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When planning your next holiday, a trip to the Middle East probably doesn't spring to your mind immediately. Images of suicide bombers, terrorist attacks, sexual harrassment, a lack of alcohol and Saddam's grinning face tend to put many visitors off completely. The US and British governments' travel advice don't really encourage travel to many parts of the Middle East either. But this is a shame. A real shame. The Middle East does have its fair share of problems, I won't try to deny that, but can anyone name a region which is problem free? Yes, there are a lot of trouble spots where things could badly go wrong, but for every trouble spot there are at least 50 places where you can visit with no problems whatsoever and have a fantastic time doing so. The trick is to ignore any negative aspects you might have heard, and go to make up your own mind. First of all, where exactly is the Middle East? Now there's a question and a half! No two people seem to agree on that...for sure, it includes the Arabian Peninsula (Saudi, the Gulf States etc..) and the countries of the Levant (Syria, Lebanon, etc..). Linguistically and culturally, we can include Egypt too, but if we do that, we have to include most of North Africa. Then there is Turkey...is it European or Middle Eastern? And Iran? For the sake of this review, I'm going to include all of them...not that I have been to all of them, but I will attempt at persuading a few of you to visit the region by giving a brief overview and some opinions of my own on travelling in the area. OK, the most popular places for foreign tourists are undoubtedly Turkey, Egypt and Tunisia. These three countries have long had a tourist industry, in the case of Egypt based on the famous Pyramids of Giza, Luxor and other archaeological wonders. Turkey and Tunisia both have amazing ruins too, but most tourists are more interested in a holiday on the beach. Well, that's fine...there's no
doubting that the Middle East has some fantastic beaches, and certain places like Turkey's Mediterranean coastline, the beaches of Tunisia, Israel and Dubai are all well geared-up to welcome foreign tourists by the plane load. If you take a holiday like this, you'll enjoy it, but you won't see anything that is culturally typical of the region, and you'll miss out on a lot. The Middle East has lots to offer, more than many people think actually. Everyone automatically thinks of the Pyramids, surrounded by desert and camels. Yes, there are deserts and camels, but did you realise there are also snow-capped mountains, forests, grasslands, lakes, huge rivers...? If you think of who lives there, you probably think "Israelis and Arab terrorists" as that is what is shown on the news. True enough, I suppose, but there's a lot more to it than that. For a start, although the majority of the population are Arabs, each area has its own characteristics...I mean, Syrian Arabs are very different to Tunisian Arabs, who are in turn very different from Yemeni Arabs. Each country, each district, hell each village has its own culture, waiting to be discovered. Then there are the minorities...the Kurds, the Druze, the Circassians, the Nubians etc.... And don't forget, Turks are not Arabs, neither are Iranians. They are three separate ethnic groups which happen to share a region and a religion. Safety is often a big concern, but the likelyhood of being the victim of a terrorist attack is very remote...just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and theoretically it could happen anywhere. Crime, on the other hand, is not really a problem at all. Pickpockets do of course exist, but I think it would be fair to say that if you dropped your wallet in a busy market, nine times out of ten it would be handed straight back. Theft brings shame upon the family, so it is not just the threat of being punished which puts off potentia
l thieves, more the humiliation it would bring to the whole family. So, on the whole, crime levels are low compared to Europe and the States, and I can confidently say I feel safer walking down an unlit alleyway in Damascus at night than walking down the main shopping streets of London during the day. So, enough of that! Where to visit. For a first time visitor to the region, several countries come to mind. I wouldn't recommend travelling somewhere so different that you just about get used to the culture shock before it is time to go home. Leave those sort of destinations until later...they are not going anywhere! Egypt is an obvious choice...lots to see, and you'll be in the company of thousands of other tourists too, as Egypt is firmly on the tourist trail. But from all accounts, many visitors can't cope with the general hustling of the tourist touts, omnipresent at all tourist attractions in the country. Unfortunately I think many visitors don't return to the region because of the vivid memories of being ripped off or constantly hassled by tour guides or whatever. So maybe I should recommend alternatives. TURKEY Turkey is a good choice for breaking you in gently. It is European enough for first-timers to relax, while there is enough Middle Eastern flavour for the holiday to be labelled "exotic". Istanbul, although becoming touristy and plagued by many a tout, cannot fail to impress. The coastline is also beautiful, and attracts thousands of tourists each year during the warmer months. The standard tours of the country take in the strange fairy-tale cave houses of Cappadocia, the ruins of Ephesus, and a beach or two, finishing in Istanbul. Yet Turkey offers fantastic scope for getting off the beaten track. The north coast alongside the Black Sea receives few foreign visitors, even though parts of it are stunningly beautiful...places like Amasra, Amasya and Safranbolu, yet to make it onto the tourist trai
