Invited by a Muslim – now what?

August 26th, 2011

A couple of years ago, when I was getting married, some of my non-Muslim/German friends asked me what to wear there and about the Do’s and Don’ts. I didn’t really have to explain much because they know me and my family well enough to know about our religious and cultural peculiarities, in comparison to what they were used to. But sometimes there is a lot more need to explain things.

What I realized in the past few years is that there is little to no knowledge about how things should “go” like when a non-Muslim is invited to a Muslim’s place. This post is for those that are interested in doing everything “correctly”. Actually, there is no right/wrong here as one shouldn’t expect that from each other, but for the culturally motivated I’ll try to be as precise as possible. Please note that much of what is written here is written from an Afghan standpoint but as Muslims from all over the world share common aspects in their cultures it also applies to others.

First off, and you might already be aware of that, many things we say are about making you not feel bad or embarrassed and making you feel taken care of and comfortable. So sometimes you might run into your Muslim friend, maybe even close to his house, and you chat for a while and then, when it’s time to part, he asks you to join him at his place for a coffee or have dinner with him and his family. As you’re close to his place and basically “in his hood” he will feel obliged to invite you over and be a “good host”. He will insist, with very convincing arguments, and try to persuade you and you might get the feeling that he’s serious about his offer.
Well, he’s not.
While he might not mind having you over at his place at that very moment the real reason why he invited you over is because certain complex and unwritten rules in our culture and our genes identify him as a host (which in fact he is not, as he met you outside). Those of us that have not spent their entire life in a different culture than ours and are not integrated or even assimilated will project a responsibility that they’re only supposed to execute among their own people on others as well.

At times this might go uncomfortably wrong, as the following real-life example explains:
A relative of mine moved to the U.S. and got his first job, as a taxi driver. He grew up in Afghanistan and was at quite a mature age when he moved to the U.S., a culture not very well-known to him. So he picks up this American guy and drives him to his destination. During the trip they talk about this and that and the entire atmosphere becomes very friendly. When they reach their destination my relative tries to be polite and declines to charge the customer what he owes him. Afghans usually start those friendly phrases with “be my guest today” which is nothing but politeness and not meant seriously. Well, the American, unfamiliar with Afghan/Muslim culture, takes the offer seriously, gets very happy about it, thanks my relative for the free ride and leaves.

Alright, so back to your invitation.

So now you made it into your Muslim friend’s house. Apparently the offer was meant seriously, meaning: you declined about a thirteen-thousand times but your host persisted and wouldn’t accept a “no”. The rules here are simple and probably not very different to those in other cultures:

Before you leave check your clothes. The more conservative your host’s family is the more conservative you should dress. This is usually no problem for men, unless you’re Scottish and prefer wearing a kilt in your spare time, but it is a bit more complicated for females: no sleeveless shirts, no cleavage, no mini-skirts. Try to show as little skin as possible whereas many Muslims in the West nowadays don’t feel uncomfortable anymore if the female guest wears pants (obviously) or a skirt that covers at least her knees and if her shoulders are also covered.

Little gifts are not unwelcomed but do leave the booze at home. Don’t bring any wine, beer or anything else that is alcoholic.

At the door you will be greeted by your counterpart. If you’re male it will be the man in the house and if you’re female it will be his better half. Depending on how conservative they are/aren’t both of them might be awaiting you at the doorstep to welcome you.

You may greet your host as you always do but as a man don’t stretch out your hand to the females. Here, again, depending on how conservative the family is you should wait and see if she stretches out her hand to you. Cheek-kissing a female, as a male, is not cool so don’t try that. If you want to impress your host big time you may place your right hand at your heart while you greet the females, ask how they are doing etc. and always keep a little bit more distance than you would if she wasn’t Muslim.

When you enter the house take your shoes off. Don’t ask if you can leave them on, just take them off and if your host doesn’t mind you running around his house in your shoes he’ll tell you to leave them on. Be persistent about taking them off and mention it at least two to three times. If your host still insists on you leaving them on then you’re free do so.

Do you see a pattern there? Yes, it’s all about back-and-forth. One party declines multiple times, the other party insists, multiple times. Whoever is serious about what he says will “win”. It always works out, there is no deadlock here. Never happened.

Once the actual invitation is taking place things might get a little more complicated.

As a male guest you’re pretty much restricted to staying in the living-room whereas females have more freedom in moving around the house.

In the conversations do avoid topics and jokes of ambiguous nature, especially if females are around. Don’t comment on the beauty of any females in the house as that will be taken as a grave insult to their modesty and the male host’s dignity and honour.
Feel free to talk politics. We love that and we’re all experts and know-it-alls in politics ;-)
Don’t mention the war (every Muslim knows or has experienced a war that he can talk and brag about), unless you’re on our side ;-) and don’t be insulted if discussions heat up. They often times do and nobody takes them personal.

At dinnertime we will try to stuff you, so you better be hungry. Don’t be afraid of not eating or trying something if you seriously don’t like it or are allergic to it. You’ll notice that, on the second invitation, whoever cooked the food on the first invitation will have memorized what you like and what you don’t like.
During or at the end of the dinner feel free to ask for recipes or for any of the food to be wrapped up so you can take it with you. We love that as the happiness of our guests with the meal we prepared means a lot to us, so special attention will be paid to that.

When dinner is over and conversations are ending, or not ending, you will notice that nobody tells you to leave and nobody makes any allusions for you to leave. You will notice that no Muslim will ever tell you to leave his house. I repeat: you will never be asked to leave and the host will never declare it to be late (meaning: “get the hell out”). As a guest it is your responsibility to call it a day and ask to leave. Actually, you don’t have to “ask” but in our, Afghan, culture we always end such evenings with words similar to “with your permission blahblah we will leave now as you might be tired as well blahblah and our kids are at home alone and blahblah”. Just make up anything, it doesn’t have to sound 100% realistic. Just don’t wait for your host to end the evening, that will not happen and you will see yourself sitting on his couch at 4am in the morning with him trying his best to keep you entertained and… comfortable.

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