Traveling through conservative countries is no easy feat. We’ve all heard the horror stories: Sexual harassment, tourist scams, treacherous street crossings.  Unfortunately, many Western backpackers have been deterred by the bad experiences of their counterparts and never get to experience some beautiful parts of Asia and Africa. Truth of the matter is that an enjoyable trip means knowing how to behave in the Middle East or any conservative country. Have fun while respecting (and acting) like the locals with these tips.

Dress the part

The first step toward showing respect–and receiving it–is to follow the local dress code. Sure, no one is going to stop you from wearing those shorts and tank top, but then you can’t complain about the unwanted attention receive. That being said though, the biggest misconception is that you have to wear exactly what the locals are wearing. Not necessarily! In fact, you can wear simple Western outfits while still respecting conservative customs. So, how to dress in the Middle East or any conservative country? Rules of thumb are to always cover your shoulders, chest, knees, and do not wear clothes that are too tight.

Extra tip: Scarves and leggings are great accessories! They allow you to keep your regular wardrobe, while transforming it into conservative outfits whenever needed.

how to behave in the Middle East, dress the part
“Western” – but still appropriate (me in Marrakech, Morocco)

Always ignore unwanted solicitations

I guess popular belief, you don’t have to be nice all the time. In fact, this can backfire when visiting countries throughout the Middle East, Africa or Asia. Thus, if you receive any unwanted solicitation, do not respond. You might feel compelled to say “no, thank you” in the local language, but even that won’t be effective. In fact, the seller will push harder. For this reason, the right thing to do in this type of situation is to simply keep walking, looking at a fixed object in the horizon (make sure it’s not another person!). Do not look to the side, do not say anything to the seller–simply pretend they are not there. Chances are you are in a very crowded souk and, eventually, the local will either get the message or move on to the next foreigner.

Extra tip: Wear dark sunglasses when walking in a crowded market. This way, it will be easier to go about your business. Once you are ready to make a transaction, simply take them off.

How to behave in the Middle East, ignore touts
Photo: Damian Bere, Flickr

Never cross a treacherous street without a strategy

A big part of how to behave in the Middle East involves survival skills: From escaping Pharaoh’s tummy to…knowing how to cross a treacherous street. This piece of advice might come as a surprise to some, but definitely not to the seasoned world traveler. Crossing the streets in developing countries is a serious business and strategy and skill are essential. For instance, crossing the streets in Cairo taught me some basic rules of engagement:

1. A minimum 5-feet distance means GO.

2. Never hesitate. Once you start crossing the street , that’s it–you’re not stopping until you reach the finish line!

3. Once you are in the middle of the street, do not look to your sides. At this point, peripheral view is all you need. If you start looking to your sides frantically, you’ll only freak out and hesitate (a deadly mistake).

Extra tip: If the steps above are too much for you to handle, use the Human Shield method. Look for another person who’s about to cross the street and, once he/she goes, you go. Always keep the same pace of your human shield’s. If this method fails halfway through? Go back to step # 3. Or master Frogger before your trip.

How to behave in the Middle East, crossing the street
Cairo traffic (Photo: Asim Bharwani, Flickr)

Learn basic etiquette, key phrases in the local language

A tip you keep hearing over and over for good reason: A few basic customs and phrases in the local language will go a long way. It shows the locals that you are making an effort to delve into the culture, which in turn will make them treat you with respect. Naturally, locals will be more helpful toward a foreigner who is trying, making your experience easier. You never know what can come out of a simple act of kindness!

Extra tip: PDA is never a good idea in conservative regions.

how to behave in the Middle East, Nubian captain
Nubian captain & me in Aswan, Egypt

Look up prices beforehand–and brush up on your bargaining skills

In these countries, most items at the markets don’t have a fixed price. The art of bargaining is knowing what the local price is–and going for a lower offer. This way, it’ll be easy to meet the seller halfway through, while still paying a fair price. Naturally, the only way you’ll be able to bargain effectively is to do your research before you head out. Also, keep in mind that prices, in addition to bargaining customs, may vary from country to country within the same region, so never make assumptions.

Extra tip: Asking “how much?” is a surefire way to get the tourist price. Instead, tell the seller your low offer right away. This way, he/she will know a business transaction has begun.

how to behave in the Middle East, bargaining
Bargaining at Khan El-Khalili, Cairo (Héctor, Flickr)

[question]Got tips on how to behave in the Middle East or any conservative country?
Comment below![/question]

Maria Laborde

Completely enamored with the Middle East and Africa, Maria Laborde is a twenty-something budget traveler that has lived, studied and traveled extensively throughout the region. Through tales, tips, travel guides, and everything in between, she shares her knowledge and love for the Arab world on Art of Backpacking and her niche blog Travel The Middle East. Moreover, Maria is the author of LatinAbroad | Nomadic Translator, where she shares her tales, photos and advice after traveling to more than 20 countries across 4 continents. Follow her adventures on Google+, Twitter @latinAbroad and 'Like' her Facebook page.
Scroll to Top