Featured, Jordan, Lebanon

Middle Eastern Oddities

21 Comments 14 April 2011

Everything has a little bit of crazy inside....

The big billboard ad looming over the highway read “Expect the unexpected” as a man in camouflage held a shiny rifle and smiled at the cars passing by below. I thought to myself – I hope this is advertising hunting, but quite frankly in the Middle East I’m not quite sure – anything goes!

My winter in the Middle East was eye opening in many ways; the generosity, kindness, and culture were a surprise I wasn’t prepared for. However when you spend time in a part of the world which is drastically different from the one you call your own it makes me take notice of all kinds of new little oddities. These observations are things the locals don’t notice at all since it’s a part of their day to day lives, but to a foreigner they stick out like a zebra in a pack of lions. Your eyes and mind are immediately captivated by the scene. I collected many of these oddities in a little notebook and never really understood why they existed and more importantly, how the locals could accept some of them. Besides the excessive gun advertising I mentioned in the beginning, here’s a few more Middle Eastern Oddities I came across during my winter in the Middle East.

In Lebanon there was an inordinate amount of gun shops, lingerie shops, and balloon shops. Everywhere I went this strange set of products were sold everywhere. Granted – I never saw a gun shop next to a lingerie shop – but it wouldn’t have surprised me if I did!

There was an abundance of mechanic shops all over Jordan and Lebanon. In fact I wondered how they even had enough cars to provide business to all of these shops. There were whole streets and small towns dedicated to mechanical repairs. They were dirty and greasy and always an engine sitting outside in some sort of repair.

car repair

Car Repair

In Jordan I was stunned when we were driving down an interstate highway with exit ramps and out of nowhere appeared speed bumps along the highway. Generally there was very little warning so when the driver slammed on the breaks and nearly sent me through the front window, I knew that meant a speed bump was coming up. Maybe this explains all of the mechanics in the country.

Speaking of driving, the Middle East seemed to have it own unusual set of rules…or basically a complete lack of rules. In most places there were the typical lines on the road indicating the center divide, but honestly I have no idea why they wasted the paint. All lines were completely ignored at all times. Generally people would make lanes wherever there was room. Much like personal space in the Middle East, cars space was non-existent. Any tiny little wedge of space was utilized on the road. And generally whoever got there first had the right of way regardless of any lines on the road.

In this same category of not necessary, in Lebanon stop lights were an oddity to me. They generally did exist everywhere, but they were often completely ignored or turned off. Most people explained to me this was because of the war. During the years of unrest, stop lights were removed and people just got used to living without them. The installation of stop lights again in Lebanon is relatively new – so new that many are installed, but don’t even work or aren’t turned on. You might think this creates utter chaos at intersections and the answer is yes, in my eyes it did. However, no one else but myself seemed to be concerned about it!

stop sign

Stop

Middle Easterners have this uncanny ability to share liquids from a bottle. I often saw families pass around a 2 Liter bottle of Coke and everyone take a drink directly from the bottle with out it ever touching their lips. They simply pour it directly into their mouth. It is a cool trick to watch. It’s one of those things that looks easy – but isn’t; as evidenced by myself pouring water all over myself in my attempt to mimic it.

Lebanon has no street addresses. No numbers adorn the outsides of buildings or windows. Instead of a traditional numbering and street system, they have big signs with the names of businesses on them pointing in the direction of the business. I honestly have no idea how this works. This was one of these oddities that I could just never understand.

No addresses, just arrows.

All gas stations are full service in the Middle East. Not once was there a self service option. This seems to be the ‘way it’s always been done’. Plus, there were no gas stations with credit card readers on their pumps which meant cash only.

There seemed to be little parking etiquette. In fact people routinely double-parked and blocked people in all the time. If there wasn’t a parking space at the store you went to they would simply park behind someone else, get out of the car and walk in the store. I was left with my mouth gaping open thinking…”should we be doing this?!” When it doubt – defer to the locals…they know how things work.

Shared taxis called Serveece (Service Taxi) is the cheapest and oddest way to get around. The serveece has a route – sort of. It stops and picks people up along the route (which is subject to change whenever they want) as if it were a bus until it’s all filled up. Then it drops you off along it’s route and you just pay for your seat. This means that you will most likely be sharing the taxi with 4 other people and they may not be going to the same place you are. Mind boggling.