l, or the plain bizarre city of Trabzon. The east of the country is where you'll find ancient towns with ancient traditions, tall mountains ideal for trekking, and some of the friendliest people imaginable...and not a tour bus in site. Travel in Turkey is easy, helped by an efficient bus network, one which is streets ahead of the British public transport system. There always seems to be a bus heading where you want to go at whatever time, most buses are comfortable and fast, and relatively cheap compared to Europe. Language is not a problem either, as many younger Turks know English very well, and it is not too hard to pick up the essentials of Turkish (trying to learn more than the basics is an uphill struggle though...trust me, I've studied it for two long years!!). Officially, Turkey is a secular country, although the predominant religion is Islam...now this might strike fear into some readers, but it shouldn't. Turkey is fairly liberal compared to other Islamic countries...alcohol is available everywhere, women wear basically what they want, etc...but to get to know the country well, you should make the effort to learn about the culture and try to fit in. Oh, and the food is delicious! Forget all the horror stories about package tourists getting food poisoning...this is more likely because of hotel buffets. Forget too any thoughts of dodgy kebab shops in European cities frequented by the inebriated after a night out. Even the fussiest eater will find something to his tastes in Turkey, whether it be one of a range of kebabs, the mixed meze starters, or just plain cheese or meat pide (the Turkish version of pizza). TUNISIA Another "easy" destination would be Tunisia. Now, I have to confess to only having visited the country on a beach holiday, but it was not your typical beach holiday. I took a flight only deal, and headed down the coast away from the big resorts to the smallish coastal town of Mahdia, staying in
a basic hotel overlooking the wide sandy beach. Again, this is a country which is popular with tourists while providing many escape routes for those sick of crowds. Walking around the city of Sfax, I did not see another tourist, even though it was a fascinating city and my visit was in the peak summer season. Instead, I was able to explore local souks (markets) without any hassle from touts, and chat to a few locals in a teahouse. A hundred kilometres up the coast, groups of scantily-clad Germans and Brits sing karaoke by the pool, beer in one hand, sun lotion in the other...it depends what you want, but this type of holiday can be had anywhere, so if you come to somewhere like Tunisia, you should make the effort to explore the country, even if it is only one day away from the beach. Tunisia is easily accessible from Europe, with charter airfares quite low. Travel in the country is also fairly easy, as there are reliable trains and shared taxis (louages). Again, there are plenty of attractions, not all heaving with tourists. It is markedly different from Europe, while there are enough similarities, especially on the coast, to make a first-time visit easy. JORDAN For the more adventurous, I can heartily recommend the countries of the Levant...Lebanon, Syria and Jordan. I would mention Israel and the Palestinian Territories, but I haven't been there and maybe now is not the time to go. But Jordan has been in the tourist business for many years now, mainly due to the stunning ruined city of Petra. Think of the Indiana Jones film, "the Temple of Doom"...you know, when they come to a cliff edge and look down to see an amazing tomb carved into the pink rock? Well, that is just one of the sights to be seen at Petra. You won't be alone there, though...the tour bus crowd have certainly arrived, although recently the place has experienced "a quiet period" due to certain world events. So now is the time to visit petra if you can
