When To Go Independent in Travels? Tales of Trade & Silk Route Hospitality From The Middle East [Syria, Jordan, Oman, Morocco, Egypt + Socotra] with Azlin Ahmad

By Farihah
25 Min Read

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Credit: Azlin
Azlin in Socotra as the island reopened post-pandemic, photo provided to Muslim Solo Travel.

Recently, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, we got to chat with Azlin Ahmad, Chairperson of Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur Tour Program, on:

  • Her past travel tales in Silk & Trade Route countries like Syria, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Morocco. Some, she went alone, independently, and some, she went in groups, for reasons shared below.
  • The more exotic locations like Socotra, chaotic travels in India; and
  • Being an expatriate in The UAE and now in her own country of Malaysia.

Through her recalling special travel moments like the time she and her local host conversed bilingually (Arabic-English) about the unofficial border-barter system, like “suddenly getting a fridge from the back of a donkey”; and canceling travel plans because of a sudden shot reported in India; and traveling to Greece just to send out 100 mini Qurans to underage refugees when Eid-ul-Adha was fast approaching, Azlin’s travel stories is more than telling…

That she’s a traveler, not a tourist.

In her journeys, you’ll find traces of her law expertise and her passion for volunteering embedded in her many travel decisions.

If you are a Muslimah Solo Traveler keen on serious adventure beyond the unknown or perhaps the most remote places on earth, read on to hear stories from this well-traveled Malaysian lady and lessons we can apply in our future travels!

Visiting Jordan Solo Multiple Times Because of their Unmatched Hospitality

Petra, Jordan

“So… soo nice,” were the words she kept muttering, recounting her travel encounters with Middle Easterns who lived on the Trade / Silk Routes.

Whereby countries like Jordan, Syria, Morocco, and Oman exist.

Having traveled solo multiple times to Jordan, and a being one of the earliest countries she did so, Azlin described Jordan as, “A place I found really safe, Jordan. Really safe. They are so nice. Jordanians are very honorable people. This is what I found.“

Feeling touched by the warm hospitality, Azlin went to Jordan maybe 5-6 times.

She stopped visiting Jordan to look for other countries because by then, “everyone pretty much knew me,” she said.

Serendipitously Invited into the Local Homes – Typical Trade & Silk Route Middle Eastern Hospitality

Felucca in Egypt. Photo for illustration purposes

Wherever she went, Morocco, Jordan, Uzbekistan, Syria, she was somehow always invited by the locals to meet their female family member.

Either at the souk (traditional market in Arab-speaking countries), on days when she’s bored with the tourist destination shown by her tour guide, the usual question either from merchants she met, or her tour guide in the latter scenario would be “Would you want to meet my wife/daughter/mom?”

These people are strangers to her.

With an open mind, she went and said okay.

By the time she knew it, she would be served tea, a spread of food, and hospitality that would blow her mind. An invitation to their homes meant that she would get to experience what life truly was like there, and this included playing with the kids or just chatting, telling them where she was heading.

“This is the typical Middle Eastern hospitality”, a repeated response from Azlin every time she recounted her past travels there.

“It’s their culture, because all the culture on these routes, like Jordan, is on the trade route, Uzbekistan is on the Silk Route, so they know how to treat strangers and, they have compassion for travelers.”

Did you know? Syria was part of the Silk Road, whereby Aleppo was considered the center of international communication and commerce since at least 3rd BC. Also known for their largest and best-preserved bazaars in the region in ancient Syrian manuscripts. History has multiple times documented Syria as a prime destination for merchant caravans, in particular, a caravanserai (inns to welcome traveling merchants) connecting the Mediterranean and Central Asia up till the 18th century.

Recollection of Syria Before the War – Damascus & Syrian People in Winter & What Made Her Become an Expat in The UAE

Compound of Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Syria

Not all travels that started off on the wrong foot would indicate the same scenario for their ending.

Such was the case for her experience in Syria. She did not bother to research what winter was like prior to her arrival, and also thought it wouldn’t be “a big deal” as she had lived in England for a bit previously, too.

However, upon arrival at Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the situation proved to be otherwise.

