How to be hospitable & respectful with a houseguest's religion?
July 7, 2023 12:44 PM   Subscribe

A graduate student from Pakistan, who's never traveled abroad, will soon be staying in our US eastern Washington guest room for a few weeks (after a 34-hour trip to the US) while awaiting student housing. I'd like to be respectful and hospitable. Would it be rude, presumptuous, considerate, or otherwise to try to find a small prayer rug for his room before he arrives? Should I try to do this? If so, is it OK to shop local thrift and secondhand stores? What am I failing to consider?
posted by vitia to Society & Culture (24 answers total)
Do you have a way to contact the student and ask? My experience of religious Muslims is that they will travel with a rug of their own, although I will say my experience is limited to a handful of people over the last ten years. I would ask the student about this and whether you should have some halal food on hand and if there’s anything else you can do to make the stay comfortable.

Since we don’t know this person, we don’t even know if they’re observant and the only person who can answer that question is them.
posted by Bottlecap at 12:51 PM on July 7 [20 favorites]

I think that rather than finding a prayer rug right away, I'd hold off and wait until he gets there and then offer to go with him to find one. Because it's entirely possible that he's not religious and won't need one, or if he is, he may not even be Muslim. Also - if he is religious, he may already have one he has packed with him.

And also, if you just get one, that maybe would send the message that "oh, they're assuming everyone from Pakistan is Muslim, but I'm actually Zoroastrian - how do I explain that, maybe I shouldn't say anything". On the other hand, if you wait until he's there and ask if he needs you to bring him shopping for anything in particular, that could send the message that "oh cool, she'll be okay with what I need" and he'll likely be more comfortable with a question about something like "I've packed my own rug, but I also need a way to wash my feet before prayer, is that okay and where can I do that?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:58 PM on July 7 [32 favorites]

My parents are from Pakistan (kind of, it's complicated). I agree with the previous posters about skipping the prayer mat. We don't know if the student is Muslim or how religious they are. Also if they are religious they can just pray on something clean like a towel or sheet until they get one.

The one thing I would suggest if they are Muslim is that you can advise them to check the ingredients of ALL processed foods they plan on eating to make sure they can eat it. People growing up in Muslim countries may not realize that prohibited ingredients can be included in things that wouldn't at first glance appear to be haram such as chocolate frosted pop tarts.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 1:47 PM on July 7 [17 favorites]

Also, a pep talk - the fact that you're even thinking about this is a sign you have a hospitable and welcoming heart already. You may make a couple of tiny mis-steps, but if he's also a gracious person, he'll forgive you.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:48 PM on July 7 [22 favorites]

In the US, in terms of packaged food, except for alcohol (including flavor extracts like vanilla), if the product has a Kosher certification, it will be halal too. I say this because so many commercial products have a kosher certification on the front of the packaging, although halal certification is becoming more common in the US too.
posted by atomicstone at 1:58 PM on July 7 [5 favorites]

Email the student, ask what you can do to make them feel at home. Ask about any food restrictions noting that you'd love to prepare a meal for when they arrive.
posted by theora55 at 2:21 PM on July 7 [8 favorites]

If you provide a nice pile of fresh bath linens that include a soft bath sheet (bigger than bath towels) that can be used in a pinch, but can also just be welcoming and inviting relaxation alongside washcloths and hand towels. Stealthy!

Then offer to take him shopping after a rest day.
posted by Mizu at 2:37 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]

It's kind of you to think this, but a religious person will have prayed during the 34-hour trip and won't be assuming they can get a prayer mat right away on arrival, most likely.

As with any guest, it would be a kindness to ask what kind of food they might like to have in the help, and to specifically ask about dietary restrictions, so they can eat when they arrive without having to feel like they or someone else needs to shop.
posted by bluedaisy at 2:46 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

This is definitely "just ask them" territory. He may not even be observant.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:47 PM on July 7 [2 favorites]

A former coworker who was an observant Muslim kept a prayer rug in his desk that folded up into a zippered pouch, something like this: Travel Prayer Rug. Not sure if his had a built in compass, though. I think he used a smartphone app.