't stand being surrounded by the bum-bag/fanny-pack brigade. Petra is not the only site to be seen...you can spend days wandering the magnificent deserts of Wadi Rum with Bedouin guides, famous as the location of "Lawrence of Arabia", floating in the Dead Sea, snorkelling off the reefs of Aqaba on the Red Sea, clambering the Roman ruins of Jerash. SYRIA and LEBANON Syria and Lebanon have never really had good publicity. Lebanon is still considered a war zone, even though the 17-year-long civil war ended in 1992, while Syria is black-listed as a country supporting terrorism. I lived in Syria for 9 months, studying Arabic, saw pretty much all of the country, and made a brief trip to Lebanon, so I feel the need to stick up for these two destinations. Despite the somewhat negative image, both countries have several sites worth seeing and have attracted more than a trickle of tourists. Again, both are experiencing a quiet period at the moment, so now would be an ideal time to go. Let's start with Lebanon. I must admit to having only seen the cities of Beirut and Tripoli, and missed out on the spectacular mountains and archaeological sites such as Ba'albek, but never mind...I enjoyed the trip enough to want to return. Beirut is something of a party city, recovering fast from its war-torn image, although evidence of the war is never far away. You can be sure to have a good time in Beirut though, with its beaches, clubs and fantastic restaurants (Lebanese food is famous throughout the world, and for good reason), and the country is small enough to be visited in a series of day trips from the vibrant capital. Tripoli is a more conservative place, a picturesque old Arab medina with narrow alleyways, beautiful mosques and crowded souks. The coast, although built up, would make a very pleasant place for a seaside holiday, and the mountains are favoured among hikers and skiers..yes, you read that correctly, skiers! Ok, it isn
39;t the Alps, and you shouldn't come to Lebanon with the sole intention of skiing, but I've heard that the snow is pretty good...in fact I can testify that the snow is good. I was intending to spend a day skiing, but on my way to Beirut from Damascus, we were caught in a blizzard, snowing so thickly that the mountain roads were closed and the ski resorts cut off! Syria is a good introduction to the Arab world. Not too many tourists, so the tourist sites are relaxed, empty even. There are certainly plenty of things to see such as the extensive desert ruins of Palmyra, Crusader castles in surprisingly green hills, a pleasant (if somewhat mucky) coastline, creaking waterwheels in the historic riverside town of Hama, picturesque Christian mountain villages, and of course the labrynthine old cities of Damascus and Aleppo, two of the oldest continuosly inhabited places on earth, each with their own attractions. The whole country could be described as off the tourist trail, but it is possible to delve further into "undiscovered" territory...my favourite region was along the Euphrates River in the east of the country, where the emphasis is on meeting the people and learning more about their way of life rather than seeing the sites. You can also visit an active war zone, even if it sees little action these days...a trip to the ruined city of Quneitra in the Golan Heights is a must (if you can stomach the blatant propaganda) to try to understand the problems this region faces All three countries are easy to travel in, with good and cheap transport systems. However, travelling here is slightly more stressful than travelling through Turkey...the bus stations are chaotic at best, and without knowledge of at least basic Arabic, you could have one or two hitches. But the people are generally very friendly to foreigners, there is always someone around to help you, and you'll be treated like a guest everywhere you go. The hospitality is inc
redible, you'll be invited to drink tea with complete strangers with no hidden motives, just for plain conversation and curiosity. This will change for the worse once the tour buses arrive, and it already has in certain popular places, but the hospitality is still there. YEMEN Once you've got a taste of the Middle East, it might be time to branch out and go somewhere completely different. Yemen stands out as being the perfect destination for the adventurous. This is a country which has been closed to tourism for many decades, opening up in the last fifteen years or so, so you'll find a society where traditions are strong and Western influences are rare. Yemen is quite honestly one of the most interesting, most beautiful destinations in the world. I can't get enough of the place, and even spent three months there studying in Sana'a, the famous mud-brick old city. Nothing is geared up to tourism, because there are hardly any tourists there. Frequent cases of kidnapping doesn't encourage tourism, neither do Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attacks on Western targets in the country, so Yemen has remained unnoticed by much of the tourist industry. A shame on one hand, as less people will have the chance to experience this country for themselves, but a blessing on the other, as Yemen can retain its culture for that little bit longer. If you make it to Yemen, do not expect first-class facilities. Expect to be shocked at the poverty, expect not to be able to visit all the things you want to see, expect not everything to go to plan...in fact, just expect the unexpected! There are 101 reasons to visit Yemen, and almost as many not to go. It is fairly expensive to get there (travelling overland is difficult...Saudi tends to get in the way), and getting a visa is a bit of a hit and miss affair since September 11th. Once there, you might not be able to leave the capital, Sana'a, because travel permits are not always issue
