Of all the places in the world, the Middle East implies, perhaps, the most in terms of a cultural leap for a Western visitor. It has a different religion, quite often imposed as the state law and as the code for regulation that all citizens need to abide by. It has a completely different language, including a different alphabet and semantic origins. Above all, perhaps, it has become the geographical reflection of a clash of cultures and civilizations that goes back to the Early Middle Ages, in the 7th and 8th centuries, spanning through to the dramatic events of 9/11.
However, in order to embrace the full experience of the Middle East, one needs to go beyond these truisms and see the region for what it is. It is, first of all, an incredible cradle of culture, both its own and as a receptacle of the Ancient Greek civilization. It was from the Middle East that the European civilization received all the teachings of Greek philosophers and scientists in the Middle Ages, blended into those of Arabic scholars. At the same time, history goes back beyond Islam and Mohamed, as far as the Egyptian and Roman times: the ruins at Petra, the pyramids in Egypt or the numerous Roman ruins stand testimony to a continuous existence of human civilization in this region.
Perhaps some of the best ways to intake the Middle Eastern experience is to travel in the small streets of the cities, enter bazaars and negotiate with sellers, just for the sake of it (although, in Arabic culture, negotiation is a must and an intrinsic part of the commercial process), and enjoy a tea with a traditional sweet in one of the teashops.
At the same time, it is useful to remember that the Sharia or the religious law of Islam is the code of law in many of the countries in the Middle East. Beyond simple things, like the lack of pork from the menu, respecting the Sharia as a visitor will reflect in the dress code, in the conversation that one will have and which will avoid discussing local politics or the ruling family of the state and, generally, in having respect for the society that welcomes you. As in almost all countries, speaking only a couple of words of Arabic will change the status and the relationship with the interlocutor.
With the warm climate, mountains, deserts and crystal blue seas, the Middle East has a history of deep rooted culture and religion. Popular cities such as Jerusalem, Dubai, Cairo, Cape Town and Tel Aviv will provide everything from sacred religious grounds to one of the most progressive cities on the rise, bustling with activity. The streets of these larger cities are linked with quaint market shops, where one can find a unique sampling of the commerce native to the Middle East. From the seemingly endless amounts of ancient ruins (Roman, Greek and Byzantines), of Jordan, Lebanon and Syria (not to mention Egypt!), to the awe inspiring sceneries and landscapes, to the tropical oases and amazing beaches, and resorts, there is so much to see and do in the Middles East, the challenge is simply to find the time!