The Middle East: A guide on what to wear – through the eyes of thewelltravelledwoman
The Arab nations and the Middle East which I generally refer to… have so much to offer, each offering a unique perspective on the values, culture, and views of the world. Having visited Morocco, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Dubai in recent years I would strongly recommend everyone visit at least one (if not all!) of these destinations. The place that for me would have to be the most memorable would have to be Jordan, specifically Wadi Rum, Petra and the Dead Sea (but you’ll need to read the separate blogs on these destinations!).
Travelling to the Middle East, or frankly, any country where modest dress clothing is encouraged has and probably always will be a little uncomfortable for me.
Whilst I do appreciate the religious and cultural reasons, as a westerner I certainly do not own any abayas, jilbabs or kaftans.
Each and every time I pack, I have to do a bit of research to remind myself, and most importantly make sure it is specific to the destination I’m visiting to determine just how enforced the views are and whether these are relaxed for tourists. There is nothing worse than turning up to an amazing destination in knee-length trousers and covered shoulders on a blistering hot day when everyone else is walking around in shorts and singlets!!
So whilst not always the most fashionable at times, hopefully, the below snapshot of my experience in each of the countries will help…
My first experience … I had absolutely no idea what to wear and I there were so many conflicting views, some of my friends said that I have to cover up (especially because I’m blonde!) and others told me that Morocco was such a popular destination for the Europeans that it didn’t matter what I wore!
Now upon reflection, both views are factual and it really just depends on how deep into Morocco you plan on going!In Marrakech itself, it is very touristy, there were women there wearing strapless tops, mini skirt and short (and I mean short!) shorts. Now whilst you probably won’t feel out of place wearing what you might wear on any other day, it is always nice and appreciated by the locals when you do respect their cultural views…
Having spent a few days in Marrakech, we headed out for a desert camp experience in Erg Chebbi where we drove through the Atlas Mountains and stopped in many of the smaller towns and villages along the way – this – is where you really should be considerate and dress modestly. There were hardly any if any women on the streets. In these areas, I would strongly suggest covering up as much as possible. I wore shorts to my knees with a short-sleeved round neck t-shirt (nothing too tight) and even then I still felt a little uncomfortable, I could feel the men staring at me. I never felt like I was in danger, but I quickly realised that although I felt like I was covered up, I clearly wasn’t and it wasn’t an acceptable practice in that particular area.
Most of the comments you’ll get on the road are relatively harmless, more common than not they would speak to thewelltravelledman and say how lucky he is to have a beautiful woman, on one occasion he was even offered 1,000 camels as a trade!
Verdict: You could get away with wearing fairly western clothes, but it is best to be respectful and be a little more conservative.
Istanbul straddles both the European and Asian continents, and to be honest is a large modern city. Sure, there is the old town which draws you to the city in the first place, but to be honest the streets are filled with westerners, both tourists as well as business people. You could look around and feel like you are in any city in the world. However, when you’re in the old town, there are more traditional practices in place and in a small part of the old town, I felt slightly out-of-place wearing shorts and a singlet. That being said, I wasn’t the only one doing it (it was very hot!!) but did feel that I got a few looks from the locals.
When we went to visit the Blue Mosque and Sophia Hagia you are provided with additional fabric to cover your shoulders and this was certainly not frowned upon.
Verdict: You can pretty much wear whatever you like and not feel out of place (just remember dress codes for some of the smaller Mosques!)
Amman, Wadi Rum & Petra, Jordan
We visited Jordan in their hottest season so it was difficult to cover up… that being said, it is important to first check the dress code for any sites you are planning on visiting as mosques usually need you to cover your shoulders and sometimes your knees as well. In Amman, I wore shorts and summer top and it didn’t seem to be a problem, although if you were to walk the streets for a long period, I would suggest covering up to be respectful of their culture. When you visit tour sites such as the Dead Sea, Madaba and Mount Nebo for example, you can wear anything you like – it doesn’t matter!
If you visit Wadi Rum and Petra, I can recommend a few things for you … Wadi Rum, you can wear what you like… BUT… it is hot, very hot so you’re best to wear some flowy summer pants to cover your legs and a sleeved shirt to protect yourself from the sun. You also need to wear some closed in shoes, unlike me who wore sandals. The sand was so hot I literally couldn’t walk up the dune and needed a piggyback ride back to the car. Petra is much of the same. We went early morning and finished at around lunch time and it was hot. Although you can wear anything you like, it is good to wear something to protect you from the sun and keep you cool at the same time.
Verdict: Unless you plan on visiting remote locations where the Bedouins live, you can wear what you like! We had no issues during our trip and all the areas are commonly frequented by tourists. However, because of the sun, I would wear something to cover up purely to protect your skin!
When we visited Cairo, we only toured Egypt through private tours and had a guide with us at all times (purely from a safety perspective in these turmoil times!). Nonetheless, you could hire a taxi for the day and visit many of these areas on your own and have a similar experience.
From a dress code perspective, there are certain places you need to make sure you’re covered up and they do not always have additional cloth available to cover up so you may either not be allowed to enter, or may need to buy something from a nearby store. However all the attractions that bring you to Cairo are heavily frequented by tourists, we visited the Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, went on a Coptic Cairo tour to the hanging church and other religious sites and you really can wear anything without being frowned upon (too much).
However … the rest of Cairo, in my opinion, does not seem very safe and if you’re planning on walking through the city en-route to any of these destinations or simply to see what else is on offer, I would strongly recommend ensuring you’re modestly dressed!
A helpful tip for going to the Mosque: take a scarf in your bag so when you get to the mosque you can put it over your hair and shoulders! This saves you having to hire one or use a loan one when you get there.
Verdict: Depending on where you’re going, you can wear what you like in tourist areas.
Dubai is like any other major city – filled with tourists who are stopping over and breaking up their long haul flight. You can wear absolutely anything you like and not feel out-of-place!!!
Verdict: You can wear what you like!!
Don’t be alarmed if you receive some comments from strangers!!
I experienced some very random comments along the way, none of which were received in a negative way. It is just their culture and they are just saying something nice! A few that have stuck with me are:
- Your eyes are so beautiful so everything you see must be beautiful (Petra)
- I will give you 1,000 camels for your wife (Marrakech)
- You’re a rose in the desert (Cairo)
The simple thing to remember is if in doubt play it safe! You can’t go wrong that way 🙂
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“No place is ever as bad as they tell you it’s going to be.” – Chuck Thompson