I Lived The Middle East

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say that It’s not safe for a woman to travel to the Middle East alone, I’d probably be able to fund this whole trip. My first thought to these comments is always, how can I politely tell this person to shut the fuck up? Then I realise, polite has never been in my repertoire and I swiftly put them in their place. I have met many women who have travelled to various parts of the Middle East alone and I personally spent 8 weeks in the Autumn of 2016 travelling across Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey and wish I had the time to visit even more countries. What I can take from the entire experience is that I didn’t go to the Middle East and ‘survive’, I went to the Middle East and LIVED.

I walked the streets of Jerusalem daily while I worked at the best Hostel in town, Abraham. I cooked and ate Shabbat dinner every Friday. I celebrated Yom Kippur and Sukkot with hundreds of Israelis and internationals, all from different religious backgrounds that were there to show support. I drove over sand dunes in the back of an open top ute in the Wadi Rum of Jordan. I drank tea with bedouins in the desert. I climbed a cliffside for the perfect view above the Treasury in Petra at sunset. I made a wish and twisted my thumb in a spiritual hole in a wall at the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul.

(Artist painting on the main street of Jerusalem)

I have been so immensely privileged to have visited these different cities across a number of countries in the Middle East and met some of the kindest, most hospitable people you could find in the world. Although certain cities such as Jerusalem were quite confronting in their religious beliefs and each different Middle Eastern country shared similarities in violence and anger towards each other, I never once felt threatened as I was surrounded by gorgeous, embracing personalities. It always felt perfectly safe to be on my own. I’d never had the inclination I might be robbed or attacked (unlike I did in Rome, Barcelona and Paris), but of course like every other country I have travelled to, you must always be aware of your surroundings, as well as respect the culture you are living amongst, even if only there for a short time.

I am not naive and nor will I lie about my experience. It is true that while in Jerusalem there were political and religiously motivated attacks from both the Israeli and Palestinian people. On my first full day in Jerusalem a man did a drive by shooting in an area I was walking to and arrived 5 minutes after the incident. He was aiming for a police officer which resulted in killing 4 and injuring 6. These attacks have unfortunately severely increased in occurrence, sometimes happening daily and across various cities in the country, not just Jerusalem. Israel is considered to be a very volatile place at the moment, but how is this any different than an average day in say, America? What is important to note is that the people participating in and/or committing these hate crimes are such a small percentage of the population compared to the rest of the community. It would be very closed-minded to assume that all of the citizens of Middle Eastern countries or specifically within Israel and Palestine (where I spent most of my time), are evil and only wish to cause trouble. In fact it’s quite the opposite and people are not seeking to harm travelling internationals, they welcome you with open arms and tea!

(Walking the empty streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur)

I very easily fell in love with Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey. I can quite honestly say that Jordan possesses some of the most gentle and polite people I have ever met and the cities within Palestine have some of the most intelligent individuals in the world, contrary to what the news might report. It’s time to shed some light on the stigma placed upon the Middle East, that floods the newspapers, television, radios and social media feeds. They continue to create images only of death and destruction to the public. I want to encourage you to visit these locations. To see all the individual beauty, that is not only held within the historical monuments that bring us to these lands, but the souls of its inhabitants. We need to help rebuild the reputation of these countries, so that the intentions and goodwill of the people won’t continue to be dragged through the mud, as this only causes further damage to the tourism that helps to fund their economy.

As you can tell from the countless photos I post and my recent video I uploaded, I had a once in a lifetime experience by visiting these special countries. The feelings of love won’t fade easily, as the memories of each special moment are etched in my brain. I would easily catch a flight back to Israel in a heartbeat if I didn’t currently have other priorities and the desire to finish my travels within Europe first. If you have the opportunity to experience Middle Eastern hospitality, whether it be Jewish or Arabic, I can tell you both are unique, but they are equally as generous and the food you will share with families will not only fill your belly, but your heart.

(Standing outside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul)

The only issue I incurred whilst travelling to these destinations was the comments I received from people who had never even visited a Middle Eastern country before. Everyone had an opinion about why I shouldn’t go. “Why would you want to even go there?” or “Are you crazy, you’ll be killed!” were just a few of the very many comments I received from those thinking it was the worst decision I could possibly make, to travel to seemingly forbidden lands on my solo journey was obviously stupid in their mind.

Personally, I think the worst decision you could make would be to not travel anywhere within the Middle East, particularly Israel and Palestine. You are not only missing out on a unique cultural experience, but also missing out on visiting many of the oldest known cities to man and religiously coveted landmarks in the world. If it labels me as crazy for making my way solo to see all of these fantastic places from my bucket list, then wrap me up in a straight jacket, because I’ll happily relive it all again.

♥ Love from Leah