Growing up I always dreamed of visiting the ancient sights of Egypt, venturing into the sands of the Sahara, and seeing the many Roman ruins dotting the Levant. Like Lawrence of Arabia or Getrude Bell, I imagined myself on expeditions down the Nile or traveling on horseback through the vast plains of the Arabian peninsula.
Now a teenager, I have explored this amazing region with my family, going to places people suggest not to go to and finding cities and places that are no where near what the news describes them as.
For the past three weeks we have traveled to Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia. Coming from a Lebanese family and always hearing about “the old country,” I was so excited to finally experience my cultural heritage first hand. While we were there Hariri, the prime minister, resigned and according to the media, Lebanon was in chaos. Yet we were there, and felt no fear or danger whatsoever except for some very crazy driving every now and then.
We visited the beautiful seaside village of Byblos with its Roman ruins and citadel, saw the many sights in Beirut, drove through the Chouf and Lebanon mountains, saw the famous Cedar trees and drove out to see the biggest and most intact Roman ruin sight I have seen – Baalbeck. In all of these places we felt safe and welcomed by locals.
During our visit to Baalbeck, we were in Hezbollah territory, and were only 9 miles from the border of Syria. Sure, there were some checkpoints, but we didn’t feel scared or in danger at any time. For me personally Syria is a country that I hold deeply in my heart (after working closely with Syrian refugees) and so it was heartbreaking and exciting for me at the same time. Even thought we were next to Syria, I felt safe. We saw the road where people were driving to cross the border to go to Damascus an hour away and even had delicious cookies that were brought over from Damascus the day before.
We saw Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shiite Muslims all hanging out and walking together. Students and kids of different religions all eating at restaurants together and studying together. Churches and mosques were built next to each other and beyond the news, what I saw in Beirut was a real feeling of friendship and peace between people.
I finally got to try traditional Lebanese food and although it was a bit more expensive than expected, it sure was good. Hummus, kibbeh, moutabal, and tabouleh were on the table at every meal – and I was happy.
Next stop was Egypt, a place I have been to 4 times now and I consider like my second/third home. We stayed in Cairo for one week finally taking time to experience and see more of this city that we love so much. Cairo can be overwhelming the first time you visit, the traffic and busy streets, the trash and people everywhere, and the overall chaos. But that is exactly why I love it. I call it the lovable chaos. I was so happy to really dive into the culture and feeling of Cairo – exploring more of the downtown on foot and even taking the metro and then a local mini bus to reach Giza.
We stayed for hours in the Egyptian museum gazing at all the artifacts (including King Tutankhamun treasures), strolled through the many decorated streets of the Khan-el-Khalili Souq, saw the Coptic and Islamic neighborhoods, and again spent the day at the Pyramids of Giza. This trip the city finally felt like home – knowing where to go, what streets to take, and what tourist scams people use. It was a great feeling to be so comfortable in the place I used to only dream about.
For anyone wondering about whether or not to go to Egypt, my advice is GO! Go and experience the beauty of this amazing country. I cannot call myself an expert, but I have been there many times and each time it keeps getting better. No matter who you are or where you come from, the history of Ancient Egypt and the endless sights will dazzle you and make you fall in love with the country.
Also, you will meet such friendly people! Everywhere you go, you will meet kind and excited locals who want to talk to you and take pictures with you. The heart and soul of Egypt comes to life through its kind and fun people.
The next destination – Tunisia. Arriving in Tunisia, I didn’t know much about it. I had heard of the Star Wars sets and pretty beaches, but not much more. During our 10 days here we have moved almost everyday, seeing different cities and places. The culture of Tunisia has greatly surprised me for the better – I have learned all about the Berber and nomadic tribes, the history of powerful Roman, Carthinigian, and Byzantine empires, and the modern cultural aspects of daily life.
Tunisia has so much beautiful art, clothing, jewelry, pottery, and architecture. Sitting between a Mediterranean coastal paradise and the mystical sands of the Sahara, it has something to offer for everyone. We have visited ancient Roman sights, hiked canyons that were film sets for Star Wars and Indiana Jones, relaxed at crystal blue water beaches, and watched a golden sunset out in the dunes of the Sahara Desert.
During our trip to visit the Star Wars sets and the Sahara, we were 10 miles from the border of Algeria, and yet felt completely safe. The landscape was stunning, the dunes and camels were like out of a movie, and we had one of the most memorable experiences in Tunisia.
For a long time, I heard that Tunisia was not safe to travel to, but I have felt nothing but safe here. They are really trying to bring back tourism and they deserve it – it is an amazing place! We rented a car and drove from north to south and back, and never had any problems. The roads are clean and easy to navigate, the locals are friendly, and the food is great! Plus, if you really like spicy food you will love it here.
So, after these great experiences and memories I want to say, do not be afraid to travel. Do not be afraid to come and see these magical places first hand. All of these countries have so much to offer and they are waiting for people to come. The beauty and magic of the Middle East waits for you!