“The Middle East is a very safe, calm, peaceful region of our world”, writes Sabina from Connecticut on Traveling the Middle East, the website she dedicates to encouraging people to travel to Middle Eastern countries despite stereotypes.
“I say it all the time and will continue to say that the parts of the Middle East I’ve gotten to visit and live in are quite a lot safer than the U.S“, she tells me. Sabina’s traveled and lived in the region on her own since 2008, and has connected with many locals.
While she’s well aware of the countless security factors going on in the Middle East, she says that “people in the Middle East, particularly in the Muslim cultures, for the most part don’t drink and do drugs, making crimes that result from intoxication non-existent“. In addition, she guesses that “the harsh penalties for criminals in Muslim countries also have something to do with the lack of crime in this region”.
Despite what you might envision when thinking of the region, Sabina asserts that she doesn’t fear wandering around alone at night either in Israel or in Arab countries. Not once has any damaged been caused to her. “Contrary to popular belief, Middle Eastern cultures just don’t have the violent, criminal mindset that exists in certain other countries”, she concludes.
A Little Girl Who Dares to Look Beyond Stereotypes
As a little girl, growing up in the United States, Sabina watched violent images from the Middle East on her TV screen. The world showcased there was so different from anything she knew, “it seemed fascinatingly unreal”.
“I never did shake the impression these childhood images gave me”, she shares. As she grew up, she decided to travel there anyway, “to see for myself if all I read and saw about this region was, in fact, real and true”.
She didn’t know the language or the locals, so she researched the Israel, her first destination in the region, online. One of the tools she used for her research was travel message boards. “Looking back on the travel forums”, she reflects, “now I can see that lots of the advice given to potential visitors to Israel by Israelis warns them away from going places that I learned are actually perfectly safe for non-Israeli Jews, like the West Bank and Arab villages throughout Israel”.
Arriving in the Middle East for the First Time
Sabina landed in Israel for the first time in February 2008. Arriving in Tel-Aviv, she took a taxi to Netanya, a city located an hour north of Tel-Aviv and an unlikely destination for first time visitors.
“I chose to visit [Netanya] because it seemed like it would be a good place for me to see the Mediterranean Sea for the first time”, she explains before praising the beach’s beauty. “The sun was about to go down so I first took a walk along the beach, then ate outdoors at a restaurant on the beach, where I was first introduced to stray cats, which I’ve since found are a staple of Mid Eastern life“, she remembers. She found the phenomenon exciting, and even wrote a post to encourage people’s acceptance of it on her other website, Solo Female Traveler.
That day, “there were many cats playing in the sand, something I’d never seen before, and one brave cat who joined me on a chair at my table for dinner. Then I went to bed in my $30 a night beach hotel – which was so cheap because the second Intifada had just ended and tourism was at a low in the country”.
As her time in Netanya ended, Sabina rented a car to head to Tiberias, and got lost on the way. She stopped at a gas station to ask for directions, and stressed where she preferred not to pass. “I didn’t want to have to drive through any Arab villages along the way”, she says, “because I’d read on the internet that they’re dangerous”.
Remembering this today makes her laugh. “It is just so hilarious. I’ve subsequently spent quite a lot of time not only in Arab villages in Israel but also Arab countries”, she stretches, “and have learned that they are utterly safe“.
Israel, Egypt and Sabina – A Love Story
Sabina’s traveled through the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, Australia and the Middle East. The countries she’s found most interesting to visit are neighboring Israel and Egypt. “Their realities surpassed my expectations and, lo and behold, the more I’ve gotten to know about them both, the more I’ve grown to love them”.
She’s drawn to “Israel’s complex and shaky relationships with its neighbors”, including its relationship with Egypt. This particular relationship, between Israel and Egypt, “deteriorated before my eyes during my time in both countries”, she remembers. This made her frequent travels back and forth between the two countries “a little difficult”, she says, yet she adds that it’s made her journeys very interesting as well.
Sabina got to experience Egypt at a time few other Westerners did. “Spending several hours in Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011″ was her “number one very favorite Egyptian experience”. It “was just one week after they had some serious, prolonged post-revolution violence which resulted in several deaths”. That didn’t cause Sabina to run to one of Egypt’s borders. On the contrary, she says the situation calmed down the day she arrived in Cairo, so she let her friend Joseph take her to the square.
“The surrounding streets, including the street my hotel was on, which is very close to Tahrir were completely filled with army tanks, barbed wire, concrete barricades and soldiers decked out in full riot gear”, she remembers, yet says that the atmosphere at Tahrir Square itself was quite different – “that of a street fair”, that is.
“Many people were selling food including, believe it or not, popcorn and cotton candy, others were involved in protests, although all of them were peaceful, but most people, including women and children, were just milling about checking out the scene. With a large poster holding photos of people who had died during the revolution and people carrying around placards with things like used tear gas canisters glued to them, it was obvious there had been a lot of violence here, so it was unbelievable that the atmosphere was so calm and festive. It was a perfectly amazing, thrilling day“.
Similarly, when she thinks of Israel, she thinks of its people, of the friends she made while in the country. “I rented an apartment for seven months in Tiberias, which is in the northern part of the country on the Sea of Galilee. Turned out there were a ton of single people living in the same apartment complex, and I ended up becoming friends with several of them”, she says, “I had quite a fun, active and eventful social life there”.
After moving to Egypt for several months, she returned to Tiberias for two more months. She moved in with one of these friends, and it was like she never left. “It has gotten to the point that Israel feels like home to me“, she shares.
Connect With Locals by Traveling Long-Term
Sabina’s got a great talent for connecting with local people. If you want to do the same, she suggests “to plant yourself in one spot for the long term – weeks or months. This will allow you to get to know people and make friends”. She explains this still-unconventional choice of travel, saying that “there’s no better way to learn about people’s lives than to spend time with them as they go about their daily work and play”.
Staying in one place for a long while can help a traveler learn what makes locals tick, Sabina says. “You get to dispel the myths of their cultures and learn who they really are”, she adds, “I believe understanding the people of the world is the key to understanding the world itself“.
If want to follow Sabina’s advice and travel long-term, she recommends leaving space for flexibility. “For example, you may initially plan on whizzing through Southeast Asia in just a few months, but if you end up making friends somewhere and really want to stay there for a longer time than you’d planned, do it”, she encourages. “The rest of the world will always be waiting for you”.
She also recommends taking care of your finances. “Have plenty of money saved or be prepared to work along the way. Learning how to make an income by working online can allow you the freedom to travel wherever you want in the world”, she advises. “Importantly”, she stretches, “be open to meeting people, both locals and other travelers. New friendships are one of the greatest rewards of travel!”
Yet not everybody has months to spend in one place. According to Sabina, even short-term travelers can connect with locals if they simply stay open to talking to everyone they meet, and if they’re willing to ask locals about the local culture. “They’ll probably be interested in sharing their world with you, and even more interested in learning about yours”, she reassures.
From the Northeast Back to the Middle East
“I’ll be heading back ‘home’ later this winter”, Sabina says, excitedly referring to Israel and its neighbor, Egypt.
Last year, she returned to Connecticut after two years in the Middle East, and the one item she missed most about her original home was her bed. “I managed to buy the most comfortable king-sized bed in the world several years ago, and it’s still going strong. It’s hard to find a really satisfying place to sleep when you know you’ve got the top bed in the world right in your own home. I am very happy to be reunited with my bed after being away for a while”.
Yet she’s also missed Egypt and Israel in the few months she spent in the States, and she’s missed her Middle Eastern friends. Headline news reporting security challenges are not a cause of concern for her. She knows that, when she reaches Cairo, she’ll be “one of the very few Westerners in the city, as most people have been scared away by the media hoopla surrounding their revolution and post revolution chaos, and I am going to stand out quite a bit. This isn’t comfortable”, she admits, “but I’m used to it”.
Still, she doesn’t need to conduct extra research or make any special preparations. She now has friends in both countries, and she relies on them to give her “accurate, up-to-date information, and if they indicate all is well, I know there is nothing to worry about”.
“I think if you’re heading to the Middle East you should keep abreast of current events to learn if there’s any conflict where you’re thinking of heading”, she adds. “If you learn that there is, do not rely on the media to give you an accurate picture of what is going on. Instead, read what people have to say, who are currently living in or traveling through the area(s) you want to visit. They will give you a far more honest, accurate and non-sensationalistic picture of the true atmosphere and current safety issues”, she believes.
According to Sabina, one can use Twitter and travel forums to locate these people. Plus, “there are several bloggers – including Ayelet who runs this blog – who live in or are traveling through the Middle East and can give you honest information”. She, for example, will be happy to help you out. “Once I’m back in the Mid East, I’ll be happy to give up-to-date info and advice about the areas I’m in to anyone who wants to contact me at Sabina (at ) solofemaletraveler.com”, she promises.
Meanwhile, she’s focusing on places she’d like to explore in Egypt and Israel. “In Egypt, I’m looking forward to exploring areas of Egypt I haven’t seen yet, namely Siwa Oasis. In Israel, I’m looking forward to going back to Jerusalem“, she says.
Forget New York or Paris. For Sabina, Jerusalem is “the most powerful, exciting city on earth”. She also intends to explore additional parts of northern Israel, including the Golan Heights. In addition, she’d like “to revisit the West Bank town of Nablus, where, believe it or not”, she breaks yet another stereotype, “I found the most seemingly happy, friendliest people I have ever met in the entire country”.
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A big thanks to Sabina for this fascinating interview, and for the photos she provided!
How do you break stereotypes through travel?