I knew he was on his way to prayer if I saw him heading to one of the conference rooms with that in his hand.

So if he's observant he probably has something similar with him already. Agree with others that this is a "just ask" type of thing.
posted by ralan at 3:33 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

It's kind of you to consider this, but many, many Muslims from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and other South Asian countries (of which I am an example) are non-practising. Gifting such a person with a prayer rug could be presumptuous at best, offensive at worst. Really not trying to make you feel bad here, because it is kind of you to think ahead to your guest's needs. But I would hold off on the prayer rug. A very religious person is likely to bring their own along with them anyway.
posted by unicorn chaser at 4:44 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]

A wonderful but somewhat disorganised coworker of mine used to go and find a clean cardboard box to flatten and pray on in a storeroom when it was prayer time. It was important to him that the form was observed but the mechanics of it were up for improvisation.
posted by deadwax at 6:08 PM on July 7 [3 favorites]

I'm not all that religious. I think if I walked into someone's house and they showed me the religious paraphernalia they'd purchased for me and let me know that they were committed to making sure my religious needs were met, the next few weeks would be quite awkward as I tried to stay away from my slightly deranged hosts and at the same time give them the impression, because obviously religion was very important to them, that I also was very religious.
I don't think being respectful is something you can set up in advance, and generally more traditional cultures emphasize the respect a student and guest must show to his host.
Don't make this insanely awkward by trying too hard, especially with someone who may not be experienced with other cultures and who doesn't know what to expect.
If you're friendly and welcoming things will go fine.
posted by AugustusCrunch at 6:09 PM on July 7 [7 favorites]

If the student is from Pakistan, there's a

2.1% chance that they are Hindu;

1.3% chance that they are Christian;

0.1% chance that they are another non-Muslim religion.

Plus, of course, they could be technically Muslim but non-observant.

Don't buy them a prayer rug.
posted by chariot pulled by cassowaries at 10:28 PM on July 7

South Asian here. Please do not buy them a prayer rug. If you do want to be welcoming and don't hear from them before they get here, a better idea would be stocking a small supply of vegan/kosher certified foods, since those are halal by default.
posted by Tamanna at 11:48 PM on July 7 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm from Pakistan born and bred. It's really kind of you to host the student and to be thinking how you can make them comfortable.

While there is a non-Muslim population in Pakistan, it's pretty likely your grad student is Muslim given the demographics of the country. This doesn't mean they're religious and even if they were, it would be weird to have a prayer rug waiting for them, so I agree with others, don't do that. Instead, here are some suggestions that hopefully won't be too onerous.

The best thing you can probably do is make sure there are no pork products in the house, or designate a separate area for them in the fridge. Clean or separate any pans used to cook them. The majority of Pakistani Muslims, including most non-religious ones, find it really uncomfortable to be around pork. This goes double for those who've never left the country before. A lot of Pakistani Muslims are pretty blase about alcohol and halal vs non-halal meat, but this can depend on individual upbringing and amount of exposure to the outside world.

Regardless of religion, Pakistanis are appalled by the use of toilet paper alone, but also too embarrassed to say anything about it, so if there is no bidet in the bathroom, you could put an unopened 1/2 litre bottle of mineral water in their room which they can repurpose if they wish, or even leave a plastic jug discreetly in the bathroom.

Cats are usually fine, but if you have dogs in the house, then your guest might prefer they stay out of their bedroom. This is especially important if the guest does happen to be religious as some, though not all, conservative Muslims believe the presence of dogs makes a room unsuitable for prayer. Warn them if the dog is friendly or barky. This is not universal by any means, but many, especially people from more conservative/less cosmopolitan backgrounds, think of dogs as outdoor pets and aren't used to the closer relationship Americans have with them. Don't let any animals lick human plates (I nearly died of horror when I saw this at a friend's home when I came to the US as a student), come into contact with food, or touch/serve food with unwashed hands after touching an animal.
posted by tavegyl at 3:47 AM on July 8 [27 favorites]

You're very considerate - many people wouldn't put this much thought into making a guest comfortable. I like the idea of providing fresh linens in his room (practical even if he doesn't pray regularly) and stocking up on halal food (I'm a non-observant Hindu but still strongly prefer vegetarian food. It's what I grew up with!)

