Trip Coach: December 18, 2007

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Maliha Masood, who wrote the travelogue Zaatar Days, Henna Nights and runs the zaatardays.com community, answered your questions on the Middle East, including advice for female travelers.

Maliha Masood: Hi! This is Maliha Masood, author of Zaatar Days, Henna Nights. I traveled mostly by myself for one year starting in Cairo, then heading to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and finally Turkey. It was an unforgettable journey. So here I am ready to talk to you about Mideast travel and answer your questions and concerns. Let's get started in a jiffy...

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West Palm Beach, Fla.: We are scheduled to visit Egypt and Jordan Feb. 3-22. There will be 2 short cruises—Nile and Aswan—visiting major sights. Is it safe to travel there at this time? We are Jewish and heard about the attack on Christians in Egypt.

Maliha Masood: For the most part, I'd say it's fairly safe, though there are no absolute guarantees about safety no matter where you travel. The attack you are referring to happened a while ago. And right now, the Egyptian economy is desperate for tourist dollars. Upper Egypt is very welcoming and tourists are the norm rather than the exception. If you exercise the normal precautions, you ought to be just fine. Happy Travels!

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Cincinnati, Ohio: I will be going to Egypt in March, 2009, and would like to see Petra as an extension of that trip. Any advice on tour companies that make Petra a really great experience?

Maliha Masood: Once you're in Petra, Jordan, you'll run into many tour companies. It's a small town and you won't find much problem in getting help, asked or otherwise. My advice is to stick with a local guide and pay per day. The ticket entrance is steep and there are so many people walking about Petra that you won't really be alone. Again, guides will solicit you freely and often aggressively. Go with your instincts and have fun! Petra is stunning.

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New York City, N.Y.: I'm planning a 2-4 week trip to Egypt in March 2008. A NYC tour company has a good package deal that includes most meals, excluding dinner. My husband doesn't eat meat, so I'm concerned about chicken and poultry which he craves. What can you tell me about the poultry and fish in Egypt and what can you recommend for a vegetarian? Also, do you recommend bottled water?

Maliha Masood: It should be fine to eat fish or chicken in Egypt. For fellow vegetarians, I recommend "kushari" a rice and bean dish or the local "fuul" a fava bean dip. Most always you should be able to get hummus, baba ghanouj and when in doubt, eat bread! Yes, I highly suggest you drink bottled water.

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Miami, Fla.: We are of Arabic descent and have heard that it is very unsafe and sad to travel into the middle east right now. A friend went there and said that it was very difficult even staying with her family due to the stresses there. What is your honest opinion? Pat

Maliha Masood: It's a tough one to answer with any definite opinions. Being a Muslim and Pakistani, I traveled in the Mideast with the idea that I would be readily accepted. For the most part, this was true. Safety issues are more about the people you run into, not always the political situation. It always comes down to individual situations and one person's problems don't mean problems for every single person. I believe it will be more of a challenge to travel anywhere in the world in the post 911 era and the Mideast is certainly not an exception. But I also strongly believe the spirit of the people is still open hearted and welcoming for the most part. You should go with faith and an open mind. Good luck!

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Malibu, Calif.: We are leaving for Egypt and Jordan this Saturday (12-22)! What are the best things to buy in both countries? We will be in Cairo, Aswan to Luxor cruise, Petra, Dead Sea...are there any activities or restaurants in these areas that we should not miss out on?? We like to try small local restaurants and to see how people live, etc...

Thanks for your advice in advance!

Maliha Masood: Wow! That's great you're going this weekend. I know you'll have a great time. I liked to buy local handicrafts, jewelery and wooden boxes. If you go to the Khan al Khalili bazaar in Cairo, be sure to bargain hard! Jordan has nice market emporiums often with fixed prices but bargaining is expected. As for activities, I find it best to just hang around where the locals are, small cafes and local restaurants. You won't be lacking for boredom! Wish you a wonderful trip.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Hello! My father is from Iran and I would love to go and visit. I do not speak Farsi and I do not think he would go with me. He keeps telling me to wait for the situation there to get better, but that doesn't seem likely. Is it really very dangerous to go? I would like to go to Tehran and Tabriz—what do you think? I am wary of the politics but I don't want to be an alarmist. I would travel with my boyfriend and leave from Atlanta.

