After three months of travelling around Europe, I have crossed paths with people from almost every walk of life—from different age group to various religions and ethnic groups. One thing I’ve noticed, and that has struck me as very odd, is that among all the travelers that I have had the privilege to meet, I am yet to meet a Muslim backpacker!
Before proceeding I’d like to distinguish the difference between a traveler and a tourists, because I have met or seen plenty of Muslim tourists. By traveler I mean someone who carries nothing but their backpack, and who lives in hostels, or couchsurfs, or perhaps an occasional tent here and there. And no going to Dubai and package holidays do not count!
At first this struck me as odd: why wouldn’t Muslims backpack? It’s not as though there is a religious aversion to it, except perhaps traveling in the Holy month of Ramadan. In fact travelling is an integral part of religion. Hajj, which is an integral part of our faith, perquisites travelling. This can also be understood from the many Islamic scholars who would venture to the far edges of the known globe in search of knowledge, and the Qur’anic verse: “Say, [O Muhammad], ‘Travel through the land and observe how He began creation. Then Allah will produce the final creation…” (29:20)
So then why is there such a lack of Muslim travelers? It’s to an extent that I was the first Muslim traveler that my fellow backpacker, who has been traveling the world for over 20 months had come across. The more I deliberate the topic, and after comparing my own backpacking routines to that of my fellow traveler snoozing in the bunk bed above me while I get ready to perform Wudu, the answer is quite obvious: backpacking as a Muslim is complicated—and I don’t mean micro racism in a small town that has no ethnic diversity; I mean our customs and shariah.
Imagine you arrive in a small town in, say Transylvania, Romania—hungry, tired, looking to rest your weary back and have a meal. Like any intrepid traveler you want to go to a local place, immerse yourself with locals and a menu which doesn’t have a word of English on it. And of course, like any other traveler, you flaunt the adage of, “I eat anything” and glare at the Mc Donalds across the street with utter disdain, tantamount to spite. You sit down inside the restaurant feeling proud to use the few Romanian words you’ve picked up from the fellow on the train you struck up a conversation with. You’re about to ask the waiter to suggest the local cuisine when you realize something: you’re in a country where pork and wine comprises most of the local cuisines—something that is absolutely off limits as a Muslim! You ask the waiter for the vegetarian options, which in a place like this probably amounts to a plate of fries. You make frown at your fries (not exactly your idea of local cuisine) furtively eyeing the McDonalds across the street, mouth savoring poignantly at the thought of a Filet-o-fish sandwich in spite of yourself.
To make matters worse, service takes a very long time in places like this, and you need to find a place to pray Asr, which in a small town that is probably 99% Christian means a secluded corner of the park or a back alley. Now you’re back at your hostel, and after greeting your fellow travelers, you proceed to perform wudu. It was bad enough sticking your feet under the sink in the high school bathroom, now you have a multi-ethnic, multi-national group of people you have to sleep in the same room with staring at you with expressions that range from quizzical to disapproving, to straight out outraged. And let’s not even begin visualizing what praying in front of those people, none of which have any idea what you’re doing, looks like. And I really was wondering why Muslims don’t do budget traveling?
I get it, it’s not easy being an observant, abiding Muslim and backpacking, especially in times where animosity and inherent distrust towards Muslims is very high. But today I’m here to tell you that it’s absolutely possible and that with a little more research and investment of time, you can travel the world on a budget, observe your religion and still have enriching experiences and great friendships. For the past three months I have been traveling all over Europe, and while there were certain places where being Muslim was harder than others, I never felt that my Islam inhibited me from experiences cultures and countries, or meeting locals and fellow travelers. In fact in most cases, my Islam, aside from my aversion to alcohol, was never a present issue and more a part of my identity that was to be respected. In fact, my Islam has received nothing but positive curiosity to learn more from my fellow travelers. In Morocco I even became quite popular because I could explain Moroccan traditions that stemmed from Islam.
So no, you won’t be hopping on the next destination that pops up on the departure table at the train station when you have to consider your prayers, nor will you be dropping in at a German restaurant that smells of sausage and eating whatever the waiter brings you. But it is my absolute belief and experience that any Muslim can experience the world and live out of their backpack while fulfilling their Islamic obligations.
So without further ado, here are a few travel tips for the savvy Muslim backpacker:
1. Muslims are everywhere
Coming from a place like NYC, I realized that I had the unconscious misnomer that Muslims only live in larger cities. I cannot overstress how utterly wrong I have been. Throughout my travels in Europe, I have interminably be astonished at how many women with full hijab I have seen in small towns across France, Germany, Spain and more, thus completely undermining my misconception. In many cases Muslims are shop owners, and if you go to the local market place, you can meet many of them. It may interest you to see how life is for a Muslim in Barcelona, or Amsterdam for instance.
2. … That means mosques
When there are many Muslims in a town, the first thing that tends to happen is the establishment of a mosque, or Islamic Center. Large cities like London and Paris have many mosques. But once again, I have been time and time again amazed at what a quick google search for even smaller cities yields. I remember in Basel, Switzerland, where a quick search yielded three Islamic Center/mosques in my vicinity. Even if a city doesn’t have a mosque, if you find a Muslim store owner, you can ask them for a place to pray, which in many cases can in turn lead to an interesting conversations, tips on halal places to eat and more.
3. White sauce, hot sauce
…. Which leads us to the next and most unequivocal and inimitable point of traveling as a Muslim: Halal Donor Kabob shops! In the U.S. we call them halal food. The content is a little different from Europe to the U.S.; in the States it comprises of a large serving of rice, salad, and your choice of meat, while in Europe it’s generally served in a wrap and called a ‘Shawarma’, while in the States we call it a gyro. But the bottom line is the same: a massive, yet tasty serving of food, which consists of protein, carbs, and salad and that is halal!
Travelling for Muslims may seem impossible at first, but it shouldn’t have to be!
This article was written by Shervin