11 Things in the Middle East that Surprised Me

April 14, 2011 21 Comments »

Every culture 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.

One of the things that stood out to me was the culture of smoking shisha around the Middle East. Everywhere you went you would hear the whirr of someone inhaling on a hooka pipe. Even though it stood out to me, I had been exposed to hooka pipes before. I understood the draw.

However, there were many other things that stood out to me that I just didn’t understand. 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 are a few more Middle Eastern Oddities I came across during my winter in the Middle East.

Things in the Middle East That Surprised Me

1. Guns, Lingerie, and Balloons

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

2. Car Repairs

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

3. Speed Bumps on the Highway

In Jordan, I was stunned when we were driving down an interstate highway with exit ramps, and out of nowhere speed bumps appeared along the road. Generally, there was very little warning so when the driver slammed on the brakes 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.

4. Right of Way

Speaking of driving, the Middle East seemed to have its own unusual set of rules…or basically a complete lack of rules. In most places, there were 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, car 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.

5. Stop Lights without Lights

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, stoplights 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

6. Drinking From the Same Bottle

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 takes a drink directly from the bottle without 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.

Discover the food of Lebanon

7. No Street Addresses

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.

Middle East Addresses
No addresses, just arrows.

8.  Full Service

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.

9. Parking Chaos

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 in doubt – defer to the locals…they know how things work.

10. Service Taxis

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 its 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.

11. Marriage Proposals

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 sightseeing 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 Middle Eastern surprises, 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 things surprised you?

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