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Editor’s note: Jody Hanson lived in Nigeria for two years, spent 18 months in Morocco (See our beautiful photo essay of Marrakech) and has travelled in a number of Muslim countries. Along the way, she committed more faux pas than she can remember—all good learning experiences in Muslim etiquette, of course, in her effort to become bi-cultural.
God be with you الله يكون معك. If you are going to travel in the Muslim world, set aside your familiar occidental habits and embrace the local etiquette. A few simple rules will help you blend in and better able to immerse in the local culture. To get you started, here are some I learned the hard way.
The first and foremost rule in the Islamic world is to never, ever, EVER – got that? – use your left hand for anything.
Tie it behind your back and let it atrophy.
It is only for the toilet and nothing else. People who are sinister – the technical term for being left-handed – need to learn to eat with their right hands as otherwise, they spoil the food (eaten from a communal bowl) for everyone.
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The reason Sharia law dictates cutting off the right hand of a thief is so that he can never again eat with people. Think about it: would you dig into a shared platter with someone who had just stuck his hand in a dirty toilet?
If a man – specifically in West Africa — asks if he can be your “friend” firmly, but politely, decline unless you want to share your bed.
The concept of a platonic relationship between a man and a woman in the Muslim world simply doesn’t exist. As a western woman, you can be distantly polite to the men you meet or work with. Anything more, however, is quickly interpreted as showing interest and that will get you far more attention than you want – or need.
Get used to couscous on Friday if you are in North Africa
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Think of it as the Best Southern BBQ of the area – once in a while is fine, but every week at the same time and the same place can get tedious. Also, expect a cup of yogurt to go with it. Drink every drop, as it will settle your stomach.
Embrace the call to prayer. The first time you hear “Alllllaaaaahhhhh” at 05:30 it will jar you from your sleep. But as you get to know the calls to prayer – daybreak, about 11:00 or so, 14:30-ish, somewhere about 17:00 and at nightfall – you can quit wearing your watch and move to the beat of what is happening around you. Listen and download.
Cover thy shoulders – in North Africa – and don’t even think about baring your legs above mid-calf in the sub-Sahara.
Okay, okay, so naked breasts are acceptable in rural West Africa, as they aren’t sexy.
But now that we have the rules of acceptable clothing established, stay covered and your life will be much easier. Burkas are optional for western women, even in Saudi Arabia.
Forget the diet.
Avoid Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig and whatever else ‘skinny’ is in Vogue these days.
Larger western women — read “obese” with a rear end that is at least three ax-handles wide – should go to East or West Africa and be revered as sex symbols.
In Nigeria, the Ibo send young women to a “fattening house” where they lay around all day and eat high-carb foods, such as pounded yam and egusi soup. The objective is to get them as pudgy as possible so that they command a high “bride price.” Thin? Forget it.
Only poor women are that way from working in the fields all day and not consuming enough calories to sustain their body weight. If you can learn to flip one bottom cheek after the other as you walk down the street you will – literally – stop traffic. Size 20 plus of the world unite! You are adored in Africa.
Keep your feet tucked under you at all times. In the Arabic world, the sole of the foot is the most offensive part of the body.
(Think of all the footprints up and down the Gadaffi monuments.) So when you are sitting around eating couscous on Friday, make sure you keep your feet under you so they aren’t pointed at anyone. An effective formula is to lower yourself on top of your feet, so as to be sure not to offend.
Give to beggars
The Qur’an dictates that you should donate 10 percent of your money to charity.
The delightfully honest concept about giving in the Muslim world is that it has to be anonymous or it doesn’t count. And that spares us the gag-puke photo opportunities of the western rich and famous being “benevolent.”
Keep small change with you and spread it around. Pick your favourite beggars and remember that they are proving a service: they make you feel good that you aren’t in their place. So give.
Wash your hands before you eat
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Muslims do it automatically because it is a hadith (rule). But it is a hygienic practice that the west has yet to embrace. The slimy sanitizer you now find in some places – rather like the sand you can use to wash if you are in the desert – doesn’t quite replace soap and water.
Get in the habit. Then watch the water run grey and be relieved that you aren’t eating it.
Do not waste. Ever. If you can’t eat the food served at lunch, the servants – or the beggars or the people in the street – can. So pass it on. Get takeaway bags rather than leaving leftovers to be thrown away.
If you want a true cross-cultural experience you will never forget, embrace Ramadan and/or the sheep killing festival. Avoid them if you want a holiday.
After you being to feel the rhythm and reason of the Muslim world, the customs and etiquette will begin to make sense. You may not agree with what is happening around you, but that matters little in the world where all you really need to know is where you are positioned in relation to Mecca.
Enjoy the challenge of learning and practicing Muslim etiquette, if and when you visit. It has enriched my life.
All photos property of and by the author.