In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I think an article on travel in the Middle East may be useful both as information on a topic of current high relevance to the public, and as part of the effort to avoid associating the religion and culture of the attackers with terrorist activities in general" . . . Hannah Slavik
On the street outside Jerusalem's Damascus Gate, drivers leaned against their mini-buses, smoking, drinking small cups of mint tea and shouting out their destinations. I heard the call I was waiting for "Ramallah, Ramallah, Ramallah," and climbed aboard the bus. The driver gestured me to sit in the middle seat with an older woman wearing a black head scarf. One by one, other passengers got on, most of them tired, dusty young men, laborers returning home after a day's work. When the bus was full, the driver pulled out into the traffic and tuned the radio to an Arabic music station. One of the men sitting in the seat behind me tapped my shoulder and handed me his fare. I added my own and passed it up to the driver.
Soon we were out of the city and on our way to Ramallah (God's Hill), a Palestinian town on the west bank of the Jordan River, about 16 km north of Jerusalem. I was going to visit my friend Rana. I had met her a few weeks before at the bus station in the center of Amman, Jordan – I was waiting for a bus to the university where I was studying Arabic, and she was returning home to Palestine after visiting relatives in Jordan. Although we talked for only twenty minutes, she had enthusiastically invited me to visit. A few weeks later I took a few days off my classes to travel to Israel and Palestine; when I arrived I phoned her and we arranged to meet the next day.
Ramallah seemed a strange cross between the typical Arab towns I had seen in Jordan and the more modern and western look of Israel. One street was lined with small shops displaying vegetables, meat, fish, dried goods, clothes and plastics. Older women in dark clothes and head scarves or traditional embroidered Palestinian dresses were shopping. The next street had taller buildings and modern cafés with wide glass windows. Younger women here didn't cover their heads. Like Rana, they dressed in jeans and t-shirts.
The bus stopped at a corner in front of an older-style café. Old men sat on low chairs around small tables, sipping tea, smoking water pipes and watching people pass. Rana was not there yet, so I stood in front of the café waiting, a bit uncomfortable as the old men were watching me curiously.
One of them asked me in English if I was waiting for someone. I told him that I was waiting for my friend. "Please sit down and have a drink with me," he offered. I tried to refuse politely: "She will be here any minute." But he insisted. I sat down and he ordered fresh lemonade for me. After ten minutes he asked if I would like to use his mobile phone to call my friend. I said that I would just use a pay phone. He nodded, asked if I had a phone card, and directed me to the nearest phone. I tried to phone Rana but the phone didn't work. A young man passing in the street stopped and asked if I needed help. I asked where I could find another telephone.
He pulled my card out of the phone and smiled. "This is an Israeli phone card. It doesn't work here in Palestine. Here, you can use my card."
I thanked him and called Rana's mobile phone number. She was nearby, looking for me, and said she would be there in a couple of minutes. The young man waited with me, telling me about his engineering studies at Birzeit University, near Ramallah. When Rana arrived he shook my hand and left. Rana asked what had happened, and I told her how helpful everyone had been. "Of course," she answered, "why should they not be helpful?"
After looking around the city, we went to Rana's home in a nearby small village, beside an orchard filled with fig trees. I met her parents and two sisters, and we all sat down to a huge feast of homemade traditional Palestinian dishes – one of the best meals I had in the Middle East. Later we sat in the living room drinking tiny cups of sweet coffee. The family wouldn't let me return to Jerusalem that evening: Rana had already made plans to take me to a concert and some of the popular coffee shops to meet her friends. When we came home her mother had made up a bed for me and had even laid out clean pyjamas.
The night before I had stayed with a Canadian friend who shared an apartment in Jerusalem with three other young women. All four had come to Israel for the summer to study; two from Canada, one from the United States and one from South Africa. I told them that I was studying in Jordan and that I planned to visit Ramallah. Shocked, they asked if I wasn't afraid to travel alone in Arab countries.
Although, typically, Israelis and Arabs fear and dislike each other, none of these young women had grown up in Israel. Like me, they were all from western countries and their education and experiences were typical of their home countries. They were simply expressing a commonly held belief that travel in the Middle East is unsafe – particularly for women and particularly alone.
I have spent two of my most exciting and rewarding summers living and traveling in Jordan, and I have traveled both alone and with friends in Turkey, Palestine and Egypt. People in the Middle East are generally extremely hospitable and eager to meet and help foreign travelers.
It is true that a woman traveling alone anywhere in the world needs to take a few extra precautions, and while this is also true in the Middle East, I believe that, with common sense and good judgment, solo travel in the Middle East can be exciting, safe and empowering for women.
Unfortunately, many men in the Middle East hold mistaken stereotypes about the west and, particularly, about western women, learned mainly through Hollywood movies.
Don't let small problems ruin your mood. I once spent a few months traveling in Turkey with a friend. After a few particularly difficult days during which we felt we had been cheated several times we were both in terrible moods. We prided ourselves on our superior travel skills, yet we had been ripped-off.
On a bus we met an older Swedish man traveling alone. He had been a high school history teacher, and he had always dreamed of traveling all the way around the Mediterranean. Finally, after retiring, he was making that trip. He told us about some kids he had met in the town we had just come from. They had shown him the way to a restaurant. When he offered to buy them drinks, they sat down and ordered full meals, at his expense. So he paid, and enjoyed their company. He knew what was going on, but he didn't let it ruin his visit to that town.
Most of us do not have a travel budget large enough to absorb extra costs like that. But if it does happen, you have the option of making the best of the situation and learning from it. You can't travel in the Middle East without being on the short end of a deal sometimes. In the Middle East this is smart business, not shady business. So accept it and don't fall for the same trick twice.