Her foot suddenly stepped into a puddle of freezing water upon taking off her socks to enter the mosque’s courtyard, which made her feel frozen till the ends of her bones. “Walking with a runny nose, not a great start!” she recalled.

But due to the vigilant eye of a local, who could tell that she was in an “unhappy tourist” mode, this very perfume seller insisted she would come inside his shop located in the souk (market) connected to the mosque.

“Thank you. I said, no. I don’t wanna buy anything.” she told off the perfume seller, who later insisted to her to “No. sit down.”

“The perfume seller later called his friend, gave me a cup to drink, and asked me, are you good?

The moment she said she was good (from the cold), the seller let her go with, “Okay, you can go now.”

“So that is Syria. They are so nice, so nice,” Azlin wraps up her memory of the Damascus Mosque Winter Visit.

“That is why I moved to the Middle East.” she further explained how the gracious hospitality in the Middle East convinced her to be an Expat in The UAE for 12 years. The UAE then became her getaway to neighboring Middle Eastern countries as flights were just within a 4-hour window.

Back Again in Palmyra to Catch the Sunrise

Palmyra before it was destroyed by the war.

Palmyra, an ancient city in the eastern part of Syria known for its Roman ruins (now desecrated due to War), is one of the places that Azlin revisited.

The second time was seven-eight months later, simply because she “forgot to catch the sunrise the first time”.

This time, she met a Syrian who used to own the rooftop restaurant she ate at on her first visit.

“Somehow, we could share stories that made us laugh,” she explained how they conversed bilingually, him in Arabic and her in English.

A particular story by the Syrian host, over this second encounter, which also gave a glimpse into true cultural immersion, was about how common donkey is used to smuggle and exchange stuff between Lebanon and the Syrian border because of the porous border.

“You bring it to a point, and then you pat the donkey, and (the next day it) would come back. Suddenly you’ll get a washing machine. Ha ha ha ha. (Next time..) You’ll get a fridge.” Azlin laughed. An occurrence that would seem so bizarre and hard to imagine in the current modern, fast-paced world.

Rescued by an Observant Local After Getting Lost in Search of a Wadi (river bed) in Oman With Friends

Photo for illustration purposes. Wadi Bani Khalid in Oman

While some of the experiences are, according to her, a way to help the local folks earn tourism income, the majority of them do not want you to pay them. “That’s an insult,” a typical answer she’ll get from a Middle Eastern local when this happens.

Once, the same response was given to her by an Omani villager who helped her and her group of friends who were dehydrated and were close to getting a heatstroke after getting lost deep in the village, hiking for about an hour at the peak of summer, at 40-ish degrees, all in search for a ‘said wadi (river bed) nearby’.

“Kebab, Mountain Dew, were suddenly in front of our eyes when he opened his bag,” the local villager gave it to them after saying, “We saw you coming in, and you didn’t get back.”

Truly, when in accidental desperate measures, Allah SWT has the ultimate power to nudge His Creations to save you.

Navigating Uncharted Territories with Strict Travel Personal Policies & Her Advice for Muslimah Solo Travelers..

Credit: Azlin
Credit: Azlin

Having multiple times serendipitously entered the homes of Middle Eastern locals on the spot:

  • Be it in Chefchaouen, Morocco, where she was exploring a co-op alone and
  • And somewhere remote along The Nile when she and her friends were suddenly invited to visit the home of a felucca operator with the mere question, “Would you like to meet my wife?” which was located way off the grid along the Nile; or
  • In Uzbekistan..

Her tales are proof she has the guts to explore the unknown, but she also knows when to draw the line. Egypt was one of them.

“Egypt is great, but I wouldn’t recommend going alone as a female,” her stance together with India because of the too many uncertainties that are just difficult to navigate on one’s own.

“I once pretended I was married to a guy in our group” so that she wouldn’t be hassled in Egypt.

As a lawyer, Azlin is unapologetic about her personal policies in certain forms of travel.

A couple of them are (1) no travel during Ramadhan so she could focus on ibadah (worship), and (2) no train rides and nothing less than five-stars in countries known for mixed, complicated travel stories like India.

