Tips for Travelers to Muslim Countries

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Hi Guys and a happy Monday to you! Hope you had a relaxing weekend and got some downtime-whether you spent it indoors or outdoors. I spent the entire weekend in bed listening to music-it was heaven, however my Monday morning was spent relaxing and cleaning up after my cat, Coco, who was hawking out hairballs. I think she is fine now.

Today, I am doing an important post for you. If anyone is planning on visiting a country that is predominantly muslim, read on. Originally, I planned to do this in March when it is Women’s History Month for any woman traveling solo or as part of a women’s group. However, I decided to do it today and make it more gender neutral so anyone can benefit and learn from my experiences and advise.

 

I have travelled quite a bit, but for some reason, the only Muslim country I have been to is the one I was born in-Pakistan. However, I feel qualified to lay out advice because of so many muslims I have met in my life. While my childhood was with predominantly Pakistani muslims, my junior high and high school was with predominately whites and asiana. It wasn’t until college that I got exposed to diverse muslim cultures of the world. I met a muslim African girl, a hijabi Iranian (the two high school students that were Iranian were very, very modern, which was very confusing); my college roommate was from Afghanistan and so on. Because of these relationships, I learned how different we muslims are. So based on my learning, if I could give you one piece of advice, it is to understand that each Muslim country is different from the next. I would suggest doing research and getting guide books on the Muslim country you want to visit BEFORE traveling, instead of banking on your previous experiences or your knowledge of “Lawrence of Arabia”.

It is shocking to learn that while it is perfectly acceptable to see women with uncovered heads in progressive countries like United Emirates, Indonesia, and Turkey, countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan require modesty at all times. So be prepared for these variations. While you may not have control of everything that is going around when you travel, you do have control over how you protect yourself and what kind of image you reflect. My job today is to help you do just that. So here goes….

What to Pack:

  1. While during summer months, items like tank tops and shorts are a favorite among men and women, I strongly advise you to stay away from packing them. What you can pack are t-shirts, kurtis (available in any Indian store), maxi dresses and skirts, and khaki pants.
  2. If you would like a beach style vacation, then going to a Muslim country is probably not the way to go. Countries like Pakistan don’t allow women to wear any type of bathing suits, including the infamous burkini. However, I have heard of them allocating days and times when men and women can be in the water SEPERATELY with or without kids. Your hotel pool is the best thing to a beach vacation in a Muslim country. Indonesia may be your next bet.
  3. Pack plenty of sunscreen, antibacterial wipes, and hand sanitizer.
  4. There is no toilet paper anywhere. They use water in the bathroom. So pack toilet paper and keep it with you.
  5. Females planning on visiting a mosque should pack some shirts that have full-length sleeves and a scarf. You are not allowed to enter a mosque anywhere if you are not dressed conservatively. If someone doesn’t stop you from entering, you will be given dirty looks from men and women once you are inside.

 

What to do and See:

  1. Muslim countries have some of the most beautiful mosques in the world. For architectural buffs or Islamic art enthusiasts, some of the biggest highlights of any such trip is stepping into a mosque and admiring its calligraphy and arches. And some of the most beautiful sounds I have ever heard are sounds of prayers coming from mosque minarets.  You are required to take off your shoes so plan accordingly.
  2. Do take part in cultural cornerstones of each Muslim countries. Be it taking a turkish bath in Turkey, camel riding in Morocco, or dune racing in Dubai, all these activities will give you a taste of the eclectic Muslim world.
  3. If you get a chance, take a class and learn a new skill and preserve that wonderful experience in a shape of a souvenir or a memory. If you can’t find a school then note that Muslims love bragging about their country. Strike a conversation with a waiter or ask a tour guide plenty of questions and you will get more information you can handle, I promise. Do not strike a conversation with just anyone, even those that may appear to be tourists like you.
  4. Word of Caution: Yes, Muslim countries may appear stricter, but petty theft, kidnapping, and even injury can take place here. So use caution. Go out at night only to well-lit and populated areas. DO NOT wander. If a heckler comes to you asking for money or selling something, IGNORE. No need to strike up a polite conversation with him/her.

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Food:

  1. Muslims know food. And each country’s cuisine is different even though it may appear the same because of the “melting pot” effect. While Pakistanis love curries, Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan love BBQ. Then the type of BBQ is divided into further categories depending on special exotic spices. Somalian BBQ is very different than Iranian BBQ. Indonesian cuisine is entirely different and so on. Know all meat is halal, there is no pork and alcohol, and you will find a simple salad somewhere on the menu.
  2. Please exercise caution when choosing a place to eat. While it is a firm belief in Muslim countries that the dirtier the place looks, the better the food, I wouldn’t recommend it, unless you want to risk contracting a virus and spending the rest of the night in your hotel room. Please check with your hotel concierge for some good places that are authentic and clean.
  3. Do not drink tap water or anything that has been washed with tap water (salads included). Whenever I go to Pakistan, I only drink bottled water. While you may think water in developed places like Dubai and Saudi Arabia is clean, there can be foreign bacteria like malaria that you can contract. So please drink bottled water and request your salads to be washed with bottled water.

General Guidelines:

  1. While it is perfectly okay to greet someone with a “hello”, the customary greeting phrase in a Muslim country is “salamu alaikum” or just a salaam.
  2. Look up the Muslim calendar before you even book your travels. Months like Muharram, Ramadan, Hajj (Saudi Arabia only) are times when many businesses including restaurants have shorter and varied times.
  3. There is no alcohol or public displays of affection.
  4. Please keep your passport, embassy information, and emergency phone numbers close to you (hidden in your bra or undershirt) at all the times.
  5. While, I haven’t had any trouble from telling people I am from United States when I travel, if someone does ask, don’t answer that question. Either just make up a lie, divert attention, or simply say “I don’t want to tell you”. If the local insists, then you know you need to leave. While, a blond and blue-eyed person attracts attention here, don’t feel pressured to answer any prying questions. You will save yourself a lot of trouble, no matter what their intention.
  6. Know that Muslims are culturally and ethnically diverse based on geography. While countries like Indonesia have a very Asian vibe, countries like Iran are very Middle Eastern, and Sudan are very African. Just travel with a open mind.

In conclusion, note that even though the Muslim world is not safe because of the political turmoil, there is plenty you can learn about us when you do decide to travel there. Yes, plan it to be a difficult journey unless you are going with a tour group. It’s truly a whole new world. Happy Traveling!!!

 

 

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