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Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

The following information is compiled by a working group that exists within CGIS. Everything that has been created or curated was done so to encourage all travelers to consider their various identities as they pursue an international experience, but the research shouldn't end here. We do recognize that many of our quotes or examples have negative experiences or observations embedded within, even in the reflections that are mostly positive. We are acutely aware of how these comments can and have affected the perceptions and realities of other nations and wish to exercise caution and balance in providing an outlet for the perspectives and narratives of students and faculty. We are always available to discuss some of the narratives and examples discussed here with students or concerns they have during their pre-departure and on-site experience, and we encourage you to email CGIS should you have any questions, concerns, or would like an opportunity to contribute to the conversation.

American

“Every time I took a taxi in Morocco the driver would ask where I was from and when I said from the United States the next question the driver would ask would be ‘Do you know the first country to recognize the United States?’ And I would pretend that I did not know, even though the previous day a different taxi driver had told me the answer, and sure enough, I would hear all about how Morocco had been the first country to recognize the United States. It was these kinds of conversations that then turned into more interesting ones about Morocco and Moroccans’perceptions of the United States. Oftentimes, I was the first person that they had met from the United States who knew Arabic, but more importantly, I was perhaps the first person who had taken the time to hear their perspective and try to understand their point of view.” — Eric Fischer, University of San Francisco student

“Being a Guatemalan-American woman who blended in in Egypt because of my features had both positive and negative effects. At times, I was expected to follow certain Egyptian social norms because many thought I was Egyptian. Other times, my identity caused suspicion or excessive attention. Dealing with the way others view us because of preconceived notions or stereotypes enforced by the media can also be difficult. I ended up having to explain my identity a lot against the idea of what an ‘American’ looks or acts like. However, it gave me the perfect opportunity to represent the diversity that exists within the U.S. Explaining my dual culture, bilingual background, and the term ‘Latino’ is quite an honor. Literally you are a cultural ambassador with a responsibility to help shape other persons’ perspectives of the U.S., your state, university, culture, and religion, into a positive one.” — Violeta A. Rosales, DePaul University student

“One of the things I was most surprised by was the misconception many Moroccans have of America. I think this is largely due to the movies and music videos that ultimately become the depiction and showcase of American culture. Based on the majority of my conversations, many Moroccans think that America is far more liberal than it really is (and not in terms of politics). One of my friends told me that she thought that Americans were comfortable with their bodies and were often half/naked in public. She also said that she felt that we Americans have countless genders. I had to explain to her that while there is a large population of Americans who may fall into a more liberal lifestyle, there are still a LOT of Americans who don’t understand gender fluidity and who may not be as comfortable with showing a lot of skin.” — Isabella Dominique, AMIDEAST Education Abroad student

The percentage of American students participating in study abroad programs in the MENA is extremely low. The 2016 IIE Open Doors Survey found that only 2.2 percent of US students who studied abroad did so in the region, with Israel, Jordan, and Morocco receiving the vast majority of US students. Europe, for comparison, received around 55 percent of all US study abroad students in 2016 (Battenburg 2017; The 2019 Open Doors Report n.d.).

Many American students who opt to study abroad in the Middle East or North Africa are often intently focused on learning Arabic, and the US State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship for Arabic has certainly helped boost the numbers of US students studying abroad in the region. In addition, Americans studying in the MENA are often aiming to translate their experiences in the region into internships and long long-term career goals, typically with the Foreign Service or an international NGO, for example (Conlin 2010).

