Mike Darwin goes to Arabia

Darwin on going to Arabia


1. Learn some basic Arabic before going, including reading numbers.

2. Do not, DO NOT, communicate , acknowledge, talk, or photo a woman with a veil. No, not, never.

3. Do not speak to a lady unless you have permission from her male brother, father, or husband.

4. Do not take a photo of anyone unless you have permission and then ask at least three times. Better yet do not take a camera.

5. Eat anything off the street that you see being cooked in boiling oil.

6. Do not go swimming in natural pools- belharzia.

7. You are a guest in their country , obey their rules.

8. No booze. NO alcohol, even if offered. Unless you are alone in your own room and plan not to go out for 8 hours.

9. But trinkets and stuff, like carpets and brass.

10. Do go to the homes of local people if asked. Be gracious and say thank you , when indicated.

I’ve scrupulously observed these rules — every one — while traveling in the Islamic world. I’ve been offered morphine, sex (all kinds), and other illegal things and always declined them. My rule is complete celibacy and puritan decorum when travelling in general and this a must, IMHO, in Arabic/Islamic countries. Morocco and Turkey have a reputation for hetero- and homosexual venues. My advice is DON’T. If you want some exotic Middle Eastern beauty go to Beirut and pay for it — and expect to pay well. Beirut, while it lasts, is truly the Pais of the Middle East.

Some added advice:

11) Avoid meat if you can and never buy any from markets that is not covered in flies. If there are no flies it means they’ve sprayed it with some ghastly pesticide (used to be Aldrin or Dieldrin) and you are about to get dosed! Pastas, local breads, and cooked vegetables and pastries are safer. Tahini (sesame) is wonderful.

12) NEVER invite anyone back to your room, male or female. This simply is not done and puts them in an awkward position. Most hotels will be segregated into local and tourist rooms (with cameras to insure this). If you want to show someone something (say a book or photo), or give them a gift, retrieve it from your room and bring it to the hotel lobby, or do so before you meet.

13) Bring gifts. Gifts are VERY important. Important beyond all words and often money. What is a good gift will vary by locale. In Egypt in the late 90s thru 2001 the best gifts were any kinds of electronics; a CD player was simply fabulous. Cheap ($2.00) wristwatches were worth many times their value in cash.

14) If you know what is really in demand you will do better with barter than with cash. In Egypt old cell phones were very valuable If you can reliably find out what articles are most in demand you can leverage your cash into a small fortune in local goods.

15) Pornography is in incredible demand; the harder core the more it is desired. It is so constantly asked for and with such desperation it is like they are dying of thirst. DON’T bring any. NOTHING! Not even personal photos of the wife unless she is fully clad.

16) The Arab world is homosocial (and surprisingly homosexual as well). Men spend their social and quality time with other men; women are for breeding, cooking and cleaning. Men hold hands with each other and take long social walks together; they often walk with their arms around each other in the evening. Despite your (and my) incredible aversion to tobacco, the water wipe (sheesha) is an integral part of Arab male socializing. The tobacco is fragrant and fruit flavored; watermelon was my favorite. If you want to really talk with men on the street frankly and intimately about politics, religion, women, the West, etc., you MUST at least do sheesha with them. This means that in the cafe when the pipe is passed to you (no, you can’t wipe off the mouthpiece) you accept it and take a puff. I can’t say it won’t kill you, but if it does it will TB or something other than the smoke. The smoke is fragrant and when water filtered inoffensive to the airways; nothing like a cigarette.

17) Drink tea when it is offered. If you finish it fast you will be given another… It comes very hot in small glasses so don’t burn yourself. It is OK to refuse tea if a merchant offers it to you immediately, but if you have talked at all, it is rude. Tea is a great social lubricant in the Arab world; if you think the British use tea as social thing you ain’t see nothing. Even if the water is from the local sewer it will be served so hot it is almost certainly safe. AND, the tea is good. Coca Cola is also used in placed of tea in the summer. It is considered rude to refuse tea once you have a conversation going. The concept of “speed” and “time” are very Anglo-Saxon. There are few things that cannot wait and most do except prayers.

18) Do visit mosques and holy places. Always remove your shoes, observe silence and NEVER photograph; not even where it is supposedly allowed. If you see restoration underway or great beauty, praise it sincerely as it deserves. This is a greatly appreciated. Learn something of the history of the place; especially Islamic history; there is always a rich local history. Islam is rich in intrigues and poltical/family murders and a knowledge of this is considered sophisticated and opens up interesting conversation.