d. This is no bad thing, as Sana'a is worth a good week to explore, but if you've spent a lot of money on the airfare, it would be a bit of a shame not to see a bit more of the country. But the overall friendliness of the people is unbelievable, everyone is very hospitable, whether they work in hotels, the government, beg on the streets, or are part-time kidnappers...you will be treated with care as you are a guest who needs to be looked after. The food isn't to everyone's palate, nightlife is a little lacking especially for women, and society is strict so you'll have to cover up (strictly no shorts or suntops for anyone!) and no alcohol is available, but Yemen provides a challenge for those looking for something a bit "off the wall". ELSEWHERE Of course there is plenty more to say about Middle Eastern destinations...the Gulf States and Oman all have their own charms, but as I've never been, I can't comment. Likewise, I can't share the secrets of Morocco's souks, Algeria's deserts or Libya's oases. Iran is on my wish-list, somewhere I've wanted to visit for a long time, as is Iraq as I've heard many good things said about Iraq's tourist potential. My next Middle Eastern destination will be Sudan, where I'll be working for the next 12 months...ancient cities on the Nile, extreme heat, dust everywhere, camel markets, tribal wars...generally an un-loved place with no tourists...sounds my kind of country! We shall see. OK, maybe I ought to say something about the Arabic language. It is not a language that can be picked up easily, although I recommend that all visitors should at least make an attempt at the basics...no matter how badly you pronounce it, it will be appreciated. If you plan to stay a while in the Arab world, then maybe you should consider taking a course at a language school there...I studied in both Damascus and Sana'a and can recommend good Arabic lang
uage schools if anyone is interested...send me an e-mail and I'll gladly try to help! I ought to mention the weather too. Probably the first thing that springs to mind is the heat...and yes, summer in Damascus or Istanbul or Cairo is unbearably hot with temperatures regularly in the high 30s and 40s. But that is summer, the time of year when those who can afford it escape to the mountains or the coast. Spring or autumn are ideal for visiting most places in the region, as the heat won't be oppressive, and you might experience the occasional rainy day. Winter is a good time to visit the Red Sea and the Gulf, although my december trip to Jordan was a wee bit chilly at times. Syria and Lebanon were downright miserable in winter, much to my friends' disbelief back home...I mean, Middle East equals desert, right? Wrong! I have never been so cold as I was in Damascus that winter! We had snow, sleet, rain, wind...and yes, it might not have been anywhere near as cold as Birmingham was, but you notice it more when there is no central heating! You still get the occasional sunny day, but don't expect to be particularly warm...you'll actually be glad of that headscarf if you are female!! Yemen has its own climate, and as most visitors to that country stay in the mountains, I will only talk about that. Summer is perfect...clear blue skies with a daily downpour in the evening, but temperatures rarely above 30. In winter, it is a bit more variable, but not much...days are still warm and sunny, but it becomes quite cold at night. Yemen's coast though is sweltering during winter, and unbearable in the summer because of the humidity. All in all, Middle Eastern weather is not just sun and more sun, with a bit of sun for a change...if you know where to head and when, then you can freeze to death too! I hope through this mish-mash of a review I have helped to dispel a few negative images about The Middle East and maybe even convince a few of you
to give it a try. If anyone does decide to take the plunge and visit an Arab medina, ski in the Lebanese mountains, enrol at a Sana'ani language school, or hole up at a Syrian monastery in the desert because of this review, then I'd love to hear from you!
"The Middle East is a historical and political region of Africa-Eurasia with no clear definition. The term "Middle East" was popularized around 1900 by the British, and has been criticized for its loose definition. The Middle East traditionally includes countries or regions in Southwest Asia and parts of North Africa. The corresponding adjective to Middle East is Middle-Eastern and the derived noun is Middle-Easterner. The history of the Middle East dates back to ancient times, and throughout its history the Middle East has been a major center of world affairs. The Middle East generally has an arid and hot climate, with several major rivers providing for irrigation to support agriculture in limited areas. Many countries located around the Persian Gulf have large quantities of crude oil. In modern times, the Middle East remains a strategically, economically, politically, culturally, and religiously sensitive region."