Alfred and Joyce Goodman don’t consider themselves adventure travelers; you’re more likely to find them aboard a luxury cruise than a wilderness safari. Nevertheless, they came away from a recent cruise through the Middle East with stories that hearkened more from the pages of Sinbad’s fabled voyages than Travel and Leisure.
Israeli security guards kept a watchful eye as they passed along the shores of Sudan, and a fellow passenger regaled them with stories from a cruise in which her ship had been attacked by Somali pirates. Among the images etched in the Goodmans’ memories: a Bedouin guide raised with his nomadic family in the desert, a lost city carved in stone, and gold-trimmed minarets on a snow-white mosque.
For the Western traveler, the Middle East has always been a destination that thrills with the mystery of the unknown. On the positive side, it’s an eye-opening journey into another reality, one that is ancient and yet very modern. On the down side is the instability that has plagued the region, and never more so than now, in the years following the Arab Spring, as citizens struggle to take control from repressive governments.
Plenty of travelers, like the Goodmans, are taking the risks in stride and heading for the Middle East for the journey of a lifetime.
“Middle Easterners often quip that there’s never really an ideal time to visit the region, since there’s always something brewing – and Lebanon is no exception,” said former Houstonian Salma Abdelnour, author of the memoir Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut. “But more often than not, the constant political rumblings don’t lead to immediate danger.”
Attacks on tourists throughout the region have been rare in recent years. A 2011 suicide bombing in Marrakech shocked the world and left 17 dead, including 11 tourists, but a rapid government response to the tragedy has headed off further instability.
As guidebook author Zora O’Neill says, a regional conflict does not mean the entire Middle East is in flames; many countries have been perfectly peaceful for years. Even less stable places can usually be safely negotiated with a little insider knowledge, she says.
While many travelers are crossing Egypt off their lists in the wake of recent uprisings, O’Neill finds it to be the perfect time to go. The contributing author of the recent Lonely Planet guide to that country, she was there last fall and also in 2011, when a particularly violent protest left several people dead.
“If I had seen it on the news, I would have written Egypt off for a long time,” she said. “But by being there in Cairo on the street, it gave me perspective. I promptly got on the metro and went away, and on the other side of the city, nothing was going on.”
At the other extreme, travel guru Arthur Frommer has been advising readers since last fall to avoid Egypt entirely, following the riots at the U.S. embassy in reaction to an anti-Islamic video. USA Today’s Laura Bly and CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg tended to agree with O’Neill, however; Egypt is a big country, and only a tiny part of it is affected by unrest. O’Neill is more specific: If you stay away from Tahrir Square at the heart of downtown Cairo, you’ll probably be fine.
Furthermore, the places most people, go to see – Luxor, the Valley of the Kings, the Pyramids – are unaffected.
“It’s sad, but tourism is so down now in Egypt that it’s a nice time to go,” said O’Neill. “When I was there in 2011, I really appreciated that I could see the pyramids without mobs of people everywhere.”
The Goodmans’ Regent Seven Seas itinerary was sprinkled with peaceful icons of stability: Jordan, with the spectacular ancient city of Petra carved into the sandstone desert hills; Oman’s fabled cities of Salalah and Muscat; the United Arab Emirates, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi and their sparkling towers of glass and steel; Doha, Qatar, where black-veiled women did their shopping in the souk. Never did they feel threatened.
Check the State Department website at travel.state.gov/travel for travel warnings. O’Neill balances the generally conservative State Department advice with that of fellow travelers and locals. Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forum, lonelyplanet.com/thorntree, is an excellent way to connect with travelers to the region. And putting the word out on social media and among your acquaintances – even the Middle Eastern restaurant down the road – can yield surprisingly helpful contacts.
Many travelers worry about anti-American sentiment. O’Neill says in more than two decades of travel around the region, she’s never been treated poorly. “I’ve had more lip from French and Dutch people.” In The Crimson Sofa, her upcoming book on her travels in the Middle East, she documents the hospitality she’s continually experienced. She and her husband were hiking through the Lebanese mountains last year and came to a place where the trail led through a picnic ground where a family was having a picnic. They were greeted enthusiastically and offered Pepsi, dates and barbecue.
“In general that happens almost everywhere I’ve been in the Middle East,” she said. “That’s why I advocate that you go – it sounds like a fable until you have it happen to you, but just a few gestures like that can change your image of what the Middle East is like.”
Tips from travelers
Buzz-neighborhood residents continue to make their way to the Middle East and neighboring countries such as Morocco and Turkey.
Susan and Brad Patt took a cruise from Athens to Istanbul last year and spent four days with Istanbul native and fellow Houstonian Dilsat Baysal. Liz Granville, owner of Deville Fine Jewelry, took a sojourn in Morocco with husband Tom and their three children, shopping in the ancient souks of Fez and Marrakech, exploring sand dunes on camelback and hiking to a Berber village where they drank mint tea with a local family. Lidya Osadchey just returned from a trip to Israel, where she visited Tel Aviv, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem and more. And former Houstonian Salma Abdelnour goes back and forth to Lebanon. Here are their tips, in their own words.
Lidya Osadchey on Israel:
Traveling to Israel at the end of December allows one to escape long lines of tourists. There was not a minute of worry about the safety wherever we went: Tel Aviv, Golan Heights, Sea of Tiberius, excavated Roman cities, Masada, Jerusalem. The Old City was lit up and filled with people from all over the world even at midnight. The food was unbelievable wherever we went. All street signs and directions are in three languages, including English.
Liz Granville on the Dunes of Erg Chebbi, Morocco:
We drove south through the scenic cedar forests of the Middle Atlas Mountains, following the green Ziz River valley until it ends at the Sahara desert. As the last paved road ends at the edge of the oasis town of Erfoud, we were then transferred by 4-by-4 vehicles to Kasbah Tombouctou, a hotel in the style of the region. We had a very early wakeup and explored the legendary dunes of Erg Chebbi on camelback. Perhaps the largest dunes in the Sahara, they are constantly shifting in the desert winds. We witnessed the sun rising over the desert dunes – one of Morocco’s greatest sights.
Susan and Brad Patt on Istanbul:
It was truly one of the most beautiful places we have traveled to. We had heard all about the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, and both lived up to the hype. Our hotel was right on the Bosphorus! The history and the culture were so different and interesting. Navigating the traffic was a challenge in this huge, crowded city, but our guides knew all of the back roads. And when all else failed, the best choice was a scenic water taxi on the Bosphorus. The food was so fresh and delicious, and it was so much fun trying out different local eateries. Our last afternoon we indulged in a traditional Turkish bath. I don’t know if we have ever felt so clean. It is definitely a city to add to anyone’s “bucket list.”
Salma Abdelnour on Lebanon:
Downtown Beirut, rebuilt after the 1975-1990 civil war, is full of Lebanese restaurants, bars, and boutiques from internationally renowned Lebanese designers like Elie Saab and Reem Acra. The Ottoman-era Parliament building perches on a hill on the edge of downtown, and there are lovely old churches and mosques to visit.
Achrafieh is a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood of winding lanes, cafes, beautiful old Lebanese houses and shops selling exquisite locally made clothes, jewelry and textiles.
Byblos, about a 45-minute drive north of Beirut, is filled with stunning ruins dating back to when this part of Lebanon was an ancient Roman colony. There are also wonderful seafood restaurants overlooking Byblos’s port.