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Country-Specific Resources

Disability

“I love traveling to places that aren’t notably ‘wheelchair friendly. I also enjoy places that are just different from what I’m used to in the US or Germany. The Moroccan people are extremely kind and generous with their help. People are always willing to help push me or lift me up steps or even onto camels (more on that later). I have noticed this in Asian countries as well. Unlike India, no one asked me what was ‘wrong’ with me. I’m not sure if the country values more privacy or is just more familiar with disability. It’s kind of fun traveling in a country that truly believes anyone can do anything. They aren’t hesitant to tell me I couldn’t go somewhere because of stairs or that I couldn’t do something because of a liability. It’s a bit liberating and also nice to not have people be so nervous about helping me or being around me.” — Grace Kestler of The Rolling Escapade blog

“Before you go, make sure you have enough medication to get you through the next few months. Make sure that your medication is legal in the country you’re traveling to. That’s another thing you should be aware of: some countries have medications that are flat-out illegal, but others require some extra paperwork to enter the country. For instance, I learned that one of my migraine medications was a controlled substance here in the UAE. I talked to my doctors and, thankfully, it was a medication that we decided I could function without for a few months. I could have filled out the necessary paperwork to bring it into the country, but it turned out to be too much of a hassle. Make sure you do your research! Traveling with a disability or with extra accommodations can be nerve-wracking. It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s pretty stressful. But it can be done, if you take the necessary precautions and take care of yourself in the process.” — Safia Hattab, Hope College student

Comprehensive, reliable information and data on disabilities in the MENA is lacking. Among the public, there is a general lack of awareness concerning disability issues, rights, and protections. In addition, people with disabilities, besides being widely marginalized and stigmatized, frequently face mobility and exclusion barriers. In Morocco, for instance, people with disabilities are commonly perceived negatively and it is widely believed that disabled people are burdens to their families and represent a tax on society as a whole (Rohwerder 2018).

The physical and social barriers that the disabled face in the region are in part a result of rigid institutional structures, as well society as a whole stereotyping and marginalizing individuals who are physically and/or mentally different from the majority. Individuals with disabilities are invisible and only thought of in terms of their disabilities (Shenker 2009).

In general, the region does not have a developed infrastructure that can accommodate individuals with special needs and mobility constraints. For instance, few public facilities feature ramps or elevators. Sidewalks, if existent, tend to be uneven with high curbs, and public areas frequently have narrow passageways with steep stairs. In addition, traffic can be quite dangerous for pedestrians. In Morocco, for example, buildings are not required to be retrofitted to ensure accessibility. In addition, building codes that ensure accessibility in new buildings are rarely enforced. Most accessible locations tend to be in more developed areas, such as hotels and tourist sites that receive international visitors (Lonely Planet Egypt Accessible Travel n.d.; Lonely Planet Morocco Accessible Travel n.d.; Rohwerder 2018).

On the other hand, Israel is probably the most accessible country in the region regarding accessibility and access to public amenities is near that of the US and Canada. Most accommodations must have at least one room equipped for wheelchair users. Also, a number of tourist attractions are quite accessible (Lonely Planet: Israel Accessible Travel n.d.)

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Gender

“Street harassment was another concern that many people drew to my attention before I came to Morocco. People warned me that I would be constantly catcalled and need to be accompanied by a man in the streets. They warned that if my head were not covered, I would be inviting extreme harassment. I, however, did not find this to be the case.  Men do say things on the streets, but they yell things like ‘Welcome! Welcome!’ and ‘hello, beautiful girl!’ Compared to the vulgar things American men say to women on the streets, I did not find these things to be all that bad. Unlike in the States, the men never followed me or tried to touch me. I also found that it did not matter if my head was covered or not. Fully covered Moroccans women got just as many ‘Zwinas! (Beautiful!)’ as I did. Overall, I think people greatly exaggerated the ‘street harassment.’ I think that as long as you dress in a culturally appropriate way (e.g. no short-shorts and crop tops), you shouldn’t feel too uncomfortable in your daily life in Morocco.” — Chloe Zagrodzky, IES student

“I feel like I can’t have a conversation like I can’t just like shoot the breeze with an Egyptian man that I meet or talk to because it might come across as something, even if it doesn’t, it’s just like everything, I’ve been warned so many times, like oh, you can’t just like strike up conversations with men, because they’re going to take it the wrong way, um, whereas, the guys I know, the American guys I know, especially, there are a few of them that do have very good language skills, like Arabic language skills, they can, and they’ve had just like, random conversations with people on the street corners and stuff, so they’ve had more of an opportunity, or it’s more acceptable for them to like go up to a random Egyptian man and like talk to them.” — Tasha, a student interviewed in the EuroSLA Monographs Series

