So I am thinking of going to Iran or Syria and am trying to make up my mind which one would be best (I am going to travel around that country through to Turkey, and then make my way up the Balkan Peninsula).
Now, I know western society seems to have this idea that if you go to the middle east you will get maimed by Muslim extremists, which (from what I've heard from people I know who have traveled around the ME) I've heard and suspect is untrue, and I'd love to go in order to experience it myself. The thing is, I am a solo female traveler (which would concern me more for Iran than Syria... I have heard Iran is quite conservative, and on the Thorn Tree forum's sticky for the middle east, it places Iran and Saudi Arabia on a different level than the rest of the ME).
So which would you recommend for a solo female traveler who desperately wants a taste of the ME? Also, I am sure it isn't all as bad as they say... how safe would it be for a solo female traveler? Is it common? For Syria, should I bring a headscarf? In Iran, should I wear an abaya?
Any information should be greatly appreciated... this is just an idea I have forming in my mind! I also searched the forums for a lone-woman-in-syria-or-iran post but couldn't find one... hope this is not a repeat!
I am living in Iran for 24 years & I have never heard in Iran extemist maim tourists
In Iran abaya is not mandatory, but the headscarf is. the philosophy of extremists is that women shall not be attractive to any man but their family.
if you are travelling solo, you should find a way to comunicate with people. most of Iranians cann't speak english.
If you are using a travelling agency, there would be no danger, and the tour leaders will say you important points.
If you liked I know some female leaders that can speak english fluently & can help you more!
finally, Iran is a very ancient country with very interesting historical monuments & natural landscapes & different cultures. I don't know what do tourists can do in Syria!
I have travelled independently in Syria and would highly recommend it! There's loads to see and do, the people are extremely friendly and welcoming and I never once felt threatened. I didn't wear a headscarf and don't remember seeing any western female tourists who did.
Syria is less conservative than other ME countries: I travelled in Jordan before Syria and there were far more women veiled there than in Syria.
In Iran coverage (scarf, light summer cloak, long pants, socks) is mandatory, wearing the tchador (=abaya) is not.
Apart from where it is mandatory I strongly advise against wearing a headscarf if you are not a muslim woman, but recommend that you cover up your body. That means baggy men's t-shirt and long skirt that goes down to your ankles or long shirt that comes down to your knees and long loose-fitting pants.
After having been to a number of ME countries I would say that travelling in Iran is very safe for a sole female traveller. As a matter of fact you are far less likely to be harrassed in Iran than in Egypt, Turkey or Morocco. In the case of Iran the local laws protect you, since it is so conservative men are not likely to walk up to you to grab your breast. (Happened to my sister in Turkey.) Also the Iranians have different traditions, women in Iran have always been much less restricted than in Arab countries. It is not uncommon in Iran to see Iranian women travel through the country without male company (unthinkable in Jordan, Palestine or Egypt) and there is an excellent public transport network which makes getting around easy and safe.
The problem with Iran however is the stress of dealing with the language and the isolation you feel. In most other countries it is easy to find people who are willing and able to talk to you, either locals or other travellers in hostels. You can find newspapers in English and watch CNN or other foreign channels on TV. In Egypt and Turkey signs are often in English. Not so in Iran. You'll be staying in small budget hotels and meet relatively few other travellers and locals won't usually be able to talk to you for lack of common language. This poses a little problem when getting around - you cannot ask for directions, so it takes you longer to get around and organise things like tickets.
I also consider Iran to be atypical. Iranians are not Semites, they belong to the Indo-European ethnic group. That shows in the way things are run in the country. Egypt for example does not have government-organised trash collection, all the trash in Cairo is collected privately by the Zabbaleen, a poor Christian minority. They dig through the trash, take it in hand-drawn carts to their settlement at the outskirt of Cairo and sort it there by hand. While this is very environmentally friendly it is not very efficient handling all the trash this megacity produces. Cairo is unbelieveably dirty, the sweet stench of rotting food mixes with exhaust fumes and takes your breath away. Another problem in Egypt is that construction of houses and connecting them to electricity and water does not go together. In the Egyptian government the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, which leads to problems. So you got places that are connected to water and electricity but that do not have proper housing (only ramshackle slums there), while in other places you got finished houses that wait for years and years for water and electricity. While this is typical for Egypt, it is not much better in other Arab countries. But Iranians are much more organised. I never understood why Iranians called Arabs "dirty pigs" and found it racist and offensive - until I went to Iran.
Hope this was helpful.
Ahh, this is all really useful information. Is Jordan quite conservative too? I was thinking of going into Jordan for a bit too.. I would LOVE to see the Dead Sea and Petra. I have a friend living in Syria at the moment (she won't be there when I am there, however) and I remember her mentioning that, while she had to wear shorts that went past the knee in Syria, in Jordan she wore regular shorts, and was fine.