I recommend finding some Bombay mix - easy to get from supermarkets - as well as curry flavor noodles, crisps, and microwaveable curry packets / rice bags from subcontinental brands. All of these are commonly sold and eaten in Pakistan.
posted by wandering zinnia at 3:58 AM on July 8

I recommend finding some Bombay mix - easy to get from supermarkets - as well as curry flavor noodles, crisps, and microwaveable curry packets / rice bags from subcontinental brands.

Ooh, you know what, something like this could be a good way to spin that offer for a shopping trip. Instead of offering to take them shopping for "any religious thing you need", spin it like a general shopping trip for "any snacks or other stuff" they may need or want. That way it's up to them to decide whether to treat it as "a chance to get the religious item I need" or "a chance to hunt down some curry flavor things", or even "ooh, a chance to see what kind of stuff is in an American supermarket, that could be fascinating".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:05 AM on July 8 [3 favorites]

FYI - please still check the Kosher foods ingredients. Jews do not have the same restrictions on alcohol that Muslims do so flavors like vanilla which has a small amount of alcohol could still be allowed in a certified Kosher snack item.
posted by brookeb at 6:27 AM on July 8 [1 favorite]

Also, Spokane and Walla Walla both have halal grocery stores, if you're in those necks of the Eastern Washington woods.
posted by brookeb at 6:29 AM on July 8

Just +1 to tavegyl's answer. Just from another Muslim in a neighbouring region, mark that as your best answer and proceed.

To reiterate:
- worry least about the prayer rug. If you're still thinking about religious observance for the prayers, then find out from your local mosque/Muslim community the compass direction for the qibla (direction of prayer). They'll probably have an app or a travel compass if they're that particular, but for my money, if you know the answer to this, this is the one that would leave an impression. If they ask.

- if he's never travelled, ABSOLUTELY figure out the halal/kosher foodstuffs available. Here's my reason: it's a pretty vibrant economy with an outward-looking populace. It's not that he won't be familiar with American/Western food, but he's used to halal versions of those foods. Standby to let him know that typically Italian sausages or deli meats aren't halal, that sort of thing. These kinds of things catch me flatfooted as well, because I'm used to getting halal Shake Shack, for example.

- the toilet. A spritz bottle to leave for him to clean up, at least, that's what you need rather than a prayer rug. I guarantee you.
posted by cendawanita at 7:17 AM on July 8 [2 favorites]

(tho to the last point, who knows -- There's enough "horror stories" from our side of the equation, the guy might be travelling with a travel collapsible bucket, just in case. But, ehhh.)
posted by cendawanita at 7:23 AM on July 8

If you are near Spokane there are a number of Asian and Oriental markets (one handily named "Oriental Market") there. I've found that sometimes those only carry East Asian goods, but if you're willing to do a scouting trip you should be able to find at least one that carries common Pakistani goods.

You don't have to have those waiting in the house. In fact, after he's had a chance to rest from the trip a shopping expedition where he can see he's not in a 100% alien environment may help him feel a little more comfortable.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:43 AM on July 8

Response by poster: Thanks so much for all the helpful answers! I'll ask him what he needs once he's rested from his trip and we'll go shopping.

Some additional context: he's had tons of questions and I'm not very good at being brief in my answers, so I've already overwhelmed him with information. I wasn't thinking very carefully about the prayer rug question—panicking looking at our minimalist guest room and being like, "Will this be OK? He's too polite to say anything if it's not!"—the answers make a lot of sense.

(I'm Unitarian so of course I don't know how to talk about religion.🤷🏼😄)

The suggestions about the bathroom and the kitchen are especially helpful—done and done!
posted by vitia at 1:07 AM on July 9 [1 favorite]

« Older Can multiple Echo Dots do this?   |   Airtable, Ethercalc? Multiple rows per record OR... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments