your legs stretched out – it’s considered rude during a meal.
- Always sit next to a person of the same sex at the dinner table unless your host(ess) suggests otherwise.
- Use only your right hand for eating or accepting food.
- When the meal begins, accept as much food as is offered to you. If you say ‘no thanks’ continually, it can offend the host.
- It’s good manners to leave a little food on your plate at the end of the meal: traditionally, a clean plate was thought to invite famine. It can also suggest to your host that they haven't fed you sufficiently.
- Your host will often lay the tastiest morsels in front of you; it’s polite to accept them.
- The best part – such as the meat – is usually saved until last, so don’t take it until offered.
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.
- Picking teeth after a meal is quite acceptable, and toothpicks are often provided.
- Be sure to leave the dining area and go outside or to the toilet before blowing your nose.
- Take food from your side of the table; stretching to the other side is considered impolite.
- It’s polite to accept a cup of coffee after a meal and impolite to leave before it’s served.
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:
- Don’t hand out sweets or pens to children on the streets, since it encourages begging. Similarly, doling out medicines can encourage people not to seek proper medical advice and you have no control over whether the medicines are taken appropriately. A donation to a project, health centre or school is a far more constructive way to help.
- Buy your snacks, cigarettes, bubble gum etc from the enterprising grannies trying to make ends meet, rather than state-run stores. Also, use locally owned hotels and restaurants and buy locally made products.
- Try to give people a balanced perspective of life in the West. Try also to point out the strong points of the local culture, such as strong family ties and comparatively low crime.
- Make yourself aware of the human-rights situation, history and current affairs in the countries you travel through.
- If you’re in a frustrating situation, be patient, friendly and considerate. Never lose your temper as a confrontational attitude won’t go down well. For many Arabs, a loss of face is a serious and sensitive issue.
- Try to learn some of the standard greetings – it will make a very good first impression.
- Always ask before taking photos of people. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language – a smile and gesture will be appreciated. Never photograph someone if they don’t want you to. If you agree to send someone a photo, make sure you follow through on it.
- Be respectful of Islamic traditions and don’t wear revealing clothing; loose lightweight clothing is preferable.
- Men should shake hands when formally meeting other men, but not women, unless the woman extends her hand first. If you are a woman and uncomfortable with men extending their hand to you (they don’t do this with local women), just put your hand over your heart and say hello.
- Public displays of physical affection are almost always likely to be misunderstood. Be discreet.