Last month, my husband, two daughters and I went on a two week Euro-adventure to Berlin and the south of Spain. The trip was better than we ever imagined it could be and since getting back to our temporary home base in Morocco, I have hit the post-vacation slump: the can’t-I-just-go-back everyday kinda feeling. But lucky for me, I’m a writer and I can teleport myself to places we have visited using memory and journalling alone. One point I wanted to suss out more about our trip was just how much was affected by the fact that we are Muslims. Perhaps some of the things I talk about below wouldn’t have been so noticeable if we jet-setted to Europe from our permanent home base in Canada, but because we were coming from a Muslim country, however Euro-influenced it might be, somethings really stood out.
Halal food hunting is always an adventure. I mean, for any Muslim who keeps halal with their eating, this is going to be the first challenge. This was more of an issue in Spain than Germany for two noticeable reasons: Germany is very inclusive of its large Muslim population -something we noticed everywhere we went and which is largely to the country’s history of genocide against religious minorities. The overcompensation was nice and welcomed…and frankly how it should be. It’s what one would expect from a country that had repented for its monstrous sins – we even had halal breakfast sausages (a variety to choose from!) at our hostel’s morning spread! Of course, this isn’t to obfuscate Germany’s very real resurgence of far-right, anti-Muslim elements but mainstream society seems pretty welcoming to Canadian-levels. We didn’t notice we were different the entire time we were there.
The second reason why halal food was more of an issue in Spain is because of the long Spanish history of persecuting Muslims. This actually has an effect on the food – believe it or not? Spanish hams and pork products are not a cultural anomaly – they rose in popularity during the post 1492 era and the Inquisition as a way of sussing out who was still practicing Judaism or Islam in private despite be forced to convert to Christianity in public. So yeah, Spanish cuisine is very, very pork heavy and it’s everywhere. There is also a lot of alcohol in both places but we noticed that more family-friendly places didn’t serve it at all so it was relatively easy to avoid altogether.
To get around these issues while still having an authentic experience, we sought out halal restaurants with certified halal products, tried street food that we knew was prepared in a haram-free place (like churros!) or we stuck to the grocery stores and ate veg/pescatarian. I am already inclined to veganism so this wasn’t a stretch for me but my husband was longing for a nice big tagine by the end of the trip, for sure!
Finding places to pray is a challenge. Not only are all the former mosques of Andalusia now churches or cathedrals that Muslims are not allowed to pray inside, the remaining modern mosques for local Muslim populations are forcibly non-descript and tough to find. Unlike Canada, where a mosque is allowed to look like a mosque (with a minaret and everything), the same isn’t true elsewhere. We ended up just having salat where we stayed and left it at that.
Airports aren’t fun. Being Muslim in an airport is a nerve-wracking experience, no matter where you are, especially when you are dragging two little kids along and you tend to be the only visible Muslims in a 100-kilometer radius for some reason. Obviously the extra attention by security agents didn’t happen when leaving Marrakech much but it did get bothersome when entering Germany and Spain. My husband has a permanent resident card for the EU and the level at which it was scrutinized was necessary but irritating. Maybe it’s because the officers just did it in such a harsh manner or I’m overly sensitive to racism against Moroccans to the point of paranoia but I wasn’t pleased and I’m pretty sure that he would have been hassled a lot longer if he hadn’t been travelling with his Canadian-passport-carrying family. Oh, and the hijab pat-downs get old real quick, especially when someone is scanning my baby’s milk at the same time and both kids are hollering. Sigh.
Being the only hijabi makes you a sideshow novelty. I have no idea why but on our entire 2 week trip, we really only saw a handful of hijabi muslimahs. And yeah, we look for each other. I was pretty shocked to constantly be the only hijabi in the room and, as a result, be the constant object of other peoples’ stares. In a walking tour around Sevilla, our group turned to look at me every single time the guide mentioned Islam or the Qur’an. I mean, the association there isn’t so bad but you really start to feel like a circus freakshow when people are looking at you with their mouths hanging open in the grocery line.
Having a Canadian accent and being white changed how people with Islamophobic biases treated me. Despite the extra unwanted attention as a hijabi in tour groups, shops and on the street, I did notice that people changed how they treat me immediately on hearing my Canadian accent. It’s amazing how fast people compartmentalize you as a tourist and not one of “those” Muslims with just the flicker of a knowing glance when you ask for a bag or a receipt.
Our people stick together better as minorities. For all of the issues that Muslims have with each other in Muslim-majority countries (humans gonna human, eh?) we sure seem to get along better and in a more cooperative spirit when we are the minority. We just noticed that everywhere we went, other Muslims would seek us out to ask for directions or assistance and to be honest, we did the same. I’m not sure why but the whole “we’re in this minority deal together so give me a hand” thing is real.
For better or for worse, travelling as a Muslim is definitely a unique experience and not one I exactly have a choice in! Before I was Muslim, I travelled a lot and I have to say that I really notice a difference in terms of acceptance and treatment by fellow travellers and locals. It’s also something other Muslims report noticing (especially if they are visibly Muslim) and honoring those experiences without self-gaslighting about them is important. Sharing raises awareness for everyone – that’s the beauty of storytelling and bearing witness to someone’s stories. In the end, any different treatment we experience is neither going to define our trip nor the countries we visit.
Nakita Valerio is an award-winning writer, academic, and community organizer based in Edmonton, Canada.