“I wouldn’t travel via the country’s train, wouldn’t go below five-stars, and would only eat in established restaurants there,” saying she couldn’t afford to lose time invested in travel if Delhi Belly (check out our Bali Belly recount here) were to happen.

Pre-hijab vs Post-hijab days – Egypt & Morocco

Credit: Azlin
Credit: Azlin

In caveat, she remarked how her time in Egypt was pre-hijab days, so she does wonder what it would be like to travel in Egypt being covered as her experience in Morocco, where she was fully covered, gave her the best time she could ever have.

Her travel buddy, who was ‘not covered’ in Morocco, went to explore different things while she explored Chefchaoen on her own. Much later on, her travel buddy came back and “had a different story from mine,” which largely centered on “not an enjoyable time”.

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Azlin credits her ‘intuition and past experiences’ to guide her to say yes or no to sudden invites in her travels. A skill a Muslimah Solo Traveler needs to hone to be able to explore safely.

Her advice to MSTers wanting to experience such similar proper immersion?

  • Think positive. Good thoughts reflect on your physical experience.
  • Also, know your boundaries. Your body can tell whether you can trust that person or not. Like the hadith “Souls are like soldiers grouped in ranks: those of them which are familiar with each other will be friends, and those which are unfamiliar will be in conflict.” (Sahih Muslim). Step away and do not proceed if you feel like your stomach clenches, a tell-tale sign you should heed.
  • She also mentioned that “intuition comes with one’s experience” too. And experiences, come from trusted word-of-mouth sources like family members.

Family Travel History & Past Experience on Passports & Spend More for Safety

Her past family travel history to India wasn’t a memorable episode per se; a family member once lost her passport on the train after a sudden blackout.

Her experience was later proven on her own travels in Udaipur and, supposedly, Jaipur in India.

“My guide said we are changing plans today because we are not sure about the safety concern, and the whole town had shut down. Everybody was afraid of riots. So he said, stay in the hotel. We’ll tell you what to do next.” she mentioned how her tour guide had to cancel their plans for the day, at the last minute for safety reasons.

“So, you know, this is the kind of thing, like, if I’m traveling alone, I think I’d really be in trouble because I wouldn’t know, right?” she emphasized how important it is to get a local guide in places of mixed reviews.

That being said, she also shared that there is “Nothing wrong with India, really. I thought it was an amazing place. Delhi is so modern. The malls are amazing. I did not feel unsafe, but it was more like fear of the unknown and, too many incidents of people having trouble with their stomach, that was what scared me more than anything else.”

Do you have experience in solo traveling as a Muslim woman? Share it with us in our Muslimah Solo Travelers Community Group here! If you don’t, that’s alright! Our growing Journeys repository and the Community is here to help you feel empowered making your own decision.

100 Quran & Volunteering in Conjunction of Eid ul-Adha in Greece

While Eid travel is not her thing, but if there’s one meaningful Eid abroad experience she had, it was spending Eid-ul-Adha in a school gym in Greece.

This experience wasn’t one that was planned. Her initial niyyah (intention) was to give 100 mini Qurans to underage refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan in Greece, but it was stopped because of its secular policy.

Finding herself in a dead end, she searched for solutions on the internet and put word out.

After much effort, lo and behold, she found someone who would happily disperse the Quran, Ana.

“She said okay, give her the Quran and she will find a way. She has her way, some back ways, so she has a network of Palestinians who will help.”

Stranded for Eid ul-Adha, Ana told her to join them for Eid.

“The Eid prayer took place in a school gym before school started, before school start around, like seven or eight in the morning.” she said the experience happened before school prior to the school’s morning period. “We just did our Eid salaah (prayers). And then after that, I went to her house and ate Greek food.”

Visiting Socotra Upon the Island’s Reopening, post-Covid

Credit: Azlin
Credit: Azlin

“The safest place in the Middle East that I think has been, which is really surprising.. is an island called Socotra.” Azlin opened up more, just as we thought her travel stories were over!

“They have not had Internet access until recently. They are really uncorrupted. So if you see the men, they are respectful.”