19) One of k’s most superb pieces of advice is to leave your camera home. I have absolutely zero photos of me in the Middle East and no regrets. If you must take it, keep it out of sight until you need it to take pictures of big things. DO NOT take pictures of small dwellings, large private dwellings, poor people, people on the street, or any kind of industrial or civic infrastructure (water plants, airports, factories, etc.). Make sure your landscape shots aren’t of picturesque little villages. Like k says, ALWAYS ask, ask again and then ask once more.

20) No shorts. Period. Use long sleeved shirts instead of sunscreen.

21) Imshi is the Arabic word used to shoo dogs away; it is deeply insulting. Use it with great care. Beware of some vendor telling you this is how to say “no” to beggars or persistent merchants. I was once pursued at night by young men trying to sell me sex (any kind with any gender I wanted) and it was only when I fixed them with steely eyes and said, “Imshi!” that they quit pestering me.

22) If you are going to be in one place for a time it helps to find and pay a highly qualified local guide; I used both those with university educations and those without (the latter being hereditary guides who were also certified by the state). There is always a local Western academic who has pretty much gone native; find him! He will be your guide to small villages where the arts and crafts will be superb and incredibly inexpensive and to artisans of exceptional skill. Alas, there is no substitute for taste and knowledge and most visitors lack that. Alabaster, carved stone, finely worked leather and brass all have wonderful intricacies of quality, workmanship and taste. One thing which I did not buy (and regret) is the magnificent gold and black silk embroidery, usually of verses from the Holy Koran.

23) Don’t buy rugs unless you learn something about them before you go — and I mean really learn. Visit some local rug merchants in Pitt! Also, realize that the knots are tied by small children. This is not necessarily an awful thing. They kids work about 4-6 hours a day and then are educated, albeit Madrassa-style. They learn to read and do numbers and are fed and clothed. It is best to go to the rug factories where you can see the kids at work AND see where the live and are educated. Keep in mind these kids would be out on the street and that is bad business almost anywhere.

24) NEVER, ever, reach for anything at anytime (other than to wipe your ass) with your left hand. This is considered vile behavior. I’ve been struck on my hand for forgetting this. There is no TP in most of the Arab (or 3rd) world and after a BM you clean up with a perineal lavage and your left hand. Historically, there has been no soap for handwashing either. One thing I learned from the Arab world was how to clean my bum and genitals properly after using the head. Since my 20s I’ve always kept a pitcher of water (appropriately labeled) by the toilets and carry wet wipes with me everywhere. I haven’t seen a skid mark on my underwear in 30 years! TMI, I know!

25) Don’t carry your wallet in your pocket and DO buy a money belt. Keep you cash, credit cards, and ID in the money belt inside your pants and next to your skin.

26) Don’t bring or wear expensive watches or jewelry.

27) Dress in conservative colors; browns and dark blues. Don’t wear expensive designer clothes or accessories; keep it simple and functional. A hat is must; I like the canvas collapsible type.

28) Unless you are k travelling in protected and elite circles theft is ubiquitous and always successful to some degree. If there is an in-room safe with a set-able lock you can use this for CDs, etc., but NOT for cash or ID. Passport stays with you at ALL times.

29) Trust your gut. Always decline to go anywhere where you have even a little suspicion.

30) Countryside trips in a hired car should be with a convoy or on the back of a motorcycle with a local academic or Arab you literally trust you life with. Wrecking a car to strip it, kill you, and take everything you’ve got is common; I came very close to this myself. If you have hired a car and the military wants a ride offer the front passenger space enthusiastically; just make sure he is an officer; preferably the commanding officer. Hire a late model car with airbags; one which the owner is relentlessly polishing and primping; it’s your best assurance of survival aside from the reputation of the driver/owner.

31) Shoes come off in homes (no matter how squalid) and in mosques and religious shrines. Wear a pair of heavy socks. Never hesitate to explain that you know you are about to enter a sacred space and with to know how to behave respectfully. Do as you are asked or do not go in.

32) Corruption is universal; baksheesh is the lubricant that gets everything done. NOTHING is free. Learning to be assertive about baksheesh (when to say f-off) is vitally important.

33) If you are going to be doing any intellectual tourism BOOKS will be a ticket to a great trip. Local Arabs intellectuals are desperate for Western books about their history, culture, and the like. My local Egyptologist literally cried when I gave him a copy of Kent Weeks’ book on the lost tombs of Ramses II’s sons.

Mike Darwin

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