• Tasneem Bootwala

Study Abroad: The Experience

Updated: Oct 11, 2020

The city of Geneva sits at the border of Switzerland and France, creating an environment where French customs mix with many Swiss traditions. The day I landed in Switzerland, I was excited but a little nervous. As a study abroad student preparing to spend a semester in Geneva, I read articles to familiarize myself with Swiss culture, but none of what I read mentioned the traditional French greeting: faire la bise. My host mother, who was instructed to teach me as much as possible about Swiss culture and customs, went in for the kiss when we first met. Expecting a hug, I didn’t move in the way she anticipated and we ended up knocking heads. Since I was already a bundle of nerves, I was mortified by my faux pas. Luckily my Swiss family didn’t seem to mind, and it’s now a fond memory both me and my host mom share. One of the coolest things about homestay is, they really try to make you feel like a part of their family, and that kind of acceptance from absolute strangers is surreal.


Generally, students have the opportunity to do homestays with local families, or to stay in shared apartments with other students. Totally up to you, but I really enjoyed absorbing the culture living with another family. I was always able to keep my pardo, and they made every accommodation to make me feel at home. Additionally, I enjoyed access to my own room and bathroom so it made it easier to maintain taharat, because I was given full control over my living space.


While travelling within Europe I was using the cheap airlines (Shoutout to EasyJet!) that only let you bring a backpack, which forces you to prioritize what you bring. One thing I always made room for was my own towel, loto, and chakri, because I was staying in hotels.


Remember, when it comes to pakeezgi:


“Any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.”

- Douglas Adams, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


Food


You generally get breakfast and dinner with your homestay, and they are really receptive to dietary requirements, so they’ll definitely help you with vegetarian food, if not halal itself! If you're going to a city with a jamaat, then they should be able to coordinate faiz with you as well.


I spent almost 3 weeks in Greece, and during that time I mostly had to eat vegetarian food, because there was only one restaurant within walking distance that was halal. Fortunately for me, falafel Souvlaki is amazing and only €2 (shown in the first picture).


I was very lucky during my time in Switzerland because my homestay family was amazing at finding the halal options from nearby grocery stores. Not only that, I was so surprised at the amount of halal restaurants in Switzerland! There were almost 10 halal restaurants within walking distance of where I interned in Geneva.





As I explored more of Europe on my weekends I was able to find halal restaurants in every city. I was easily able to balance trying local vegetarian cuisine and halal comfort food. The third picture is from the Vegan Junk Food Bar in Amsterdam and it is genuinely one of the best burgers I’ve ever had (I know you don’t believe me but if you happen to be there please try it!)

One thing I do want to note is that if you choose to study abroad in an Asian country sometimes you’ll have to be extra careful with even the vegetarian options. While travelling in the Philippines I realized that they considered seafood a vegetable, and things listed as “vegetarian” still had fish in it. What I mostly ate while I was there was live fish that they let me bismillah!


Excursions


Depending on your university, they tend to give a lot of freedom. Your study abroad experience is your own, so you are free to go to other countries on the weekend (not something we say much), eat out at night, and check out local sights in your off time during classes/internships. They also organize certain events to encourage cross-cultural communication and mixers with other students, which are a lot of fun to go to. There’s nothing quite like having a network of peers and friends all over the world!


My semester in Switzerland included a three week excursion in Athens, and those three weeks included an excursion to the island of Crete. On my last day in Greece a couple of the other students and I took a quick boat ride to the island of Aegina.



Once we got back to Switzerland, my program gave us all SwissPasses, which meant we could travel on all of the public transportation within the country for free! I obviously took advantage of this and travelled around to all the cities to explore. In addition, I used the SwissPass to get right up to the border of Italy. That way, I was able to visit Milan for €10! I also went to Florence, Annecy, Amsterdam, Prague, Vienna and Salzburg on weekends.



Wearing a Rida


I studied abroad in Switzerland and Greece, and, especially in Switzerland there were very few Muslims. Despite this, I felt very comfortable wearing a rida everywhere; people were encouraging, accepting, and curious. Because I’m used to wearing a rida everywhere, it felt like nothing new. I hiked, swam, and even interned abroad and had no problems.





Unfortunately, a huge part of the culture of studying abroad in certain European countries revolves around alcohol. The great thing about wearing rida is that it made me visibly Muslim, so no one offered me alcohol. I definitely felt Huzurala’s TUS saayo (protection) all the time and I was able to avoid situations that would have made me uncomfortable. People will definitely treat you differently, but that’s not a bad thing! The natural respect people have towards modesty and the understanding they have for cultural differences is part of why I always wore my rida everywhere. I never felt like I lost an opportunity, or didn’t make a friend because of my rida. In fact, the curiosity of friends and strangers led to stronger and more relationships all around.

Another super cool advantage of wearing a rida is it made me recognizable as a Mumin everywhere I went! I ran into a couple mumineen while waiting for my bus transfer in Germany, and another bairo wearing a rida in Prague! I don’t think I would’ve connected with them if not for my rida, and I can’t tell you how exciting it was, after not seeing mumineen for months.



Miqaats


Even though I avoided Ashara and Ramadan, there were several miqaats during my time abroad. There was no jamaat I could find in Switzerland, the closest mumineen I could find were in France, and that was simply too far. When my grandfather and cousin came to visit me during Shaban, we did Thum Washeq in a hotel room in the middle of exploring Austria!


In a post-COVID-19 world, the answer seems obvious for specific miqaats: join virtually! The infrastructure for you to be able to join virtually exists, just communicate to your jamaat what you need. If you choose to study or intern in a city where there is a jamaat, communicate with your aamil to get contact details for the jamaat coordinator and masjid/markaz location in the city as well. It feels great to have a touch of home in a completely new world.


All in all, I’m so glad I got the chance to study abroad, and it’s an experience I’d highly recommend to anyone and everyone. It's our responsibility as devout patrons of a culture, to understand and respect others and live as global citizens in this changing world. It only takes one trip to understand the stark difference of lifestyle all around the world.


May Khuda TA keep our Moula TUS, whose efforts to bring mumineen to Ashara Mubaraka all over the world have truly made us global citizens, in good health and prosperity until the Day of Qiyama! Ameen!


Authored By: Tasneem Bootwala

Edited by: Taher Lokhandwala

Writing on a Notebook

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