In Middle East folklore there is the story of the British emissary who accepted an invitation to dine in the Chouf district of Lebanon. In this mountain district, as it happens, the bread is baked in paper-thin discs shaped like long-playing records but twice the diameter. Because it is so large, it is folded several times and left beside the plates. Not knowing this, the emissary mistook his bread for a napkin and placed it on his lap—at which point everyone at the table immediately did the same rather than embarrass him.
The story may be apocryphal; many such tales are. But in view of the traditions and customs that dictate and regulate hospitality and manners in the Middle East it is probably true. In the Middle East guests are most important persons.
Every country has its traditions of hospitality and most countries pride themselves on their friendliness toward strangers. But the traditions of the Arab world go somewhat deeper than elsewhere and for good reasons. They stem from a long hard struggle to survive in hostile environments where human contact was treasured, where the infrequent traveler was the sole source of news and information and where safety hinged directly upon the size and strength of one's family, tribe and clan. Out of that struggle evolved an elaborate code that governed the Arab's most important social relationships—those with his family and those with his guests.
For westerners, to whom family relations are often casual, it is sometimes difficult to understand how close and how important family ties can be. They are so extensive as to bewilder the stranger and there is no better example than the linguistic elaboration of the word "cousin." Whereas there is just one such term in English, there are eight words denoting "first cousin" in Arabic and 16 pertaining to "second cousin," each designed to make it perfectly clear which first cousin is referred to and what the degree of kinship is.
It is confusing too, because not only are there blood relationships, but numerous foster brothers and foster sisters, godchildren and godparents and sometimes even neighbors, each of whom, depending on circumstances, may have a very definite claim upon one's good will and revenues. It is an unending maze made even more confusing by the tradition of teaching young people to call older persons ammi, ("my uncle") or khalti ("my aunt") as an informal yet respectful way of addressing adults.
To govern these relationships there slowly evolved over the years a code of behavior and manners almost as complex as the family groupings. And it is this combination of complexity and prescribed ritual that leads many Westerners to look upon family ties as impossible burdens and unwarranted intrusions upon privacy and individuality—an understandable view, perhaps, but one that also has another side to it. Members of a large family need never fear the loneliness and insecurity that many experience in the cities of the West. As one writer said: "In spite of the hard life, the Badawin is never in danger of actual starvation, or of dying from want. His ahl (family) would never permit this, nor would the system of affording three days' hospitality to all and sundry—such a splendid feature of democratic Arabia—allow of a man reaching such straits. A person who is down and out, without a penny to his name, would in reality be far worse off in London than in Arabia..."
In the desert, however, even the largest families could not have branches everywhere and so there also developed that generous spirit of hospitality that has become world famous, a spirit best expressed by the most common greeting in the Arab World: ahlan wa sahlan, short for "you have descended on your own people and have stepped upon the plains," the latter part to signify easy and pleasant traveling and the plenty that rich plains afford. Whether it was in the desert or in a remote mountain village, tradition has always been that every man, rich or poor, will feed and lodge a passing stranger. In the villages of Lebanon, the Church often supported a room for the poor where a traveler could stop at no cost to himself. And every village had at least one family which played the role of host to officials and important guests. Today, of course, much has changed, but visitors still can expect, at least in settled communities, a glass of cold sharab (fruit drink) immediately upon arrival and then, later, coffee, unless it happens to be close to mealtime. (Since coffee is believed to curb the appetite, offering it too close to mealtime might be misunderstood to mean that the guest is not welcome to stay for the meal.) If a guest is just stopping for a visit, many hostesses will not offer the coffee too soon as it might be taken as a gesture to speed his departure. For the same reason a traveler is never asked, early in the day, what his business is or when he is planning to leave. The impression that the host must give in his every word and action is that the guest is not only welcome, but welcome to stay indefinitely.
Hospitality is not limited to the way a guest is received in one's home. It includes making his trip easy and helping him, through one's contacts, accomplish his mission if he has one. In the mountain villages of Lebanon the passer-by was expected to help himself in the vineyards and orchards to whatever he could eat. A noted Lebanese author who traveled extensively in Lebanon on muleback some 40 years ago, relates how he was not only entertained royally by friends of friends wherever he stopped, but was also loaded with provisions for the road and supplied with letters to other friends at his next stop where he was sure to find just as hearty a welcome. Today, of course, this is impractical, but in Beirut shopkeepers will still walk with you several blocks to help you find your destination.
In the desert, hospitality has been commonly understood to extend for three full days. Being under a man's roof also means, to the Badu (Bedouins), being in their protection. Among the famous incidents in Arab folklore is that of a man who took refuge, unwittingly, in the tent of a shaikh whose son he had just killed. Even under these circumstances the sacred law of protection was observed. Not until three days had passed, at which time the guest was obliged by custom to depart, was the tribe free to go in pursuit and avenge the shaikh's dead son.
The law of protection works both ways. Should a man stop by a certain tribe as its guest, a bond of "bread and salt" is created between them and he becomes honor-bound to offer protection to his host at a later date. Similarly, if a man returns your greeting assalamu 'alaykum ("peace be upon you") with the reply wa 'alaykum as-salam ("and on you be peace"), it is equivalent to sealing a peace-pact with him; it is as if he had eaten bread and salt or drunk coffee with you: you can count on his protection, and he on yours.
Even women, who normally must stay in the background in the presence of guests, enjoy the prerogative of offering hospitality should a traveler pass their tents while the men are away. The senior woman will come out holding a bowl of laban (yoghurt) in her two hands as a sign that the passer-by is welcome to stop and refresh himself. Should the stranger appear to be a distinguished personage, and this is usually determined by the size of his retinue, the woman will hang one of her gowns on a pole in front of the tent. This is her silent way of inviting him to rest under her roof.
(Oddly enough, a corollary to this custom is practiced in Denmark today. Driving along the Danish countryside one often sees flagpoles in front of the cottages. A pennant raised on the flagpole indicates that the family is at home and happy to receive their friends should they be driving by. When the pennant is down they are either away or wish to be spared an unwelcome intrusion.)
The Arab guest, in return, is bound by custom to spare his would-be host every possible inconvenience. In the desert the Badu will light a fire at night to guide the traveler to their tents after a long day's journeying. But should the traveler be within a mile or two of his destination, he will make every effort to get there rather than impose on a willing, but possibly impecunious, host for the night.
The forms of hospitality differ from one part of the Arab world to another, sometimes even within the same country. The elaborateness with which they are observed varies according to the means of the host. But one thing is constant and that is the host's efforts to make the guest comfortable and to make him feel that he has honored the house with his presence.
The guest is always offered the best seat in the house, usually the one farthest from the door or fi as-sadr, meaning "at the top of the room." Another place of honor that is reserved for him is at the right of the host, while walking or sitting at table. The guest is accompanied on his departure not only to the door, but often to the gate of the garden or further, where the host repeats his thanks for the visit and farewells until his guest is out of sight. In the city, a good host will not close the door to his home the minute his guest leaves. In fact, he might well accompany him to the elevator or even down to his car. But in any case, he waits at the door until his guest is out of sight.
Respect for the guest is also shown in the way the host receives him and sits in his presence. As in the West, many will put on tie and jacket when the guest arrives instead of receiving him in informal attire. In no case will a host put his feet on his desk in a guest's presence, or point the soles of his shoes at him in home or office. Certain formulas are used before the mention of a topic that is unpleasant or derogatory. Before the mention of death, for example, one says "may it remain far from you." If mention is made of "shoe," "foot" or certain animals in the conversation, they are preceded by ajallak or hashak ("may you remain far above this topic!").
At table the guest is naturally served first and offered the choicest cuts such as, in the desert, the eye of the sheep, which is considered to be a delicacy. In some areas the host is so attentive that he will not eat until his guests have finished, but will wait on them personally to make sure that they are filled to repletion.
It is important to emphasize that in the Middle Eastern society the intricate laws of precedence in the family group overlap the practices of good guest-host relations. The same patterns apply to those who are older, or of higher rank in the family, as would apply to a guest. A younger person will always stand should an older person enter a room, and the older person is always served first. In a conservative mountain community where these social customs are strictly observed an older man might well refuse to take coffee if it is offered to a young woman first.
Perhaps the most perplexing aspect of Middle East manners to a foreigner is the importance of food. It seems, and rightly too, that the essence of hospitality is the amount and variety of food put before a guest and how well one succeeds in feeding it to him. Some Badu pride themselves on their greasy tents as demonstrative of their great hospitality. Since they and their guests wipe the grease off their hands on the flaps of their tents after eating, the amount of grease is an index of the host's generosity. The quantity and variety of courses are usually proportional to the means of the host, but there are always those who will go beyond their means to preserve appearances. One of the more famous incidents involves a man called Hatim Tayy who, on receiving an unexpected guest, killed his only she-camel (a Bedouin's most prized possession) to feed him. His sacrifice became a legend that is repeated even today to describe the ultimate in generosity: akram win Hatim Tayy ("more generous than Hatim Tayy"). In accepting food, the guest acts with reticence and reserve. A guest will often refuse the food offered him several times before he finally accepts it. It is not necessarily because he does not want it, but because he is too proud to accept it too readily. It is also by pressing it on him that the host is allowed to show his generosity. Of course, the dilemma arises when this is carried too far—as it often is. Then the guest is literally imposed upon by a host who refuses to take "no" for an answer.
In the Arab world there is a special food for every occasion. Easter has its little cakes filled with minced dates or spiced nutmeats. The month of Ramadan has its fancy dishes and sweets that are indulged in after the day's fast. Guests at a wedding receive small boxes filled with dragees (sugar-coated almonds). A highly spiced pudding known as maghli and garnished with almonds, pistachios, walnuts and pine seeds is offered at the birth of a child, and usually for the 40 days following. At celebrations of circumcision rites in Syria a special tiered table, brightly painted and very ornate, is rented for the occasion, and on it is offered a wide and colorful variety of nuts. candies and preserves. The eve of St. Barbara's (the Halloween of the East) has its special pudding of boiled, sweetened wheat garnished with raisins and nuts. A sheep is usually killed when a roof is raised in Jordan, to offer thanksgiving and to provide a feast for all the relatives and neighbors who lend a hand. And Epiphany has its deep-fried zalabieh and awwamat drenched in syrup.
One of the more fascinating spreads, pleasing both to the eye and the appetite is the Lebanese maza.
A maza is composed of a number of small dishes (anywhere from four to forty) containing hors d'oeuvres that are nibbled on along with the popular anis-flavored grape essence called arak. A maza will include nuts, tart fruits, salted seeds, any number of cheeses, salads, marinated bone marrow, cooked and raw liver, cucumbers, tomatoes, other greens, a whole gamut of vegetables cooked in olive oil (foods cooked in olive oil are more delicious cold and one day old, so leftovers are perfect for the purpose), tabbouleh and kubbeh (specialties with a cracked wheat base), pickles, olives, seafood, preserves and so on according to a hostess's ingenuity and flair. It is a wonderful social institution that at its best goes on for hours.
To the Western world in which social customs and manners are constantly moving toward simple, more natural levels, the elaborate structure of manners in the Middle East seems sometimes unnecessarily cumbersome. Manners, however, make a distinct contribution to civilization. As the Rev. Daniel Bliss, the founder of the American University of Beirut, wrote of life in Lebanon in 1856:
"... if civilization takes account of an elaborate etiquette covering speech as well as conduct, delicately adjusting the law of precedence, furnishing the lowliest peasant with a stereotyped phrase, always polite, and often poetical, for every possible event or act—a birth, a death, a marriage, eating, drinking, bathing, haircutting, the wearing of a new coat or gown—surely the Lebanese possessed a highly complicated civilization."
Dr. Bliss's observations may not hold true today as much as they did 100 years ago. The speed, efficiency and impersonality of modern business practices have infected the conduct of affairs in the Middle East as elsewhere. Yet manners in the Middle East still reflect the spirit described by Dr. Bliss. Coffee, for example, or the manner in which it is served, is still a tradition rather than just a drink, a symbol with its own elaborate etiquette which suggests the whole complex structure of manners in the Middle East and with subtle nuances that vary from one region to another.
To the Bedouin, for example, the ritual of coffee has been and to an extent still is part and parcel of his most prized tradition. Preparing it is a ceremony which means that the guest is honored and welcome. The further south in Saudi Arabia and tribal Iraq and Jordan—the more it becomes a solemn duty performed by the host himself, unless he is a prince, in which case it is delegated to a trusted servant who stands high in his master's esteem.
The coffee beans are first roasted over an open fire in a long-handled iron skillet. After they are cooled they are crushed in an ornate wooden mortar with a long-handled pestle known as mihbaj . The pounding is an art in itself and makes a very exciting rhythm when the pestle is manipulated by an expert. The saying "So and So pounds coffee from morning till night" is a way of describing his generosity and the great number of guests he entertains.
The strong Arab coffee is served in tiny cups without handles which the guest holds between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand and into which is poured a sip at a time. The host usually drinks first as a sign that it is not poisoned. One of the inviolable rules of this ritual is that the host holds the coffee pot in his left hand and pours into the cups which he holds stacked in his right and passes around among his guests according to seniority. A guest is allowed to take as many cups as he likes, but good manners usually dictate that he stop after the third or fourth. A fifth may be pressed on him if he is an important person. In the course of the visit he will have the opportunity to take a second and third round. When he wants to indicate that he has had enough he shakes the cup with five or six rapid little rotations of the wrist.
In Kuwait it is a tradition that a casual visitor, who drops in on the majlis or morning reception of a shaikh or important merchant, will be given a round of coffee on arrival and another about 10 minutes later. Then scented wood, placed on top of some lighted charcoal, is passed around in a hand censer. This is a signal that he should take leave, thus the common Arab saying bakhir via ruh or aqub el-udh gaud, both meaning "after the incense, it is time to go."
In settled areas it is mostly Turkish coffee which is served, always in small cups. It is brewed in varying styles and with different degrees of sweetness. A good hostess still takes real pride in the quality of the coffee that is offered in her home. In public places or business offices you can order it to your taste. It can be murrah (bitter), 'arrihah (barely sugared), sukkar alil (little sugar), maghlieh (well-boiled), or mazboutah (just right).
But whatever your preference and no matter where you are, in office or home, among the rich or humble, in a remote village or the bustle of a town office, you can always count on a cup of coffee, the one unfailing sign that the guest is still esteemed and honored in the Arab world.
Leila Shaheen was born in Lebanon, is a graduate of the American University of Beirut and has traveled extensively in Europe and the United States. She is the former editor of al-Kulliyah, the A.U.B. alumni magazine, and has contributed to other Middle East publications.