I’ve stumbled across dozens of articles with titles like “Traveling in the Middle East for Women” or “Solo Female Travel in the Middle East – Is It Safe?” In general, these articles offer helpful tips about what to wear, how to act, when to shake hands – tips which largely apply to the regions along the Abraham Path. But over the last few years, I’ve begun to realize that some situations and struggles are unique to hiking in the region as a (foreign) woman – and, even more specifically, to the intensely community-based experience of hiking the Abraham Path. I’m still very much in the process of learning how to deal with these situations and struggles myself, but here are a few tips I’ve gathered from that process so far:
- Leave your pride behind.
I have two least-favorite sentences in Arabic: Haram lil-binat! and Kayf as-sabayah? The first means, roughly, “Oh, but it’s a shame for the girls!” Any time I’m out on a hike and my group wanders across a shepherd or a village resident or a Bedouin in his tent, I hear this sentence. It’s usually followed with a few others: “Aren’t those bags heavy?” “The sun is too strong!” “You know it’s a looong way?”
And the second sentence means “So how are the women doing?”
One particular memory will probably always come to mind when I hear these sentences. I was out with friends and coworkers scouting a new section of trail along the Abraham Path. The route started in a small village and quickly descended along a rocky path into a deep wadi. One of our local contacts decided to send three men from the village to help us find our way. As we began the steep descent, I found myself walking in front of these men and could hear them asking among themselves, “Why are they taking those two girls along? It’s dangerous. I can tell that they don’t know how to walk. They won’t make it. They’ll just give us problems.”
By the time we had reached the bottom of the wadi, one of them had twisted his ankle, two had nearly run out of water, and all declined to eat.
We called our contact in the village, and he agreed to meet us with a car at the road on the other side of the wadi to collect the injured walker. I reached the top of the wadi an hour or so later and found him sitting in his truck. He greeted us, asked how the trail had been so far, and then, with a grin, winked at the man standing next to me and asked “Kayf as-sabayah?” in a tone which seemed to imply, “It’s so sweet and accommodating of you strong men to indulge these girls and let them walk with you. I really admire your patience” – at least, that’s what I heard. We stood there at the top of the hill, chatting as we waited for the others to catch up. Upon parting ways with the truck a while later, I began to rant to my companions, childishly imitating the man: “Kayf as-sabayah? Kayf as-sabayah? Well, sir, this sabiya is standing here talking to you right now. Where are all the zlam (guys)? Fifteen minutes behind and hobbling! The sabayah are just fine, thanks!” My friends, who had known him longer, laughed and shook their heads. “He’s just used to talking that way. You could make your case all day long and he’d just keep on saying the same things.”
So I shook my own head, rolled my eyes, and joined them in laughing at my silly frustration. When our contact met us at the end of the trail and made tea for us over a fire, I thanked him in good spirits, appreciating his hospitality and marveling at the boundless trove of local lore he shared with us as he collected herbs from the surrounding vegetation and added them to the water boiling over his small fire.
As a woman hiking in the Middle East – a relatively rare breed – you will probably be tempted to prove that you are just as fast, just as strong, just as tough as the men. And feel free to prove that to yourself with every kilometer you cross and with every mountain you summit. Feel free to try to prove it to those around you, too – just remind yourself frequently that the value of the experience does not lie in being lauded for your speed, strength, and fortitude.
- Don’t cling to the seeming privilege of “man’s world.”
In some of the more conservative communities along the Abraham Path, you may find the realm of men and the realm of women to be strictly defined and separate from one another. The nature of this division varies from village to village, but here’s what I’ve often seen: when guests come, the men sit together in the living room, drinking coffee and smoking and talking politics or economics or agriculture; and the women congregate around the kitchen area and prepare the meal. As a foreigner and a woman, you will often find yourself in a strange limbo between these worlds – politely welcomed to sit with the men and to receive coffee and snacks and to rest your weary feet, but also invited back to the kitchen to help the women and children. I know that at times I insist on placing myself squarely inside the realm of the men. I am educated! I like to discuss important things! Don’t overlook me! I have opinions! But before you do so, ask yourself: did you come to the Middle East to sit on a couch and contemplate countless variations of the question “So, what do you think of Obama?” Or would you rather learn to cook local dishes while a small child climbs into your lap to show you her picture book and another clamors to teach you the marble game he’s playing under his mother’s feet on the kitchen floor?
Another story. I was on a short walk with a group of colleagues one spring evening and found myself naturally keeping pace with an American coworker and one of our local contacts. As the three of us ambled through the ephemerally green desert scenery, the two men struck up a lively discussion about a recent news story. Having just read an interesting article on the topic, I waited for them to ask my opinion, fighting back the urge to wave my hand eagerly in the air like the deplorably overachieving students of movie trope fame (think Hermione Granger). That time never came, though; and as we climbed the last sandy hill before arriving at our destination, I still had not said a word.
As we entered the Bedouin tent, our host and his sons welcomed us with trays of hot tea. I was just settling in on a cushion when I spotted a group of little girls peering around the corner of the tent bashfully, giggling and waving at me. I went out to say hi; and within minutes, all four of them had grabbed my hands and were tugging me in various directions, treating me to their own haphazard tour of the area. They showed me their baby camel and discussed various possible names for the creature; they introduced me to their mother and their infant brother; they sat me down on what was apparently the only chair to be found on the premises and wove wildflowers all through my hair, giggling and telling me stories all the while. When I came back to the tent half an hour later, my coworker sighed. “See, that’s an experience I, as a man, could probably never have,” he said.
Navigating between man-realm and woman-realm in the Middle East can be tricky and frustrating and confusing, and it might seem unfair that you have to figure it out when your male friends don’t. But pay attention to the many, many unique entry points into the local culture and experience that you gain in navigating those realms. Revel in them. They are unbelievably valuable.
- Remember that you’ve come to learn.
I’ve known a lot of women who have come to the region wanting to serve as an example of a “strong, liberated woman”. Realize, though, that this mindset naturally emphasizes the ways in which you feel you are different from those around you and suggests that you have something to offer. Instead, learn to identify with the women around you and – perhaps even more importantly – learn to be someone with whom they can identify. Cliche as it may be, the most memorable moments of intercultural experiences are usually those in which we find commonality with others, often learning something about ourselves as people in the process – not the moments in which we try to teach others to be more like us.
A few years ago, I walked with a very wise woman who’s been in and out of this region for well over 40 years. She told me that maybe the biggest lesson she’d learned in her time here could be summed up in one sentence: “Don’t compromise, contextualize.” You don’t have to let go of being a strong, intelligent, independent woman when visiting the Middle East. But be willing to enter into new contexts humbly, eager to overcome obstacles in your desire to learn and experience how that context feels from the inside.
Photos by Frits Meyst and David Landis