Travelling in the Middle East: A diverse region we need to think about differently

The Wi-Fi log-in said it all. "Select country," it instructed while I was entering my personal details to access the free service. I could see the first few nations at the top of the list: Alemania (Germany), Andorra, Argentina. All fair enough.

Except above those three entries was another country: Africa.

Africa? I'm sorry, free Wi-Fi, but Africa is not a country. Africa is an entire continent. It's home to 1.2 billion people, who live in 54 distinct and very real countries across a landmass that's four times the size of Australia.

And yet, people tend to think of Africa as one homogenous mass, a single place you can say you've "done" after you've visited Kenya or South Africa. That couldn't be further from the truth, of course – try comparing Morocco to Mozambique, Egypt to Eritrea – but the global mindset remains, which goes some way to explaining the Wi-Fi log-in that I discovered in Spain a few weeks ago.

Select country: Africa. It's frustrating. Annoying. Africa is huge, it's multicultural, and it's multi-faceted. And yet people just think of it as this bloc, Africa. Done it.

I love this part of the world. The more I see of it, the more I enjoy it.

Africa is one of several regions in the world that I've found people tend to consider as a homogenous collective, one you could sum up with just the name of the area. The Middle East is another, and you could argue in this case it's even more insidious, given the Middle East comes with a far worse reputation, one that includes not only danger but targeted violence and hatred of the West.

Tell people you're travelling to the Middle East and they raise an eyebrow. Oh yeah? Is that safe? They'll rarely even think about where in the region you're going.

And this is the frustrating thing. The Middle East is not a homogenous bloc, particularly not from a travel perspective. It's not one place where all of the rules are the same, where all of the customs are the same, where the restrictions and potential dangers are the same. And it's always the harshest and most extreme of those that are publicised and known about and applied by many of us to the entire area.

(As an example of how toxic the phrase "Middle East" is, Abu Dhabi's Tourism and Culture Authority even tried to distance itself from the name a few years ago, encouraging industry figures and journalists to refer to its location as the "Arabian Peninsula".)


Consider, for starters, standards of dress in the Middle East. Despite the common assumption, there's no requirement for women to cover their hair in almost the entire region. If you're visiting Iran, you will have to obey the rules of hijab. The same goes for Saudi Arabia, if you manage to get in.

In every other country in the Middle East, however – which by most definitions is another 15 nations – both men and women will be expected to dress modestly, but there's no legal requirement for women to wear a headscarf, and nor will they be expected to, even as a show of respect.

This is just one small example (though it looms large in most people's consciousness) of the cultural differences you'll find when you begin travelling through the Middle East.

Every country there is different. Alcohol is banned in some nations, but it's tolerated in others, and in some parts of the Middle East – Israel, Lebanon and the UAE, for example – you'll find thriving party scenes. Though there are similarities in cuisine across the region (there seems to be versions of falafel and hummus pretty much everywhere), the food varies from Persian stews to Lebanese pastries to Egyptian ful medames.

There's ethnic diversity too. The people of the Middle East descend from Turks, Jews, Kurds, Armenians, Persians and Arabs. Arabic is the official language in plenty of countries, although in Iran they speak Persian, Israel's official language is Hebrew, and in Turkey it's Turkish.

All of these differences contribute to wildly varied travel experiences in the Middle East, depending on where you decide to visit. Jordan is laidback and peaceful. Iran is warm and friendly. Israel is joyous and expressive in some places, disturbingly severe in others. Oman is quiet and understated. The UAE is bold and brash. Palestine is edgy but kind. Lebanon is full of Mediterranean warmth.

Safety, of course, is a fraught topic: the entire region is considered dangerous to those who haven't been there, and there are still certain countries that seem to attract overly harsh government warnings supported by the barest minimum of evidence.

Iran, for instance, is currently rated "Reconsider your need to travel" by Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which cites the risk that foreigners could be arbitrarily arrested or detained – though no examples of this actually having happened are offered. It cites the threat of terrorism too, though there's never been an attack aimed at tourists in Iran.

Israel is safe, with a yellow "exercise a high degree of caution" rating; the West Bank, meanwhile, gets an orange "reconsider your need to travel". Lebanon is yellow. Jordan is yellow. Egypt is orange. Meanwhile, the UAE, where tourists have most definitely been arbitrarily arrested and detained, has achieved a green "exercise normal safety precautions" rating.

What gives? The discrepancies are frustrating, as so much about the Middle East can be frustrating.

But I love this part of the world. The more I see of it, the more I enjoy it. The more of its people I meet, the more I understand the diversity that exists in this misunderstood region, and the more I want to explore that variety.

The Middle East is not one country. Just as Africa is not one country. And it's time we stopped thinking of it as such.

Have you travelled through the Middle East? What were the cultural variations you noticed? Which were your favourite countries? Post your comments below.



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