“They lower their gaze. They don’t try to hassle. They’re so nice. They’re so respectful of the woman, very little eye contact.” She mentioned how surprised she was to experience an atmosphere where the men in Socotra respecting the #HalalGap.

Her hiking trip to Socotra was approached similarly to her trip to Damascus – unprepared.

Credit: Azlin
Socotra’s unreal nature. Credit: Azlin

But she made the multiple hike journeys either way.

She recommends those who want to come to get fit because a lot of hikes are involved. Plus, the hikes there are quite a challenge as there are lots of sharp rocks and pebbles, which need one to have a firm foot because if not, a slide on the gravel anytime is possible.

“The environment is very unspoiled, nature is so pristine,” she commented on Socotra.

Plus, the tour guides would make an effort so the groups coming in to not bump into each other.

Would you like to join our upcoming trip as a Muslimah Solo Traveler? Waitlist here

On Halalness – Being Realistic On What’s Available in a Destination & Don’t Be Afraid To Ask!

“Depending on how particular you are about halal, you need to check on what is available, so at least find out what kind of food they have be realistic,” her advice to those traveling from Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia, where Halal is strictly regulated and easily accessible.

According to her, all EU countries have vegan options. The only thing to decide is “How deep do you want to dive in to see how vegetarian it is? Because, for me, if it’s vegetarian by EU standards, I think it is vegetarian because they have legal standards, right? But you just need to double-check the alcohol,” Azlin spoke like a lawyer this time.

She also emphasized on not being afraid to ask about the food. Especially in Western countries, where Halal certification won’t be plastered at a dining establishment, but the meat might be Halal.

An experience she had on this was her time in Athens, where she kept eating the same seafood every day, at the same spot on a tourist street.

But on the last night, passing by a different restaurant, the owner said, “Why haven’t you been coming here? Because our meat is Halal.” She replied to him ”I didn’t know, because I didn’t ask

A Lawyer’s Emphasis on Being Sensible

A well-traveled woman, Azlin’s advice on being sensible in one’s travels includes:

  • Not to tell your itinerary or update your social media as you travel. Keep it low and save it for later
  • Blending in with the crowds, like taking off jewelry in places that are chaotic like India, or not taking photos to avoid getting attention.
  • Knowing your limits and boundaries – “Dont do what you normally won’t do back in your home country in a place you travel”
  • Tone down on the need to overshare, even to the people you meet on the ground. “I once pretended I was married to a guy in our group” just so she wouldn’t be hassled in Egypt.
  • Checking on current foreign advice from credible resources.

As a lawyer in the profession, words like law, insurance, and policy kept being repeated in our conversation. Her final words to Muslimah Solo Travelers venturing somewhere in the world?

Leading the MosVi Program at Masjid Wilayah, Kuala Lumpur

Upon returning to Malaysia, after 12 years of being an expat in The UAE, Azlin immediately signed up for the MosVi (Mosque Visit) program at Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, for her “to have a routine back”.

“This is something I realized quite late in my life, why do we glorify the Western countries so much, right?” she mulls over, adding that when one reads Islamic Civilization, there’s just so much to read and see.

Now, outside of her legal duty, Azlin currently leads a team of diverse MosVi volunteers as the Chairperson at Masjid Wilayah Persekutuan (Federal Territory) Kuala Lumpur Tour Program, which she assumed position in 2019.

The masjid draws thousands of visitors per month.

The team of volunteer MosVi tour guides in this masjid comprises of professionals from different nationalities, such as Malaysian, Chinese, Japanese, South African, and more. Check out our guide for Muslimah Solo Travelers keen on visiting Masjid Wilayah while in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia here.

“I am considered an expat in my own country,” she chuckled upon disclosing that she currently works for an overseas law firm in KL.

All more than telling that she’s a traveler in life, work, play, and faith.

No matter where you are in the world, Azlin is a testament that one can still put on the traveler’s mindset in work, play, and volunteering endeavors, even within their home country!

Have interesting solo travel experience(s)? Planning to do so? Share yours in our Muslimah Solo Travelers Community Group!

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