Traveling throughout the Islamic world in the Middle East and Africa will likely be a pleasant surprise for many western professionals. Where one might expect contempt for westerners you will likely find warm friendly locals eager to get to know you and welcome you into their homes. As an American woman myself who married into Middle Eastern culture I can attest to the delight of my first travels into the Middle East and getting to know the less publicized side of the culture.
In Islam it is considered a great duty of Muslims to take in travelers/guests and treat them with respect and hospitality. This idea and mentality is very prevalent in the Middle East and being welcomed warmly home for a meal by a business associate or even someone you have just met is extremely common. If you are invited accept right away as this will bring your host great pleasure to show you hospitality and respect as a visitor. Here are a few tips to keep in mind before your visit.
Before you arrive:
- Be sure to pick up a small gift for your host. It is commonplace to show up with a small token of appreciation. Anything from a small basket of flowers or a pastry from a local market to be enjoyed at the end of the meal are acceptable. This is a time when it really is the thought that counts.
- Women make sure proper Islamic attire is observed. While you will find in private homes it is often more relaxes and women remove their hair coverings this is not universally true. It is better to remain covered and conservative until you are invited to remove hair coverings etc.
- Make sure your feet are not completely bare. have a pair of nude stockings on or available in your purse to put on as bare feet are seen as intimate in Islam.
- Come with an empty stomach! You are sure to be offered a real feast. It is a delight of any Middle Eastern person to welcome you and feed you.
When you Arrive:
- Be sure to remove your shoes before you enter the home. This is a wide cultural practice in the Middle East and the Islamic world. Carpets must remain clean for ritual prayer and enjoying meals on the floor is very commonplace throughout the Middle East. For these reasons street shoes are not worn in the home.
- Remember that men and women may be separated. If you observe the host and guests already in the home this will become obvious.
- Do not hug or kiss the cheeks of anyone of the opposite sex. Instead place your hand over your heart, bow your head and say “salaam”
- Accept whatever is offered. It is very common in Middle Eastern cultures to almost be force fed! You will be offered many delicious dishes and come with an open mind to try many home cooked offerings as to not offend your host. You will surely delight in the feast prepared especially for your arrival.
There are many more things to know in order to effectively impress your host with great cultural etiquette. While going to a restaurant for a meal and drinks or golfing at the country club is common networking in the western world this is not the case in the Islamic world. Being welcomed into a business associates home is the prime networking opportunity - be prepared to impress with impeccable cultural manners.