To many of us, Middle Eastern culture means conflict, misunderstanding, political differences and instability, and a very different way of life. For travelers though, the Middle East is a fascinating, diverse, mystical, magical and historical place full of treasures and wonder. This is the part of the world that gave us the Pharaohs, Jesus, the Prophet Muhammad and Cleopatra. The sights are truly magnificent, from the pyramids and Abu Simnel to the Dome of the Rock, and from the Atlas Mountains to the skyscrapers of Dubai. But just how do you really get the feel for this land? What are the best ways to experience Middle Eastern culture?
One of the easiest and best ways to immerse yourself into Middle Eastern culture is through food. Lebanese and Moroccan food is absolutely delicious but if there’s one must-have dish that you’ll find all over the region, it is the Shawarma. Delicious mixtures of meats from lamb, chicken, goat, and turkey are marinated then slowly roasted on a vertical spit. Slices are shaved off and stuffed into pita bread with tabbouleh sald, tomatoes, pickles, and drizzled with sauce (often tahini). If you can, find a shawarma where they also stuff the pita with French Fries – they soak up all the juices and make it even more scrumptious.
There’s no doubting that the Muezzin’s cry that rudely interrupts you five times every day is hard to ignore. The call to prayer sees Muslims break to visit the mosque or even just stop their car and roll out their mat on the street. Instead of seeing the call as an unwelcome intrusion, take the time to simply stop and have some quality thought time. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy your own spiritual moments.
What more can demonstrate the diversity of a region than being able to do two complete opposites in the same day? There are very few contrasts within the actual culture of the Middle East across the region, but there certainly is in the tourist activities on offer. Visit Lebanon in February or March to ski on Mount Lebanon in the morning, then drive for an hour to Beirut, and enjoy the surf of one of its gorgeous Mediterranean beaches. Alternatively, spend some time on the world’s largest indoor ski slope at Ski Dubai and then, after just a 10 minute drive, you can be on the lovely Jumeirah Beach.
It may be a cliché but camels are still very much part of life in the desert areas of the Middle East, where Nomadic Bedouin tribes still live their lives the same way as centuries of ancestors. But, you don’t have to be a member of this noble race to ride a camel – it is a common tourist activity and another of the easy ways to experience the culture of the Middle East. Take a simple trip organized by your hotel, ride to the Pyramids or go on a desert safari, but whichever, don your harem pants, climb aboard and enjoy.
Some of the most glorious buildings in the Middle East are the mosques. Massive and ornate, it's often mistakenly thought that women aren’t allowed inside, or that non-Muslims cannot enter. The key thing is to understand how to behave, and unless you are very unsure, stick to the main mosques where catering for visitors has become part of the norm. Many aspects of Middle Eastern culture are embodied in the process of visiting a mosque – such as removing shoes, covering up, and restrictions on menstruating women entering. Above all, a mosque is a holy place of worship – obey the rules and be respectful.
While we know not everyone is an oil-rich sheikh, there’s an undeniable link to extravagance and opulence within the upper echelons of Middle East culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the super-luxurious shopping malls of Dubai. Naturally, the city is also home to the world’s largest retail and entertainment mall – The Dubai Mall. The Mall even has a Festival of Shopping. However, on the other side of the coin, and to experience shopping like everyday folk in the Middle East, you really need to leave the flashy malls behind and dive headfirst into a Soukh. Steamy, dark, mysterious, crowded, noisy, and totally absorbing and fascinating, you may very well get lost for a few hours but the bargains and experience are worth it.
The other favored form of transport across the region is the Dhow. You’ll see them on the Nile, the Red Sea, and hugging the coastlines, close to cities like Muskat (Oman) and Fujairah in the UAE. Although there’s a good variety of designs and styles, they are distinctively narrow and have a certain triangular sail shape known as lateen. In many touristy areas tours, trips and cruises are available. Sink back into a pile of cushions to drink in the stunning views, dive crystal waters or feast on an on-board sunset picnic.
Commonly known as hookahs or the hubble-bubble pipe, the shisha plays a major role in the social culture of the Middle East. Socializing, visiting, and meeting with friends in a café or coffee shop are as important in the region as going to the pub or bar is in the Western culture, and along with a great love of conversation, the shisha is much enjoyed. It also features heavily in business meetings. Find a beach-side café, choose your fruit-flavored smoke and puff away whilst sipping on strong sweet coffee or mint tea.
It obviously takes a lot more to get really under the skin of Middle Eastern culture, but as a traveler these few (generalized) ways listed here are an introduction that can help make the most of a trip to this complex region and give a little insight to life here. Are you as fascinated by the culture of the Middle East as I am?