Should I Visit the Middle East?

Some friends shake their heads, and others are envious of Moreen and me for our travels in the Middle East. They ask, as do some ITN readers, if it is safe there for travelers. I can’t offer a definite yes or no, but I believe it’s relatively safe in many Middle Eastern countries.

For example, I had planned to take a trip to Libya in April of this year. The tour was canceled, not for security issues but because Libya stopped granting tourist visas for U.S. citizens. When Libya again offers visas, I plan to go there.

Certainly, there are countries in the Middle East I wouldn’t visit now, e.g., Iraq, Afghanistan, India’s Kashmir, etc. We feel fortunate to have visited Kashmir, and in 1988 we stood on Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan with a, then, friendly Taliban gun merchant.

• For lack of a better word, we’ve had “experiences” during our travels, though these were not limited to the Middle East. In 1972 (on our first trip to Europe), we were in Germany traveling independently during the height of the terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic athletes. While in Rhodes, Greece (1974), we experienced harassment and saw considerable graffiti calling Henry Kissinger a “killer” for his role in supporting the U.N.-brokered “Green Line” in Cyprus. And we were in Russia in summer 1991 when it imploded.

Yes, we’ve had dramatic “experiences” in Middle Eastern countries. While alone late one night we were stopped by two Syrian soldiers with AK-47s, and once I was thought to be a CIA agent.

But for each such “experience,” we’ve had many, many wonderful adventures, which I attempt to relate in this column. Most Middle Easterners are extremely friendly to Americans, and they have always treated Moreen with utmost kindness and respect.

How do travelers decide which, if any, countries in the Middle East are safe to visit?

For my Libyan trip, the following is how I decided to go, then planned, then selected a tour company:
• deciphered media reports, which are frequently embellished;

• reviewed the State Department’s list of travel warnings (many of which are published monthly in ITN), knowing that our government errs on the conservative side to protect its citizens;

• studied brochures and backgrounds of travel companies that visit the Middle East, and

• discussed by phone and e-mail how various tour companies ensure clients’ safety. Responsible companies will not place clients in harm’s way, as it would be bad for future business!

When traveling in the Middle East, we believe it’s especially important to understand and respect the local culture and religion as we would want foreigners to respect ours.

Most importantly, be “street smart”! This applies whether you are in the U.S., Europe or the Middle East.
I won’t attempt to offer travelers a list of safe and unsafe countries in the Middle East. To visit or not visit these countries must be a personal decision, made only after carefully investigating the possibilities.

Coming up: the ruins of impregnable Termessos, Turkey.

—The Timeless Roads of the Mideast and Mediterranean is written by Ed Kinney