“As a woman acclimated to living in what has traditionally been called ‘the West,’ it was a little shocking to confront situations in which I thought women lived according to more conservative standards of living. For example, most of the host mothers I’ve met rarely leave the house and devote their time to the home and the family. I have never seen my host father or brothers help my host mother with cooking, laundry, or household cleaning, and I notice that after every meal they leave the remnants of their food and dirty dishes on the table for my host mom to clean. In general, I feel that there is a significant amount of pressure on young women to behave and comport themselves well. I’ve even felt the pressure to dress in a discreet, respectful manner, lest I be deemed human or shameful in public. All of this exists within the context of a catcalling culture that threatens to bring me and fellow female students to tears when we’re shouted at on the street or followed home after sun-down.” — Brianna Gist, IES student 

Women have historically faced widespread discrimination and marginalization in many parts of the MENA, faring worse than women in other areas of the globe on a host of social, economic, legal, and political measures. Traditional gender roles and perspectives, coupled with discriminatory laws and beliefs, have resulted in unequal rights and social status for women. 

For example, the Georgetown University Women, Peace, and Security Index (2019) shows that all 18 MENA countries, except Israel, are below the global average and 10 countries are among the world’s bottom 12 performers regarding gender-based legal discrimination. Saudi Arabia ranked the lowest globally for legal discrimination against women (Women, Peace, and Security Index 2019/20 2019)). In addition, regional challenges such as authoritarian governments, civil wars, and poor economic growth, all of which disproportionately affect women, have hindered the advancement of women (Women in the Middle East and North Africa: Issues for Congress 2020). 

Solo female travel in the MENA is seen as an oddity and is relatively uncommon. Solo women travelers should be prepared for a great deal of attention and questions from curious locals. This attention, often unwanted, can lead to higher levels of stress and exhaustion (Lee 2019).

Female travelers in the region typically face a wider range of concerns than male travelers, as regional cultural and religious customs tend to impact women more than men. Egypt and Saudia Arabia pose the greatest concern for women travelers. Sexual harassment, verbal harassment, physical assault, and rape/attempted rape consistently top the list of incidents that most women travelers are concerned about in the region.

It is important that women travelers are aware of and understand local laws and norms when traveling in the region in order to reduce incidents of these types of very real concerns. For instance, it is suggested that women not travel alone, dress modestly in public, and avoid engaging in small talk or making eye contact with male strangers, which can be misinterpreted and often lead to unwanted attention (Female Travel in the Middle East & North Africa 2016).

General Resources

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Heritage Seekers

“I am half Egyptian, Muslim, don’t cover my hair and speak minimal Arabic. This led to me having a very different study abroad experience from my friends of other ethnicities. ‘Where from?’ is one of the most common questions I get from taxi drivers. It is a complicated question because I have to parse if they are asking me why I look the way I do, or why I talk the way I do. If it is the former, the answer is ‘my father is Egyptian.’ If it is the latter, the answer is ‘America.’ When I visited Egypt, this question was even more complicated, because I have picked up a Jordanian accent in Arabic, so there was an additional possible answer to the question of why I talk the way I do. I tend to hesitate on this question, trying to guess the real question, and more often than not guess wrong. Very often, people here will look at me and at the very least suspect that I am Arab, and will often default to speaking to me in Arabic, and to my white friends in English, even if we are together. However, since I am only half Egyptian, other times I pass as simply white, especially since I do not wear a hijab. Most Muslim women in Jordan do cover, and so there is sometimes an expectation that if you are not covered, you are either not Muslim or not Arab.” — Megan N., CIEE student

“While our first week of traveling did little to spark any childhood memories for me, it was the cool lull of our quiet apartment that afternoon that brought me back to my past. I felt an odd sense of peace and belonging as I sat in our living room, looking out our large window onto the hushed streets below. I was reminded of balmy afternoons in my grandmother’s house in Tetouan, where I napped on the couch beside my younger brother after spending a long morning shopping in the markets with my mother and aunt, or after going sight-seeing with my father in his childhood neighborhood. The sights, sounds, and sensations of my childhood summers in Morocco came flooding back to me in an instant, and though I was far from what I had then considered ‘home,’ I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was my home.” — Maya Curt, ISA student

