Nonbelievers in a Muslim country

Brunei sightseeing
The post about Brunei’s palace guard playing grab-ass during our family photo op prompted a friend to comment on her misgivings about traveling as a woman in a Muslim country. It wasn’t the association I had in mind, but as she pointed out, when your window on the world is the US mass media it’s the kind of connection that is (unfortunately) pretty easy to make.
The reality is that it’s just not like that. Every country will have behavioral norms to respect: some will be driven by religion. Some will be driven by culture. Often these are intertwined. But after spending most of the last year cruising through three predominantly Muslim countries in Southeast Asia- Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei- adding the filter of ‘Muslim’ hasn’t played into anything that bears some kind of travel advisory for what to expect or how to prepare, except to stash lots of bacon in advance and follow normal sensitivity for local culture of whatever flavor you happen to be in.
In some areas, it’s more important to show less skin. You could leap to associate that with the headscarves and tent dresses of stereotypical Islam, but keeping skin exposure modest was actually more consistently important in missionary-Christian Papua New Guinea (or Tonga, for that matter) than almost anywhere else in our travels through the Muslim-majority countries of Southeast Asia. Ultimately, it varied from place to place, regardless of religion. We simply took our cues locally, and attempted to dress appropriately. 

Going-ashore wear: no shoulders, no knees. Ungalik island, Papua New Guinea
There are certainly ways in which traveling through Muslim countries has affected our daily life, but they are overwhelmingly practical ones.

Business hours are a little different: in Islam, congregational prayer takes place on Fridays, so businesses often close early on Friday afternoons. Most of officialdom is still open, however, as are the many non-Muslim owned businesses, and they’re open for business on Saturdays too: around here, only Sunday is the day of rest.

It’s hard to find pork products, although most public markets have a ‘pork area’ that is set apart from the rest of the meat, seafood and produce sectors. It was better not to anchor too close to the village mosque unless we liked being awakened by the pre-dawn call to prayer. Purely practicalities, and nothing to be apprehensive about.

Ramadan added another layer, but it didn’t affect us much. As Mike commented on the post about Brunei, while stationed in the United Arab Emirates with the USAF he was asked not to eat (or chew gum) in public during Ramadan. I suspect that the Southeast Asian countries are more diverse, or less dominantly Muslim, as the UAE or other Arab countries- here, there are significant Buddhist and Christian minorities. At any rate, this level of sensitivity hasn’t been important. Not wanting to be disrespectful to our fasting guide, we gave him a break to meet his friend at the mall while we duck off for lunch. I’d feel rude eating in front of him, but find no embarrassment beyond the usual in stuffing ourselves silly with fattoush and lamb shwarma with the throngs of others who chose to hang out at the restaurant area.

On the external surface, like a lot of holidays, Ramadan is just another angle for retailers
There are more opportunities to find commonality in our humanity than differences in our religions. In the western edge of Borneo, it was the compassion from the Navy captain who called us his Brothers of the Sea. In Indonesia’s spice islands, it was our friends desire to share pieces of their lives, sending us with saplings for nutmeg, cinnamon, and coffee. In Brunei, it was a lecture from a devout Muslim on the teachings in Islam about the one God shared by the Abrahamic religions, and the Arabic names for the players in the stories that all three religions share. They each looked for the things that bound us together, not those that separated us.

When I think about how traveling in Muslim countries has impacted us, it’s about the tremendous opportunities they have given us to learn about different cultures, dress, practices. It is an entirely positive association. 

As a traveler, it’s easy to observe through a filter and find what you’re looking for. If you look for differences, they are present in spades, and they can be as interesting or uncomfortable as you want them to be. You can choose how to react and whether to assume the best, assume the worst, or assume the reason. I didn’t assume that the palace guard tried to fondle me because he was Muslim. Who knows, maybe he was one of the Nepalese Ghurka soldiers – and therefore probably likely Hindu- who make up the Sultan’s private guard. I think that he was just an opportunistic perv who added a facet of pathetic entertainment to our afternoon.

11 Responses

  1. Pervs come in many flavors. 🙂 Thanks for this Behan, this is great and very helpful. I know my friends who live in the US and wear hijab have been keenly aware of how the majority of the US views them as different and wondered if the reverse were true.

    1. Cidnie- I feel for your friends, it has to be pretty hard to wear a hijab in most parts of the US. I just finished reading Zeitoun- fascinating look through the eyes of a southern Baptist woman converted to islam, and what happened to her husband (Syrian-American immigrant) when Katrina destroyed their home in New Orleans. Highly recommend if you have this subject on the brain!

  2. Very insightful. I do wonder, will you be avoiding some of the Muslim countries that have stricter rules about the roles of women and the restrictions placed on them? Or better put, where will your route take you after this?

    1. Charlotte- I definitely don’t expect to try avoiding countries w/ stricter rules. It only means different cultural norms for us to respect. If anything it suggest to me the potential for more interesting destinations- and that’s a good thing! Regarding our route: we expect to stick around SE Asia for another year, but really don’t know what comes after that. Probably Indian Ocean to S. Africa, but it feels too far away to call.

  3. Yeah, I think some men are pervs … no matter where they live!

    We’re all different, but we’re all the same. I look forward to traveling and seeing the different ways of living.

  4. So beautifully said Behan! This needs to be published as an article for other cruisers (esp big mouthed forum armchair ones!) Thank you for sharing this!

  5. Great perspective, Behan. If we all look into the eyes, see with the soul, and leave our prejudices behind, we can find sameness among peoples everywhere, can’t we? When I traveled the Middle East years ago, I had to wear more covering than was comfortable in the extreme heat, but I’d been taught always to respect the mores of others. And if we do, if we go into places expecting to be pleased, we often are.

    Of course, this looking-into-the soul of folk is a lot harder in a huge city such as the one we’re visiting now, where few will return our smile or meet our gaze. But when they do, it’s as if the light shines more brightly, isn’t it?

  6. Behan, I really enjoy your family’s journey and constantly wish you safe passage on your travels. This post in particular gave me one overriding thought. The percentage of people throughout the course of time that have been able to experience many cultures first-hand is infinitely small, but your family is in that very select group. I’m envious of the opportunity you have chosen to pursue and I’m thankful that you choose to write about it and share it with the rest of us.
    – Kris Lien

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