Fathomaway Compass

I travel for the Culture

Ask Fathom: Can I Go to the Middle East?

by Lee Smith

The Damascus souk in calmer days. Now isn't the time to visit.

Dear Fathom: With the region in turmoil, can I go to the Middle East?

Yes and no. Or more specifically, there are some places you probably shouldn't visit right now, some places you cannot visit, and others that are probably more enjoyable now than at most other times.

I've spent the past ten years living between the United States (my home town, New York, and Washington, DC) and the Middle East (Cairo, Jerusalem, Beirut). I've covered the region for the Weekly Standard, Tablet, the New York Times, as well as a number of Middle Eastern publications, and I wrote a book about the Middle East, The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations. The phrase typically used to describe the series of uprisings throughout the Arabic-speaking Middle East the last few months, the Arab Spring, is somewhat misleading. First of all, the political upheavals have not hit every country in the region, and those countries that have been touched were all affected differently. One Lebanese friend just back from a business trip to Tunisia told me the country was so calm that you'd never know anything had happened there, even though this is where the Arab Spring started in January. So Tunisia is okay. But Libya is out, unless you're a war junkie.

Elsewhere in North Africa, Morocco is seeing some demonstrations right now, even though that's a fairly common occurrence: King Mohammed VI, who came to the throne in 1999, allows more political freedoms than many of his peers around the region. More worrying is a recent terror attack at a café in Marrakesh, a city that is one of the country's major destinations. The violence was specifically targeting tourism — unfortunately, a fairly common tactic throughout the Middle East, especially in Egypt, used by Islamic extremists seeking to undermine the ruling regime's economy. I hate to warn against traveling to this beautiful, warm and welcoming country, especially now with the main tourism season upon us, but it is advisable to wait at least a few months to see if there will be subsequent attacks or if the authorities have the situation in hand.

Let's swing all the way to the easternmost reaches of the region in the Persian Gulf before coming back to the Levant.

Saudi Arabia is safe, but there's little reason to visit, unless you're Muslim and planning on taking part in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, the hajj.

Dubai, the most famous of the seven United Arab Emirates, is also secure, but there's a reason the pearl of the UAE tends to attract more European than American visitors: Americans don't need to fly fourteen hours to find luxury shopping, beaches, and five-star restaurants. That's what Los Angeles and Miami are for in the winter, and New York in summer, which, incidentally, has many times more Russian women than Dubai.

Oman is a U.S.-friendly Persian Gulf state with beautiful beaches and is relatively safe, even though it, too, is starting to see protests gathering steam. Paradoxically, the least tourism-friendly country in the Persian Gulf right now is the one that most encourages it, Bahrain. This small Gulf emirate is home port of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and an important American ally. Nonetheless, the disposition of its ruling royal family, the Khalifa, is anything but American. The Khalifa, a Sunni Muslim regime, has ruthlessly repressed a Shia majority population that has been demanding its political rights now for close to a century. While Bahrain's security forces seem to have quelled the unrest, for the time being anyway, the situation is potentially explosive. Moreover, there's no compelling reason to put more money at the disposal of a government that treats more than half of its citizens like slaves.

That brings us to the Levant, the middle of the Middle East, where there are several no-gos, including Syria, where demonstrations across the country are turning increasingly violent. Americans need visas before they reach the Damascus airport or the country's borders, and the chances of obtaining one now are slimmer than usual. And given the violence of the government's security forces, it's not worth the effort of trying to secure one.

Iraq, after years of violence, is settling down some, but still iffy as far as tourism. Unless you're a student of archeology or medieval Islam, there is little in the way of tourism sites. Iraqi Kurdistan is both safe and beautiful with rolling hills and lakes, but summer is not an ideal time to visit this very pro-U.S. region.

Jordan has seen some protests with (relatively) low levels of violence, but most of that has taken place in the capital, Amman. And no one who visits the Hashemite Kingdom visits because of Amman. Rather, there's the southern triangle, comprising Petra, the ancient red-rose Nabataean city carved out of stone; Wadi Rum, the astonishing desert vista that King Abdullah II says is the soul of Jordan; and Aqaba, the Red Sea seaside resort. There's also the Dead Sea, with fantastic hotels lining this world-famous, unique body of water.

Across the Dead Sea is Israel, not strictly speaking part of the Arabic-speaking Middle East, even though Arabs constitute 20 percent of the Jewish state's population. In spite of a recent terror attack in Jerusalem, Israel is safe, especially outside major population centers like the capital and Tel Aviv. When the weather turns warm, there's either the beach, with fantastic seafood restaurants all along the Mediterranean coast from Tel Aviv up to Haifa, or northern Israel, the Galilee. The northern mountains of Israel, in cities like Tzfat, is where Israelis used to go for relief in the summertime, long before the advent of air conditioning. Even now, Israelis from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv make their way up north for weekend getaways, filling Galilee hotels and bed and breakfasts on the Golan Heights, where you'll find some of the region's most amazing views (you can see Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon) and the world's best beefsteaks. Golani cattle and the region's blossoming wine industry make this area a small Levantine Argentina.

North of the Galilee is Lebanon, usually one of the Middle East's most volatile countries, but for the time being anyway, it's one of the safest. And yet even when it is most tense, Beirut still stays open all night partying. For food, fun, and people-watching, this is the top city in the region, far and away. The summer can be a difficult time to visit with so much of the Lebanese diaspora coming back to spend time with their family, and this looks to be one of the country's biggest seasons for tourism ever. That is because the Lebanese understand that much of the violence that comes to Lebanon is sent there by the Syrian regime, as a way to exercise its hegemony over its smaller, wealthier neighbor. And yet the conflict in Syria is consuming all of its neighbor's attention, meaning that Lebanon can breathe freely right now. Of course, that could all change at a moment's notice. The Lebanese know how live the two sides of their reality, but it's a little harder on tourists. As ever in Beirut, when you go you take your chances. Few visitors think it's not worth the risk.

And then there's Egypt. During the uprising there that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in February, the turmoil and violence set back the tourism industry significantly. Tourism is one of the economy's largest sources of revenue, and right now travel to Egypt is down significantly, which may turn out to be good news. The country is safe, if relatively vacant, which means that there are bargains to be had. Typically crowded venues throughout Cairo, Alexandria, and along the Nile (like Luxor and Aswan) are begging for business. The only downside is that the salesmen, vendors, and tourist guides at all the major sites who are typically aggressive under normal circumstances are going to be even more eager to move their wares now. Still, if you have patience for it, that's not a bad deal to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx without the crowds.

Do you have a burning (or a simmering) travel question you can't solve? We're here to help. Drop us a line at askfathom@fathomaway.com.

Lee Smith

Lee is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard. He travels to the Middle East for the conversation and for cigars in the open air at Beirut's Nejmeh Square.

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