“While I was excited to test out my (very limited) Arabic and experience a new country (and continent!), I didn’t expect my excursion to Morocco from Spain — where I am studying abroad — to have such an impact on my cultural perspective and appreciation. I didn’t start truly appreciating my family’s culture until I was older, but catching a glimpse of a similar culture helped me imagine what my dad’s childhood was actually like and reminded me of the pieces of his culture that I grew up with. From the abundant use of bread in meals to the fashionable socks and flip-flops, I was constantly seeing images from my own childhood. The nostalgia was overwhelming. Not only was I longing to be surrounded by my family and far-away relatives, I was also regretting my lack of immersion in Syrian culture. As someone who has learned to appreciate and adore the beauty of different cultures and ethnicities, I realized how big of a mistake it was for me to dismiss my dad’s culture. I preferred to be a ‘normal’ American girl, rather than enjoying my heritage and understanding the beauty of diversity. Because of this, I’m a Syrian who doesn’t speak Arabic and has missed out on understanding core parts of Syrian culture and history.” — Katia Faroun, AIFS student

Heritage-seeking students often choose to study abroad in a certain country and culture "not because it is unfamiliar and new, but rather because it is somewhat familiar". Studying abroad in a country of ancestry or cultural heritage can be an opportunity to connect with relatives as well as learn about one’s family history and culture. 

Heritage seekers frequently encounter a range of emotions and experiences, expected as well as unexpected. Students may find themselves being identified primarily as an American or a non-local. In addition, generalizations about their racial or ethnic identities might arise, or they may have to confront varying expectations from family and community members regarding connection to ancestral culture. Heritage seekers frequently discover a newfound sense of belonging and a greater understanding of their own identity (Heritage Seekers n.d.).

A 2012 study found that the number of heritage-seeking students in the MENA was relatively low. In fact, only 1 in 10 study abroad students in the area cited “ethnic ties to the region” as a reason for selecting the MENA as a study abroad location. This is less than the number of students in another study abroad destinations citing this factor. A number of first-generation Arab American students were surveyed, but there was no evidence suggesting that these students were studying in the region for heritage-seeking reasons (Lane-Toomey and Lane 2012).

Israel may see greater numbers of heritage-seeking students compared to the rest of the region with many international students choosing to study there in order to strengthen their Jewish identity and learn more about their Jewish heritage. The majority of these students are from North America (Donitsa-Schmidt and Vadish n.d.).

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LGBTQ+

“I'm queer but pretty straight passing, so I wasn't uncomfortable. But I did feel like I couldn't be outwardly and actively be that aspect of my identity. In Tel Aviv, although it's painted as ‘progressive’ with LGBTQ+ flags everywhere, I didn't feel comfortable with how pinkwashing Tel Aviv was, and I felt as if that aspect of my identity is being manipulated.” — CGIS Alumnx

The legality and acceptance of homosexuality vary through the region. Israel, especially in Tel Aviv, is more accepting of LGBTQ+ identities and homosexuality is legal in the country. In neighboring Muslim-majority countries, individuals are more likely to find a semi-visible presence of LGBTQ+ communities in large cities like Amman, Jordan, and Ankara, Turkey, countries where homosexuality has been decriminalized (Lonely Planet n.d. -b). Homosexuality is illegal in Morocco and the UAE, among many other countries in the region (Equaldex n.d.). In some countries, like Egypt, homosexuality is not technically a crime, but under debauchery and public morals laws LGBTQ individuals have been prosecuted and sentenced to prison for up to 17 years. Additionally, the Egyptian government in 2017 began a massive crack-down on the LGBT community, arresting 57 people (Lonely Planet n.d. -a).