Maliha Masood: Being highly adventurous, I'd encourage you to go, permission or not from your Dad. My parents were leary of my travels but I didn't listen to them! You will find the Iranians very hospitable and since you have Iranian heritage, they will even more welcoming, very curious and fascinated and ask you lots of questions. Since you'll be traveling with a guy, you'll be fine as far as not attracting too much attention. And since there is no best time to go and Mideast politics are always tense, I don't see the point of waiting. Tehran is a big city that will feel more like NYC. Tabriz is ancient and very beautiful. You will need to wear a headscarf in public, but other than that, you will find Iran to be a very modern culture. Enjoy!

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Washington, D.C.: Hi—I need help with finding organized tours for women traveling together. I am particulary interested in Oman & Dubai.

Maliha Masood: I'm not aware of any specific tour companies for women. I suggest you explore Dubai and Oman chambers of commerce and travel sites that are on the web. Just google the terms and you'll find links to tour operators. Email a few to ask for women preference. Good luck!

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Greenville, Mich.: Hi Maliha—I want to go to Egypt for 2 weeks or so. I'm 60 years old. I don't want to book a tour. The ones I've found isn't where I want to go. I don't like boat trips on the river. I like Cairo, Egypt. Is it safe for me to travel alone? Thank you, Betty

Maliha Masood: Hello Betty! I'm not into tours either. And when I was in Cairo, I found a lot of things by serendipitous encounters which is always best in my book. You'll be fine alone. Stay in the bigger hotels in downtown Cairo. I recommend you go to the reception desk of the Nile Hilton and ask for a guide to take you around Cairo. Old City, Islamic Cairo, Museums are musts. I went with a Bedouin guide on a desert safari. You must try to see the White Desert. But with a reputable guide. Cairo on your own is easy and people are very friendly. You'll be fine. Good luck. Drop me an email and let me know how it goes...

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Manhattan, NYC: What's a great girlfriend getaway in the Middle East? We don't want to be in hostels, but we don't want luxury hotels either.

Maliha Masood: My friend and I had a blast in the Sinai. We went to a laid back town called Dahab as opposed to the bigger resorts like Sharm el Sheikh. Dahab has a relaxed feeling and there's plenty to do like snorkeling, diving, hiking, or just lounging on beach side cafes drinking tea and smoking sheesha! Sinai is very tourist friendly. Be careful of your belongings. And have fun!

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New York: We like to drink wine with our meals... are there any cities in this region with great wine bars?

Maliha Masood: All the big cities and world famous capitals of the Mideast will serve wine in restaurants. For wine bars, Beirut is the place to go. Lots of chic bars and hip lounges. Damascus is more hidden, but in the old city, there are historic homes turned into cafes where you ought to be able to find wine. Cairo and Amman will offer wine in hotel bars and bigger restaurants. And of course Istanbul is a delight, especially the area around Gallata Bridge and the shopping district near the tramway. Enjoy!

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Shelburne, Vt.: What should I bring to wear as a tourist and honored guest in Jordan in April? (I will be traveling with my husband after we finish a group tour in Egypt.)

Maliha Masood: April should be nice and mild weather. I suggest wearing long skirts with loose fitting tops or a dress. A scarf around your neck is also nice and you can always use it as a makeshift hood in case it rains! Have fun...

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Atlanta, Ga.: My best friend from college will be on a three year work contract in Doha, Qatar starting at the end of January '08. I am researching travel plans and I'd like to book a trip in the next year or so, that is between two and three weeks in length, and is at a time of year where there are a bunch of festivals or other cultural events happening. I would also like to include some short stops in neighboring countries to get the most out of this once in a lifetime opportunity. Do you have any suggestions for events to attend, best time of year to go and other places to visit that will give me a good taste of daily life in the Middle East? Thanks! Beth

Maliha Masood: For travel tips to Qatar and the Gulf, I recommend the numerous websites on culture, tourism and travel just fingertips away. If you google the terms "Dubai" and "Gulf" and travel and tourism, you'll get plenty of info on the net. Dubai has lots of festivals and expos as does Bahrain. Gulf countries are nestled close together so it's easy to go from one to another. I suggest you go in the fall or winter so it won't be so hot.

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Beverly, Mass.: How safe is it to visit Syria? I'm Interested in Aleppo, Palmyra, Crak de Chevalliers, Damascus, Hama, Homs.

