Middle East

The Middle East and me

Here I am, staring at the pots full of paints used for dyeing leather, on a roof in the Moroccan town of Fez. It was one of those moments I felt thrilled with my work, and my region.

When did it start, this love between me and the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa)? Probably very quietly and gradually when I started having friends from those countries, but definitely when I met the Dutch-Moroccan journalist and radio maker Ali Lazrak, who was to be my life companion for over twenty years in Amsterdam.

We both loved traveling, and although for many years we could not go to his former home country for fear of the punishment by then King Hassan for his critical opinion, we travelled to many other places. When I became the foreign editor of the Dutch newspaper Trouw, he often accompanied me on my reportage trips abroad. He was my translator and my companion – the latter can be a welcome feature for a woman in my region.

I am often asked how I manage to work in a region where the position of women is so different from what we are used to in the West. Where fathers, brothers and husbands still decide on all aspects of women’s lives. Where the lives of the sexes are often segregated in such a way that the public domain is populated almost solely by men. Do I like that? No, but I accept it as a fact. If I want to work here, I have to leave my feminist past at home and try to blend in as best I can. And yes, I do wear a scarf if that is a normal practice locally, or if it makes things safer for me to operate.


Being a foreign woman in the Middle East has its pros. It means that you can move around in both worlds, the male and the female ones. I can sit with the men, on the floor of the guest room, but I can also enter the kitchen and talk to the women. My male colleagues cannot. I become a sort of androgynous creature, while they remain simply male.

But this does not explain why I like working in the Middle East so much that it has even affected my book writing. First of all, there’s never a dull moment. The Middle East is a reporter’s paradise, as there is always something going on. Stories are there for the picking. But just as important is the attitude of most people towards guests. Hospitality is rule number one. It can be hard to refuse the meal that is almost always offered after an interview – sometimes just out of hospitality, but far more often because people really mean it. They feel honoured to have you as their guest and want to show that.

Generally, people are far more polite than they are in the West. The flowery Arabic language is very much part of this; where people keep throwing in little endearments like ‘my friend’, ‘my love’, ‘my life’, the tone is often less harsh than in the West. And of course especially more so than in my home country, where we are all so direct. I have had to lose some of that directness, for it is considered impolite in the Middle East.

Even in the daytime cars would stop and young men tried to chat me up

Of course there is also a downside. In most of the Middle East, women cannot live alone for instance. They have to get married before they are 25 years old, and then the protection for her is transferred from the father to the husband. A woman who lives alone is vulnerable; it is interpreted as her being a loose woman and men will turn up at her doorstep with demands. Even for me, as a single Western woman, many men thought that I would be available for the sex they could not get unless they were married. Which meant that if I decided to walk somewhere on my own, even in the daytime cars would stop and young men would start to chat me up.

The other downside is the violence. Perhaps that is a result of the fact that men have to protect their women. And their land, of course. It certainly is a result of the macho culture, in which power and money are central. With many guns around, it leads to threatening situations and shoot outs.

All this does not put me off. It makes life more interesting, especially for a writer. The Middle East is more colourful, it smells stronger, the light is brighter. It inspires me.