Legality does not equal acceptance. In a large-scale 2019 survey, individuals across the Middle East were surveyed on a variety of social issues. When asked if they considered homosexuality acceptable, 21% of Moroccans and only 7% of Jordanians, 6% of Lebanese, and 5% of Palestinians agreed it was acceptable (Arab Barometer 2019).

While Tel Aviv has a reputation as a queer haven in Israel, travelers should note that they may have a more difficult time in more conservative religious areas, such as Jerusalem (Frommers n.d.). Homosexuality is also decriminalized in Turkey and, but again it is important to be mindful that a conservative population, in conjunction with recent Turkish leaders’ moves to politicize LGBTQ+ identities, have and kept at bay or eroded freedoms for LGBTQ+ individuals (Queer in the World n.d.). In many MENA countries, the local government and people dismiss the concepts of “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” altogether. In Morocco, for instance, it is commonly believed that lesbians simply do not exist in the country. On top of being stigmatized and criminalized, members of the LGBTQ+ community are also, in many instances, actively marginalized and ignored (Lonely Planet. n.d. -a; Human Rights Watch 2018).

While in the region, it is advised that members of the LGBTQ community use common sense, discretion and avoid public displays of affection. It is also important to note behaviors which would signal someone is likely gay in the U.S. — such as two men hugging, holding hands, kisses on the cheek — do not indicate that those men are LGBTQ+ in the Middle East (Kylie Jelley n.d.).  If interacting with locals who are LGBTQ+, students should note that many are only open about their identity in certain spaces. It is important to avoid outing anyone if they are keeping their LGBTQ+ identity secret from family, friends, and/or their workplace (Queer in the World n.d.).

General Resources

Country-Specific Resources

Mental Health

“Traveling somewhere new can make you feel small. Your ability to communicate makes you feel as though you’re a kid again. Making mistakes, uncertain, and getting lost constantly. Here’s something I’m reminding myself of: it’s okay to not understand or be misunderstood, it doesn’t mean you should stop trying to do both. Continue challenging yourself. Question that which you do not understand. Ask yourself the tough questions, maybe you’ll come up with answers. It’s okay if you don’t. … People often think they can run away from their problems. The more you travel, the more you’ll realize that your woes will show their faces in shore lines and night skies and in the middle of an empty coffee shop in Rabat, Morocco.” — Arlinda Fasliu, SIT student

As in many locations, there are stigmas against those with mental health challenges. In Israel, those with depression are often considered as more “guilty” of their condition (Myers JDC Brookdale 2007). In Jordan, partly due to the stigma toward mental health disorders and discussing them openly, the number of psychiatrists in Jordan is staggeringly low (Suha Maayeh 2008). Even those who can seek treatment often do not because of the stigma against it. Religion can be a complicating factor when discussing things such as depression and suicide, as suicide is considered a sin in Islam, a fact which can even skew numbers of suicide attempts toward underreporting (Tom de Castella 2019).

Despite the hushed nature of conversations around mental health in the MENA region, these populations still face many health challenges. For example, forty-two percent of Jordanians indicated that they were frequently stressed, one of the higher countries polled by Arab Barometer. Egyptians, at the lower end of the spectrum level, reported at 27% to often or most of the time feeling stressed (Arab Barometer 2020). Countries which are now facing the devastating and lasting outcomes of war or conflict are far more likely to experience mental health risks, even more so than countries that are currently at war. Once the unity of a common cause and group fades after a war or an event like the Arab Spring, depression can emerge (Tom de Castella 2019). Countries in MENA dealing with the fallout of conflict have a higher level of overall depression than current locations of unrest.

Owing to this knowledge, students traveling to the Middle East and North Africa are recommended to be cautious about talk of mental health. Locals may prefer not to discuss the topic and students may find it best to gauge their feelings on mental health before sharing any personal concerns. As everywhere, however, the local population is not a monolith and some may appreciate an open, stigma-free discussion of mental health.