One thing I am concerned about, is that I read in hotels in Iran and/or Syria, they have a tendency to hold on to your passport. I also heard there is a black market for stolen/forged passports in the middle east. Is there a way to avoid this? I am very wary (understandably) of letting my passport out of my sight when I am traveling. Is this an unavoidable experience when traveling to the ME?
while she had to wear shorts that went past the knee in Syria, in Jordan she wore regular shorts, and was fine
In most ME countries there is a decisive difference between what is acceptable for a local girl and what for a tourist. In a well-visited touristy area like Petra or at the coast of the Dead Sea you can get away with shorts and strappy top, but that doesn't mean you should dress like that.
I best tell you about an encounter I had in Aswan, Egypt.
I was waiting in front of the Nubian museum. I am muslim and was dressed accordingly, but you could not mistake me for an Egyptian, my mix of European streetwear clothes was just too different. So I got some curious glances from a group of 15-17 year old Egyptian girls who were there for a schooltrip and finally heard the familar hissing: "Ksst, ksst." It is the discreet sound girls and women in the ME use to draw attention to themselves when they want to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
I turned around, looked at the girl who had hissed and she asked shyly: "Takhki Arabi?" (Do you speak Arabic?). We ended up having a halting conversation in a mix of English and Arabic, mainly along the lines of "where are you from, how old are you,..". One of the girls told me her brother was a student at "Deutsche Schule Kairo" and was planning to study in Germany. She was envious of him and wanted to come to Germany too, so I gave her a bunch of addresses and urls that would be useful to her and her brother. I also told her she could work as an Au-Pair with a German muslim family, there are always some that are specifically looking for an Arab-speaking Au-Pair. I found it very nice and refreshing to talk to these girls and as far as contacts with locals went it was definitely one of the highlights of my trip to Egypt.
The point of this story is the following: ME girls have to be very careful about their reputation. A nice respectable girl from a conservative lower class simply doesn't talk to tourists unless it is necessary for her livelyhood. They would not have approached me at all if I had dressed like a typical tourist tart, but as fellow muslim woman I was safe to talk to. I know that because I had similar encounters in Jordan and Palestine.
So if the difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the traveller takes an interest in the locals and is respectful to their culture, it most definitely makes sense to dress accordingly. Cover yourself from knees to shoulders at all time and if you want to err on the side of caution cover ellbows, shoulders and all the way down to your ankles.
I read in hotels in Iran and/or Syria, they have a tendency to hold on to your passport.
Yes, because they have to register you with the police. But showing them your passport when you check in and handing them a copy of the data page should usually be enough. Sometimes they'll want to see the visa too and may also need a copy of it. It therefore makes a lot of sense to have about 10 copies of the datapage of your passport with you. These copies are also useful in another case: there have been incidents when foreigners were accosted by fake police in a bid to get at their passports. So if the police stops you, hand them a copy first and tell them you have the passport at the hotel.
Is Jordan quite conservative too?
Yes, because many Jordanians are ethnic Palestinians. For them being muslim is a question of personal honour, they take great pride in their deen (their faith). As such they support conservative values. That they share a border with Saudi-A. only increases this tendency. The official name of Jordan is "Hashemite Kingdom of J.", the Jordanian Royal family derives its right to rule from the fact that they are descendants of the same tribe the Prophet Muhammad belonged too. As such they rule with the clerics, not against them. Syria on the other hand is run by the socialistic, nationalistic and pan-arabic Baath party, the government seeks to diminish the power of the clerics and establish a secular state.
was thinking of going into Jordan for a bit too..
If you really want to visit Turkey, Syria and Jordan the best way will be to fly into Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt with a cheap charter flight and then travel overland from there to Istanbul.
But, Jordan doesn't border Egypt, does it? Wouldn't I have to go through Israel, and then not be able to get into Syria?
And although I am not a muslim (I was baptised catholic but I am agnostic), are you saying I will be more approachable if I dress conservatively (which I plan on doing)?
Also, thanks again for the wealth of information!
There is a ferry that goes from Nuweiba in Egypt to Aqaba in Jordan. It is there just so that people can avoid travelling through Israel.
Not only will you be more approachable for local women if you dress conservatively, you'll also be more likely to get help if you are wronged. Say you get harrassed by some oversexed clowns who watched too much porn and think every Western woman is that "easy" - in shorts and tank top it will be "your own fault", in conservative garb the clowns will get told off sharply by a local old man or woman.
You will find the nicest people, nicest ruins, and great shopping in Syria.
hey, You should visit there, its a very nice place to enjoy holidays.