Female traveller in the Middle East: Jordan and Israel

A female traveller in the Middle East should tremble for her lives. Arabs want to buy her for camels, she can be sexually harassed in public, she has to tightly cover her body, and everywhere she spots minefields and tanks.

The Middle East is pretty cool, isn’t it? Especially for women.

I know that you know that I’m joking. Many times on the blog I emphasized that I fell in love with the Middle East, with Israel and Jordan. For me, this region is wonderful, although I admit I do not fully understand it. But I think the less I understand, the more it delights me. I’m bored with plain and simple things. But I’m fascinated with those that require effort. The Middle East does require the effort when it comes to understanding it. And certainly not to judge.

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I want to go back to Israel. For longer. There are only few places where I felt so good and where I’d really like to live. When I left in September, I cried a lot. No, I did not cry, I howled. Honestly today I do not understand why I came back. Because I had booked a plane? So what?!

If you ask me why I felt that way, I say I don’t know. Some are in love with South America, the other with Africa, and I’m with the Middle East. Complicated story, hostile landscapes, delicious food, nice people. And culture so different from ours, despite the fact they are not so distant, because the history of Europe is also associated with the Jews, and a bit less with the Arabs.

Read my other posts from Israel and Jordan:
1. About stupidity, saving life and the dehydration in the desert
2. Petra, a city of stone in Jordan
3. The Negev desert – the best adventure in Israel

The Middle East: a million stereotypes

When we say the Middle East we think “Israel and Arabs.” Rarely we know something more. It seems to us that women are harassed, they must cover the body (even on the beach), they do not drink alcohol there, they all sleep in tents and travel on camels. Oh, and they shoot, shoot everywhere, and the region is digested by war and conflagration.

There are so many of these stereotypes that… I’m starting to be tired of dismantling them. Mainly they concern women, security and religion issues. I will not deny that we do not understand Jewish and Arabic cultures, because they are just totally different from ours in Europe, even though the Middle East is not far away from Europe, and both regions for hundreds of years were in some way connected.

Roman Empire, the Crusades and pilgrimages to the Holy Land, Muslims in the Balkan and Iberian peninsulas, Jews in Europe… Amazing that despite the geographical nearness and many long episodes in the history, Europe and the Middle East are culturally so much different from each other.

And I immersed myself into all this. A blonde, who despite every effort will never be able to hide your look and will stand out on the street. A female traveller from Europe, whose parents unwittingly gave her a name that opens the doors of many homes and hearts of the people of the Middle East. Because, as it turned out, Hana is a Jewish and Arabic name (nota bene, with a beautiful meaning – in Jewish culture it means ‘grace’ and in Arabic ‘bliss, happiness’). When I speak in Arabic Ana esmi Hana (‘My name is Hana’) a huge smile shows up immediately on the faces of my interlocutors. How is it possible that this blonde female traveller has an Arabic name?

It’s a digression, but back to the point – we do not understand their culture. And what we do not understand, usually frightens us.

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Hanna in Petra

Western woman – the worst material for wife

When someone tells me that the Arab offered 40 camels for his wife, I doubt. Or someone is making jokes here,  or an Arab made a joke from him. (I’m not even sure if it is only a joke in Poland or in other countries too.)

Why do I say that someone is joking? Because the text like ‘he wanted to buy me for 40 camels’ (gentlemen would say ‘buy my wife’) for me is just a weak joke. Like really weak. When Polish people began massively to spend their holidays in Egypt around 10-15 years ago, the Arabs actually offered such things quite often, I remember, I’ve heard that for real. The same time when the Bedouin women in Jordan saw female tourists from Europe wearing trousers, they turned their eyes shocked.

But hey, the world moved forward. This means that everywhere it moved forward, not only in Europe. Seriously, ‘he wanted to buy me for a camel’ is a joke with a beard, it is no longer so funny. Arabs, rather, are not willing to buy a potential wife from Europe for the camels, because a Western wife for an Arab is a pain in ass. 😉

Arab societies are patriarchal societies. I say in plural because Arab countries vary from each other, just as the Arabs in these countries. You can not label all Arab women as one. Nay, even in one country, for example in Jordan, Arab women from one region are different from the others.

I do not want to dwell on the subject of Arab women and society (I plan a different post about it), but I will say briefly – in the Arabic tradition the man is the guardian of woman. Often, a woman needs his permission to undertake work or study. Of course, this is not so, that she can do nothing without it, or that the man always prohibits. In fact Jordan is fairly liberal in their conservatism. But!

Here is where I use the word ‘conservative’. Arab societies are conservative. Based on family, honour and patriarchate. Now imagine that an Arab takes a liberated European woman for his wife. A woman who is used to achieve her goals, the division of household duties and houseworks, to make a career, to have a social life, to emphasize her beauty on the outside and not to hide it. Even if the husband-Arab will accept it, his society will not. Moreover, the society sees this marriage from the tradition’s point of view and they will see an Arab as a ‘henpecked husband. For us it’s laughing, maybe a little mocking, but for Arabs it is a huge disgrace, literally crushing his position, and – his ego.