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Religion & Spirituality

“I received a significant amount of unwanted attention and was questioned a lot about my involvement in Israel and Palestine at the Israeli airport because of my Arabic name. I was ‘randomly’ selected a couple of times for further checking and was also given a different colored sticker which identified my bag as one that may need extra attention at every airport I stopped at.” — CGIS Alumnx

As the birthplace of the three major Abrahamic religions –– Judaism, Christianity, and Islam –– religion can be a contentious and important topic in the Middle East and North Africa. Religion has driven conflict in the region as well as brought people together for religious heritage and pilgrimage. But it is undeniable that the region is the most fraught religiously than any other in the world (Katayoun Kishi and Angelina E. Theodorou 2016).

Israel/Palestine is perhaps the most complicated of the countries in the region when it comes to religion, as there are multiple religious claims to the land itself. Israel/Palestine sits high on lists of countries with the most religious hostility (Katayoun Kishi and Angelina E. Theodorou 2016). As noted in the above quote, students who are from Arab and Muslim backgrounds are often profiled by the Israeli government for further scrutiny.

However, conflict because of religion is not a guarantee in the region. In Morocco, the Muslim-majority population often speaks proudly of the Jewish roots of their country (Sarah Mamlet 2019). Lack of overt conflict does not always mean there won’t be underlying issues though, as the student in this Berkley Center article demonstrates when talking about antisemitism found in Morocco.

The religiosity of this region can also be very exciting for certain students. For Jewish and Muslim students, they have the potential to see their cultures represented in the majority in a country, perhaps for the first time, and participate in more nuanced conversations about their religion than in the U.S. (CIEE 2019). Another thing that Jewish and Muslim students may find traveling in a MENA country is a diet more aligned with their religious dietary restrictions on certain foods (Aleezeh Hasan 2018).

Overall, students with religious identities should do research ahead to learn more about attitudes in their country, but also be open to the possibility of learning more about their or others’ religions while abroad.

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Country-Specific Resources

Students of Color

“I received a significant amount of unwanted attention and was questioned a lot about my involvement in Israel and Palestine at the Israeli airport because of my Arabic name. I was ‘randomly’ selected a couple times for further checking and was also given a different colored sticker which identified my bag as one that may need extra attention at every airport I stopped at.” — CGIS Alumnx

“I'm East Asian, and I've been counting the number of times random strangers [in Jordan] have called out "ni hao" to me. They've also shouted ‘Japan? China?’ and once a man driving a car pulled up to the sidewalk where I was walking to inquire as to where I'm from. Given that it was at night, as well as the gender roles we have to play in Jordan, that was a bit scary. People will also follow up with ‘But where are you REALLY from’ when I answer that I'm American, something that would not fly in the US.” — CGIS Alumnx

Race and ethnicity are viewed differently than in the U.S. For Black Jordanians, to be Jordanian is to be not Black, as being Black is associated with African people and foreignness (Kawther Berhanu 2018). Jordan, like France, considers itself a “color-blind” country, even in the face of anti-Blackness common in the country (Thaddeus Bell 2011). In Morocco, a Black student who faced regular racial harassment found that many locals do not agree that Morocco is a racist country (Jada Bullen 2015). In Jewish Israel, Jews of color have often been treated differently than European/American Jews, as seen in the struggles of Ethiopian Jews in Israel (Mustafa, Deveci, 2019). In contrast, this Black traveler found Egypt as a welcoming place to travel (Travel Noire 2018b).

For students of color, Israel can at times be a tricky place to enter and exit. The Israeli government openly racially profiles travelers of color, especially those of Middle Eastern descent. People get ranked based on their friendliness to Zionism on a 1-6 rating scale (Charlotte Silver 2014). Such instances, as mentioned by the CGIS student above, in which an Arab student was pulled aside, are unfortunately a common occurrence (Travel Noire 2018a).

East Asian students may have some difficulties in Jordan as “Particularly in urban areas, the domestic staff is often of Asian descent (Philippines, Nepal, Sri Lanka). As such, students from Asian backgrounds may be perceived to be from a “lower” class.” (Diversity Abroad n.d.). Like the student in the quote from Jordan mentioned, it is common for people from MENA countries to question Asian descent students about their background or call them “China” (Living the Dream 2019).”

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