From the moment you enter your credit card number and hit accept you are in for an adventure. Traveling to a foreign country is exciting, educational, and at times scary. Whether you choose a guided tour when you arrive, or decide to channel your inner Indiana Jones there is much to fear while being abroad; getting lost, not being able to communicate with the natives, food poisoning, and the simpler offending the natives. There is no other place feared quite as much as a county that has gone through recent wars or has an oppressive reputation, namely, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, and parts of Saudi Arabia, all these countries have a common link, they are all Muslim countries.
As a Muslim woman who was born in Cairo, Egypt and immigrated to the United States at a young age. I have also fallen into the fear trap while traveling. Just the other day my son’s preschool teacher, who happens to be originally from Afghanistan, informed me that over the upcoming summer she planned on taking her kids on a family trip to her native country. My mouth fell open and I spoke before thinking only recalling a recent documentary I had seen on CNN, with Anderson Cooper dodging explosions, and looking very afraid. I asked, “Is [Afghanistan] safe?” Images of tanks and martial law raced through my mind. My son’s teacher smiled and responded, “oh yes! We now have ATM machines, Starbucks, women drive, and many of the nicer hotels have been reopened, and there are many lovely places to visit.”
I felt rather foolish in my quick response remembering how I had felt when people assumed that Egypt was all desert and camels. Though I had never considered Afghanistan as a lovely place to visit it did get me thinking about the importance of asking a lot of questions about other countries, and asking those that are originally from the country or have family that live there.
For example, when visiting Saudi Arabia, a place I recently visited, there are many areas travelers can go without wearing the traditional Abaya or Galabiya [traditional clothing women wear]. Consulting your local embassy is a good way of getting acquainted with the customs.
Also, asking those that have recently visited, and even your local mosque if the country is Muslim. These are the best ways to dispel apprehension, misconceptions, and stereotypes. Preparing a list of questions such as what places to avoid, places to be sure to visit, spicy foods, and how customary introductions work are ways to make the visit comfortable, and less awkward.
There are many Muslim countries where the traditional greeting for women among other women is a kiss, sometimes one kiss, sometimes two, and other times three. In certain parts of Saudi Arabia, the traditional greeting is for men to touch noses, though I would never insist upon one visiting these countries to go outside their own comfort level. It is very important to recognize the customs in order to avoid awkward or embarrassing situations.
Fear is the most common response when individuals are asked about travel to a Muslim country, fear of somehow being oppressed, or not being able to return home. The only way to eliminate these fears is through education about the religion and the culture. Openness to experiencing something different that will allow for personal growth and acceptance of others are all the best way to approach travel to these foreign lands.
Things one can do before visiting a Muslim Country:
1. Make an appointment at your local mosque and sit down with a sheikh to better understand the religion.
2. Visit your local library or bookstore to gather information about the country, whether it be simple things like geography or more intense historical facts.
3. Read that country’s paper online. Most countries now have translated versions of their papers. This is a really great way to get into the finer nuances of the country.
4. Try to find a native of the county and correspond, either face to face, or send an email in order to see how the country is at the current time and in order to see the areas that are safest to visit.
5. Be smart about food and drinks. If you are sensitive don’t get to daring with the locals foods.
6. Find out what is customary as a greeting, both verbal and physical. This is very important in Muslim countries where at times a man cannot shake a woman’s hand.
7. Learn a few simple phrases to break the ice.
8. Realize that in most Muslim countries shops and restaurants close during the times of prayer.
9. If you can take a class or purchase audio versions of the language, this will help for reading signs and becoming more comfortable with the language.
10. Make sure you are aware of where the embassy is located, hospitals, and stores that sell products you need.
11. Find out conversion rates, public transport rates, and street rates for simple items so you are not swindled.
12. Have an open mind and heart.
Photo by Robert Romano (public domain)
Ghada was born in Cairo, Egypt and lived there to the age of four before coming to the United States at such a young age. She feels immensely blessed that she has been immersed in the traditions of a different culture, and able to tap into another world in her creative endeavors.
She finds that her children inspire her by the simplicity that they perceive the world. From that, she is able to let go of her complex views and see the world simply as it is.
For more about Ghada and her writing, visit www.ghadabedair.com