Obviously I am simplifying it a lot, because the Arabs living in Europe for many years or rotating in the more liberal circles are not that traditional, but after all, some rules instilled in us from childhood will never be able to root out.

Arabs don’t need a wife who does not know how to fit into his world. So it’s not worth to offer 40 camels for her.

So when someone tells me today that he received such an offer, I doubt it. Or he’s making it up, because he believes that the text is still actual (and want to improve his ego?) or he was taken by Arab’s joke. Anyway, it amuses me greatly.

I haven’t got such proposals. But maybe Arabs saw in me that I would not let them lock me in a golden Sheikhs cage, or maybe because I’m just too old, or maybe because I’m too skinny and I do not have decent hips to give birth to sons. 😉

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visiting Petra

Female traveller in the Middle East: Groping and avowing love

As I mentioned, I remember marriage proposals for 40 camels. My mum heard that in Egypt in 2002. I was 14 years old that time and what ‘only’ happened to me are quite filthy advances in Israel. I do not remember if my playboy was a Jew, Palestinian or Arab. I only remember that he pulled me out from the church during the tour and started to kiss my hand while offering his services as a guide… Mom gave him a hard time and that’s how the love story ended up. 😀

This time nobody adored me. Yes, there were some curious glances of men, in the end – I cannot deny – my look is enough quite exotic for them. Sometimes I hear compliments about fair hair and eyes, and I admit, it’s nice. On the other hand, in traveling can be tedious. Well, how long can they stare?! Fortunately, it’s only staring. I didn’t have the unpleasant situation of hands wandering on my curves.

For two months nobody proposed me a marriage or said he fell in love with me. Oh no, I forgot! When I was in Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, one Jew fell in love with me. The situation was funny at first, but then it started to scare me a little.

I was walking around the district and did discreetly pictures when suddenly a car stopped next to me and a driver, chubby with red hair, asked me if I was a tourist.
‘Yes…’ I answered hesitantly, because I did not know what he wants.
‘It’s so wonderful that you are visiting our district!’ Red Chubby was very happy, although for me it was suspicious. Mea Shearim is famous for its reluctance to tourists, something was clearly wrong here. ‘It’s very nice of you. I’d like you to tell me how you like it here, can I invite you for coffee?’
Hearing this, as usual, full of grace and charm I began to chortle sheepishly.
‘Noooo, you know, thank you, but I have an appointment’ I lied. I do not know why, but usually I don’t say that I don’t want to do something, so I make up some stories.
‘But pleeeeeaseeeee, just one coffee’ Red Chubby didn’t give up, and he sounded like a child crying out a new toy. ‘Now I go to the synagogue, but later we can meet. I know a nice cafe… Pleeeeaaaaseeeee!’
‘Thank you, but I really don’t have time. Goodbye!’ I went away wondering how a kosher coffee tastes and how it is prepared.
Red Chubby drove off in the opposite direction, but it turned out that the synagogue is at the end of the street I was walking down and literally we bumped into each other at the crossing. Oops, it’s time to take to your heels!, I thought, when I saw him, but he was quicker and caught up with me.
‘It’s a destiny that we meet again!’ he shouted.
Of course, especially, that Mea Shearim has only about 5 main streets.
‘I’d really like to drink coffee with you’ said Red Chubby. ‘You are very beautiful.’
‘Uuuhhhmmmm… it’s very nice, but I really have to go now’ run Hanna, run!
‘Are you from a Jewish family?’
‘No.’
‘You know, I have to tell you something’ Red Chubby blushed and looked around nervously to be sure that anyone accidentally hears. ‘I’ve never said it before to no-one, no woman! You are… very… sexy.’
He obviously was ashamed by saying the last word. I swear, I did not know what to say.
‘Do you have a husband?’ he asked.
‘Yes’ I answered.
‘That’s not a problem, because I also have a wife. But can I kiss you?’
‘No!!!’
‘At least hug you…?’
‘I guess not.’
‘Oh, too bad. But let this meeting stay between us, okay?’
Okay, Red Chubby, I thought while sketching in my head a new entry for my blog.

When today I think about it, the whole situation seems to me to be quite funny. Although that time was a little frightening.

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‘safe’ clothing for a female traveller in Mea Shearim

What a female traveller should wear in the Middle East

The truth is that going to Israel and Jordan, we must be aware that in some places you just have to forget about being a European and wear something more modest, which will cover your body.

I say “in some places” because the secular Israel is a very liberal country and way of dressing of irreligious, young Jewish women do not differ from our European style. And I love this country. Israelis are generally very relaxed, have a very cool attitude to life. In the evenings, the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are full of people, in pubs it is difficult to find a free spot. As for the clothes girls wear summer dresses, shorts, jeans, t-shirts… No restrictions.

