Traveler Finds Welcome Mat Out in Arab World

Times Staff Writer

After traveling the Arab world from Morocco to Saudi Arabia for three years, my fears and phobias are a thing of the past. The graciousness and hospitality of the people have won me over, and the stomach butterflies that used to take wing in each new airport encounter are well behaved.

But if you are striking off on your first trip to Morocco or Egypt or some other Arab destination, a little guidance may be in order because tradition is less tolerant here, travel a bit more stressful than the tourist brochures like to admit. I mean, it wasn't in London or Paris that I learned to soak my lettuce in Clorox.

The first thing to mention, which many guidebooks don't, is that women must dress conservatively in an Islamic society, with arms, shoulders and most of the legs covered. I shudder every time I see a tourist in shorts and halter or even tight jeans, knowing that stares, pinches and wandering hands await her on the crowded streets of Cairo or Tunis.

Can You Drink the Water?

And the second thing is that an Israeli visa in your passport will prevent you from entering most Arab countries. Egypt, which signed a peace treaty with the Jewish state in 1979, is an exception and many Western tourists include Egypt and Israel on the same itinerary. (Their capitals are linked by a flight every day except Saturday.)

A lot of visitors have passed through my apartment overlooking the Nile in Cairo the last few years and by now I know their uncertainties and their questions. Are the streets safe? Can we drink the water? Any chance of getting a martini? Are the hotels decent?

My guests always seem to relax when I tell them the streets of Arab cities are probably the safest in the world. That there is a Sheraton, Hilton or Marriott in practically every capital. And that as long as you drink bottled water, there is usually no problem eating or drinking anything served in five-star hotels.

Martinis may be a bit risky if you like them extra dry, but alcoholic beverages are served in all hotels on the Middle East's tourist path.

The most popular tourist destinations for Americans are Morocco and Egypt, and I wouldn't contest either choice. But if you are just putting together an itinerary, consider a few days in another country as well, for in terms of people, architecture, landscape and life styles, the Arab world is as diverse as the colors of a desert sunset.

Oldest Living City

San'a, the capital of North Yemen, is said to be the oldest living city in the world and is actively promoting tourism. Tunisia has 1,000 miles of beaches and superb hotels. The souk (market) in Damascus, Syria, is a treasure chest of carpets and brass. Bahrain in the Persian Gulf, site of the Dilman civilization that flourished 4,000 years ago, provides Western tourists with a 72-hour visa at the airport. In an average month, 1,100 Americans take advantage of this new policy.

Still, Morocco is my favorite, and it remains the easiest introduction for a Westerner to the world of Arabs and Islam. It has a softness to its landscape, an extroverted, cosmopolitan view of life, and three of the four best hotels in the Arab world--La Mamounia in Marrakech, El Minzah in Tangier and Palais Jamai in Fez. (The fourth is the Mena House near the Pyramids in Cairo.)

Marrakech, the town no one forgets, is in the foothills of the snow-covered Atlas Mountains and was once a crossroads for the great camel caravans that opened the Sahara.

Most of the camels are gone but the caravans are still here, caravans of tourists attracted by the pleasing climate and lush countryside. They, however, haven't discovered anything that Morocco's king, Hassan II, didn't already know; he has been wintering at his palace here for years.

Largest Souk in North Africa

Just at the entrance to Marrakech's souk in the old walled city (the largest souk in North Africa) is a marvelous spectacle known as Jamaa el Fna square. It is, in effect, a never-ending carnival whose participants live on the coins collected from Moroccans and tourists. If you want to take pictures, have a pocketful of coins, because you are expected to pay for the privilege.

Here are mimes and scribes and old women who read fortunes from cards. Here you can have a tooth pulled for 10 cents by a free-lance dentist who has a bucketful of teeth to show he knows how to handle his pliers. (It's best to have your dentistry done before leaving home, though.) Here there are clowns, acrobats and storytellers, each performing in scattered circles across the square, waiting for a crowd to gather around them, as one always does.

In Morocco, as elsewhere in the Arab world, the exciting aspect of being a tourist is that this is an entree to an unusual culture. The music, the dress, the language, the history and the customs are different from any in the world. Hospitality is the essence of Arab tradition and the Arabs offer it generously.

To survive and enjoy, you only need learn one Arabic word, shogran. It means thank you.

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