Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to and live in several Muslim-majority nations. While I’ve loved it immensely, I’ve also watched fellow Americans struggle with the shift. Some of them were hung up on fear, others on assumptions, but all of them probably could have had a better time if they’d had better information.
Here are some of the tricks I’ve picked up for enjoying all that the incredibly diverse Islamic world has to offer.
1. Fear Not. As a young woman, I don’t think I’ve traveled anywhere without someone expressing concern about my safety, but this worry seems to go off the charts when I spend time in Muslim-majority countries. People ask if I will have to wear a hijab or even a burqa, neither of which have ever touched my head. They ask about persecution, terrorism, and jihad. They ask me if I really want to go.
To this last one I always have to respond with a resounding yes. I love traveling (and currently, living) in the Islamic world. Moreover, I am absolutely convinced that there is nothing to fear. At least nothing so generalized that it would be true of the entire regions dominated by the Muslim faith. My advice is to do your research, make an educated decision about where is safe to go, and then go enjoy your travels without fear.
2. Go Neutral. Though many Muslim countries do have a more conservative sensibility when it comes to clothing, I’ve also seen a lot of tourists show up completely overdressed in an effort to “blend in.” Of course, they end up standing out even more, because they look silly, or worse, like an American parody of the culture.
To avoid this, I wear my most neutral outfit while traveling—often a button-down and jeans—and then observe what other women are wearing once I arrive. I also bring a lot of layers, so that if the area is more conservative, I’ll be able to wear my clothes with the appropriate coverage. Generally, as long as your clothes are neat, clean, and relatively modest, you’ll be good to go.
3. Visit a Mosque. Going to a mosque is a great way to learn more about the traditions of Islam, and how people carry them out in today’s world. They’re also beautiful, and worth seeing from the inside.
When entering a mosque, check at the front to make sure visitors are allowed and that you’re properly attired. Some mosques have extra head coverings for visitors, and some don’t mind uncovered hair, but all require your legs to be covered (for both men and women) and your shoes off at the entrance. Inside, protocol is similar to visiting a church: be quiet, considerate, and reverent. You may be able to view prayers, but more likely, you’ll be asked to watch from outside the mosque. It’s worth seeing, if you can.
4. Eat, Eat! Though you won’t be enjoying much pork in Islamic regions, there is plenty of amazing food to go around, particularly around holidays like Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) and Eid al-Fitr (Feast of Breaking the Fast). Specialties vary by region, but often include lamb, baklava, and ma’amoul (filled shortbread cookies). If you make friends locally, you can pretty much bet you’ll be invited to eat with them, as Muslims have a reputation for exceptional hospitality. Take their offer, eat as much as you can, and bring a small gift for the host.
If you aren’t lucky enough to make friends (or don’t have time), look for specialties like kebab (grilled meat), kanafeh (pastry filled with cheese and covered in syrup), simit (bread rings) and the foods listed above at a local restaurant or street vendor.
5. Don’t Forget the Tea (and Coffee). Though Islam spans many regions and cultures, tea seems to make its way into almost all of them. And not just the drink, but the hours spent sipping it with friends, old and new. If someone offers you tea, it’s always best to take it. Not only is it the polite thing to do, but it also creates an opportunity to get to know each other and ask questions about the culture and daily life.
If you’re like me, you’ll come back from India addicted to masala chai, back from Turkey craving Turkish coffee, and back from Kosovo dreaming of strong black tea and macchiatos. And you’ll have made a lot of friends along the way.