However, when you go to the Arab neighborhoods and sacred places you have to dress modestly. Loose pants or a long skirt and covered shoulders enough. But in the districts (and cities) of ultra-Orthodox Jews, for example Mea Shearim in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak in Tel Aviv, there is different dress code.

Before my visit in Mea Shearim my couchsurfing hosts from Jerusalem warned me to dress modestly and not venture into strange alleys. So I wore a long dress and a cardigan that cover the arms. Although I went to Mea Shearim early morning, until 10 o’clock it was already 30 Celsius degrees. Ladies, remember not to dress there jeans and t-shirts. Only modest women’s clothing. If you don’t go there in the company of a man, you don’t have to cover your hair (only married women cover it). Otherwise you could be expelled from the district (it is the softest treatment), in the worst case, you will be pelted with food or even stones. When I left the Mea Shearim, I saw one couple of tourists entering the district. The lady wore a t-shist and mid-short jeans. I am very curious whether no-one told her to leave…

In Jordan, in a little touristy in places or religious places, in Wadi Rum and in Amman I wore a loose shirt and baggy pants. While canyoning in Wadi Mujib and visiting Petra let yourself shorts and a t-shirt.

In Aqaba I wore a shirt on the bikini. I stand there less than an hour and ran away to the hotel’s pool. It was a tourist-friendly beach, but I still felt very undressed… The next day we crossed the border and rested on the beach in Eilat. There was no problem to swim in the sea in a bikini. I have already mentioned – Israel is really relaxed and chilled out country.

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modest clothing for a female traveller in Jordan

Female traveller in Jordan and Israel: is it safe?

But can you really stay relaxed in a country where you see soldiers with a rifle on their shoulders on the streets every day? Is there anyway you can feel safe in the Arabic world, when war is in almost every country around? And if ever a female traveller who travels solo (or even with a companion) can feel safe there?

Three times YES. I felt very safe. In Jordan, everywhere I was fine (apart from this unfortunate beach in Aqaba, but it’s because of the clothes), never felt any danger, nor on the part of the people (I mean, for example theft or mentioned already sexual harassment), nor on the part of some radical Islamists or war actions.

Jordan is generally a safe country when it comes to the political situation, which owes its peaceful efforts of King Abdullah II. Jordanians themselves, moreover, are very proud of this. More than once my interlocutors said that everywhere around something happens, and their country is in peace and still give shelter to immigrants, for example, Christian Arabs from Iraq or refugees from Syria.

It’s true, you can meet them on the streets of Amman, but not conspicuous – to us it is hard to distinguish an Jordanian Arab from the Iraqi Arab. And once played backgammon the Arabs of Iraq on the street, when I was walking at night (because Amman is alive at night, and also very safe!). Very nice to remember, though we couldn’t understand each other – I spoke English, they Arabic. But we smiled a, and this is the language of the whole world.

In Israel, but also in the whole country, I felt very safe. On the Golan Heights I hitchhiked alone, albeit short distances, but I did.

People everywhere were nice and helpful.

And what about the war?… One evening we watched from our hotel in Odem in the Golan Heights a missile attack in Syria. Well, we haven’t seen any missiles. Just the night sky suddenly lit up, once, twice, then something exploded, somewhere far away shots were heard, it was about 15 km from us. After 2 minutes everything finished.

The worst I felt in the aforementioned Mea Shearim. Ultra orthodox Jews are not friendly to tourists, nor to the non-Jewish in general, or to Christians or Muslims, or to secular Jews, non-believers. You want to go to Mea Shearim? Go alone or with one other person. Do not go in a group. Dress modestly. Do not push your camera everywhere.

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Mea Shearim, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish district

If you do not follow these rules, someone may ask you to leave the district. And it’s the best! At worst, they will throw at you eggs or tomatoes. They can also spit. I remember that in 2002 even small children spat at our feet. There are also flying bottles and stones, but this is rare.

As a female traveller I was dressed very modestly, but I felt I was an intruder there. Nobody looked at me, even the children, after all usually so natural and so innocent, forced themselves to look away, even though I tried to smile, encourage them to take pictures. I was in Mea Shearim only 2 hours and I felt there very uncomfortable and insecure. I did not like that. But it was the only place in whole country where I felt badly.

The image of Israel and Jordan suffers from what is happening in surrounding countries. In addition, because we completely do not understand Jewish and Arabic cultures, we see them through even more harmful stereotypes. Often we are afraid of things we do not know and do not understand. I can talk and spread my passion for this part of the world. But unless someone visits this region on his or her owns, my talk will always be a bedtime story. Go there to find out how wonderful are the people in the Middle East and that the female traveller from Europe, blonde or not, doesn’t have to have troubles there!

Hey, are you a female traveller? Do you have questions or want to know more? Ask in the comments box below! And if you have already visited Israel and Jordan, share your opinion about those countries with others!

 

2 comments

  1. Amazing! I want your life. But alas, I am a stay at home mom of 3 small children in MN, the U.S. Well, I can always ought your bedtime story.

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