Maliha Masood: Syria is very safe. I felt safer in Syria then in parts of DC and Manhattan. It's a commonly perceived to be unsafe because of political tensions but that does not always apply to the average curious traveler who is not a threat or a target. I find the Syrians to be extremely friendly and helpful. Many of my friends from the Mideast are Syrians. I fell in love with Aleppo. Didn't have any guidance apart from my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook. There are daily bus trips to Palmyra from Damascus. Hama, Homs, Crak are also easily accessible. I recommend staying in central locations and talking to locals and getting their advice. You'll feel quite welcomed. Syria is by far the most underrated and the most amazing place in the Mideast. You won't be disappointed...

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N.Y.: Part of the fun of a trip is getting to meet the locals. Are there any cultural tips or cues for single girls who want to meet single guys in the cities you've visited? Any lessons learned the hard way?

Maliha Masood: Now here's a question I love! My entire journey was about meeting locals who taught me so much about the country and culture and all their quirky personalities were windows into the world. My entire book is about characters I met and befriended and most all of them were men! Trust me. You won't be hard pressed to meet men in the Mideast especially if you're a foreigner and American. I was always walking up to strangers in the streets and asking for directions, and in the next instant, I was invited for lunch or dinner and in many cases, their homes. It's quite normal behavior in the Mideast given the hospitable culture. Best places to meet men are the same there as here. Cafes, bars, shopping areas, subways, concerts, anywhere in the public realm is fair game! Just be careful and trust your instincts. My book is packed with funny incidents about my male friends and the usual complications....

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: What's a destination in the Middle East that has a misleading reputation for tourism in the U.S. and that you'd encourage folks to visit? And, I guess, why? Thanks!

Maliha Masood: The most misleading reputation in my humble opinion is Syria. It gets a bad rep because of politics and the fact that it wasn't heavily advertised and marketed towards tourists. But Syria is a gem. It used to be a travelers secret but not anymore. Europeans have long discovered it and gradually so are Americans. I highly encourage my friends to go to see Syria for themselves. It's a fascinating hybrid of east/west, old and new. In many ways, it reminds of Cuba. Syrians have a love affair with American cars and once I saw a Chevy De Soto straight out of the 60's and the driver had gel slicked hair, sunglasses and was listening to Miles Davis! I wrote about many of these so called contradiction in my book and since I loved Syria so much, Damascus and Aleppo are two entire chapters! They're the oldest cities in the world, going back over 4000 years. Syrians are friendly but not intrusive. They leave you alone if you want and they have a subtle and wicked sense of humor. Most all my Mideast friends are Syrians. My friend from Aleppo was Kurdish and a poet. I broke his heart. And he still writes to me after 8 years. Read my book to know more!

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Your trip sounds fascinating! I can't wait to read the book. How was it different from what you expected?

Maliha Masood: I appreciate your interest in my book. You'll enjoy it a lot I'm sure. The trip was different in terms of how much easier it was to negotiate the challenges of a women traveling solo. I had underestimated all the help and advice I'd be getting from the locals who became my guardian angels. The book is all about this and then some more...Thanks again.

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Bronx, N.Y.: You must get a lot of questions from people about traveling to the Middle East. Have any surprised you, and how have you responded?

Maliha Masood: Mostly they ask the usual stuff about safety. I have been suprised about the relative openness of folks still willing to travel in the Mideast at this time, given the heightened security all over the world and the regional conflicts that continue to escalate. I think people are starting to differentiate more and more between politics and people and that's a good thing especially among Muslim countries. You can't take anything for face value and the best is to go find your own truth and judge with your own eyes. I always encourage people to reach their own conclusions rather than rely on second hand info or the media to form their impressions. That's the whole reason I traveled. To find my own answers. My book doesn't have ready made answers. I don't think writers should be so ready to give answers. I try to ask more questions. Focusing on common ground rather than differences is one of my passions when it comes to Islam and the West.

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Maliha Masood: Well everyone. We're nearing the end of our online talk about Mideast travel and culture. I've enjoyed answering your questions and have been so impressed by your interest and curiosity about the region and your willingness to travel there. It's a very rich part of our world. I feel so fortunate to have experienced it and the reason I wrote about my travels in the Mideast is because my stories were too good to keep entirely to myself. I think you'll enjoy reading about the people I met and the crazy adventures that happen if you travel with trust and a whole lot of optimism. Be sure to check out my website, zaatardays.com. It was a pleasure chatting with you today and I wish you all the best of travels. Salaam, Maliha

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