Unlike in my own country, I had numerous marriage proposals while in the Middle East. In fact there were 3 days in Lebanon where I went out each day site-seeing and had serious marriage proposals each day. I’d like to believe it had something to do with my young looks and nice smile; but I’m pretty positive it had more to do with my passport!

One of my suitors

I loved all of these oddities, even though I didn’t understand them all; but I did learn to appreciate them in some weird way.

Have you traveled to the Middle East – what oddities did you notice?

Your Comments

21 Comments so far

  1. Emma says:

    Many of these “oddities” are not confined just to Lebanon and the Middle East. You can also find them in South Asia. Particularly: driving style, full service gas stations, a lack of street addresses, the ability to drink from a bottle without touching it to your lips (waterfalling) and the marriage proposal thing.

  2. No addresses and the driving (though that is more just a Third World thing than anything else) are definitely two that I’m with you 100% on.

  3. I laughed all they way through your article. Mexico has exactly the same situation with speed bumps, although they’re more like speed mountains – really dangerous if you don’t see one coming and fail to slow down. All across Asia I find that traffic signs and lines on the road are only suggestions. I’ve actually gotten used to it. In Africa, not only were there no addresses, there were no signs like those you showed in the photo. Fortunately I had a friend/guide show me around Arusha, Tanzania, or I would have gotten hopelessly lost. Like Michael, I suspect it has more to do with being a third world country than anything else.

    • Sherry says:

      Oh – that’s right – I remember reading about your Mexico speed bumps! I agree – Asia is nutty about driving…but I still think some countries are worse than others. Lebanon was certainly one of them for me!

  4. Alisha says:

    Love this article. I was smiling the entire time. I think this is one of the best things about travel-taking time to recognize differences and being so amused by them. The whole shared taxi was the same in Iquique, Chile and it took me a while to get used to it! So happy the middle east has been such a great experience for you!

  5. Laura says:

    It’s funny that you mention the address thing. In Jordan (I know you’ve been so you may know this already) but they actually do have addresses… it’s just the system is only about 5 years old so a local really doesn’t know if you ask for directions referring to an address. I visited friends in Madaba and they live on the edge of the town and have no address. I just found this to be so bizarre! To give directions to their house it was like, head north from town, turn left at the fountain, turn right at the vegetable stand, take another right at the house with the guy with three wives… very confusing!

  6. Tom says:

    There’s no street signs here in South Korea, either! Not even the signs that point in the direction of a business. The government are trying to introduce them, but it only seems to confuse things more. I now have two addresses, but nobody has a clue where the newest one (with street address) is if I use it.

    Instead, it’s a case of “let’s meet on the street with the Baskin & Robbins and Dunkin’ Donuts next to the phone shop”…which is pretty much every main street in Korea, its streets being a mass of concrete monotony.

    • Sherry says:

      South Korea is one of the few countries I haven’t been to in Asia! But now since I know they have a Dunkin Donuts…maybe I better get my butt there soon! Thanks for stopping by my site and providing your insight of South Korea into the mix!

  7. Jad Kanounji says:

    here are the 2 cents of a lebanese guy who discovered your blog recently (and enjoys it a lot)
    most of the driving/parking issues stem from the war. you had to get where you needed to get fast, before the shooting starts, and get the hell out of there as fast as possible. this explains the “use every bit of space on the roads” and the unusual parking “techniques”.
    Addresse-giving also stems from war. most of the plates of street names were blown up/full of bullet holes, so u couldnt read them. the next best thing was “references”. main streets’ names are usually used, and then a landmark or reference to “zone in” on ur location. For example “Hamra street, the building facing Restaurant XYZ”.
    It’s sad to admit, but yes, the marriage proposals were after your passport more than you yourself. In a country where the war is always looming at the horizon, ppl with a second passport (european/american/canadian/australian) are evacuated first by their respective embassies,so, it’s kind of survival :P
    Now, stepping away from war, we’re a people who loves appearances: that’s why you find lots of mercedes and bmw’s, (hence all these car repair shops, since most people can’t afford a new car from the company, they buy used cars shipped from EU and US). This also explains the full service gas stations: us? seen filling gas? oh please! :P i bet you noticed this, especially with girls dressing up (as if they’re going to a gala dinner) for the simplest of trips (even just getting out to buy a pack of cigarettes).
    Last but not least: drinking from the bottle. This is because, in Lebanese tradition, and in some village up till now, we had the “jug” to drink from.
    Here’s a picture: http://www.alblebanon.com/albums/data/media/30/A_LEBANESE_JUG_FOR_FRESH_WATER.jpg
    This is used to “pour” water inside our mouth (the design helps somehow). we just still have that feat :)
    I hope I get to travel around someday, like you do, and see the oddities of the world :) already been to the gulf and to china, and i have a small list of my own :)

    • Sherry says:

      Jad – Thanks so much for filling in the blanks for me! I love writing these types of posts when people actually write in and explain some of this stuff! I LOVE the parking explanation – and it totally make sense after being there for a month! I did see a jug like that – but wasn’t daring enough to try it. Probably becuase I had my camera around my neck and the odds of keeping it dry was low.
      Thanks for following my Lebanon writing – hope to keep you entertained with my next destination – Sri Lanka.

  8. Shane says:

    I’m missing motorbikes doing wheelies from the traffic lights, big flags, boxes of tissues in every hotel room, food hidden under bread and the millions of ‘welcomes’.

    • Sherry says:

      Totally forgot about the motorbikes and wheelies…so true! I never stayed at a hotel – but I will take your word about it regarding the tissues! Thanks for reading!!

  9. Maria says:

    I’ve seen some of these events take place elsewhere in the world but glad you’ve recorded them here – nice reminder that it is a small world after all. *grin*

  10. Craig says:

    Like so many, I smiled through most of this post. The Jordanian speed bumps are the WORST. I rattled my teeth (and my rental’s suspension) more than a few times- it’s worse at night. Sometimes there are signs, but they may be a few meters or as much as a kilometer before the bump.

    Communal tea and coffee cups in shops. As an American, it took me a bit to get used to this- the idea of nearly everyone who comes through the shop using that cup before or after me… But when in Amman…

    Lots of other oddities, but I’m still in love with the region.

  11. Anonu says:

    I’ve lived in Lebanon for a good part of my life and have traveled to every single corner of the country (not hard when you’re only 10k sq kilometers)… I think I’ve only ever seen one gun shop there… so not sure where you have been travelling. The car problems in Lebanon are significant. Lack of a viable public transport system results in about 2 million cars for a population of 4 million. Traffic can be quite exhausting, especially during peak tourism months in the summer. The abundance of repair shops you mention might not be statistically abnormal, its just that you are bound to see a lot of them when driving on the main roads. also, @jad re: BMWs and Mercedes – yes, agreed, its a “showy” thing. but theres another very good reason to have these cars around: German engineering has withstood the test of time in Lebanon through bad roads, massive potholes, and 2-hour uphill drives followed by 2-hour downhill drives.

  12. rose says:

    Dear Sherry,
    I think ODDITIES is probably inappropriate word here since what is odd for someone, might be the commonest thing on earth to the next person. After all it is all about cultural differences. Many times (not in your writings) it involves observation about ‘third world’, ‘developing countries’. I’m sorry but I think oddities is a bit offensive.

    • Sherry says:

      It’s not meant to be offensive at all. Whenever I travel to new countries there are always things that strike me as odd. Just as you would have the same sensation if you came to NYC or to Oklahoma City. Heck – I find things odd when I go to Texas in my own country! One of my favorite things about travel is exploring these cultural differences and trying to understand them.

  13. Joyce says:

    Hilarious blog!! im a lebanese but i live in the uae, so yeah i understand how crazy u can find things in Lebanon…hehehehe! ur comments about the highway guy braking suddenly and the traffic lights r so funny and true! it takes me a few days to adjust to the craziness when i visit after a long time! So much beauty tho! :) Btw, if ur ever thinking of visiting the uae, i have a comfy couch ;)


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Sherry traveling the world

I'm Sherry, a corporate cube dweller turned nomadic traveler. I travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations to bring you unique travel experiences and photography. But it's not just about travel, it's also about life experiences of a middle age wanderer.
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