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Volume 39, Number 2March/April 1988

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Amina and Muhammad

Written by Diane Turnage Burgoyne
Illustrated by Penny Williams-Yaqub

THE DELICIOUS MEAL: Mother and Aunt Samia carried out large trays of food into the sitting room where the cloths and plates had been laid. The food smelled delicious! Although the children wanted to hear Uncle Hasan's story, they were now only interested in the food before them.

"What a feast! Uncle Hasan will be very pleased with our hospitality," Amina thought to herself. "My father will be proud that he can offer his guest such a fine meal. He will be very proud of my mother."

The meal was, indeed, a feast. There was a bowl of salunah, a tasty, thick gravy made with meat and spices; a large bowl of salatah made of tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, and another plate piled high with crisp sambusak (See glossary page 27). In the middle of it all was a large tray of roasted lamb on top of a mound of rice. Muhammad's favorite dish - chicken kabsah - was placed among the other dishes of mahshi kusah and other delicious foods. At each corner were piles of the warm, flat bread that Amina liked so much. Umm! Everything looked so good!

After the food was put out, Mother called the children into the kitchen for a moment. "Children," she said, "Please remember your manners. Let me see if you know them. Which hand do you use to eat with?"

"Only the right!" Muhammad shouted, hoping he had pleased his mother by his quick response.

"Very good!" said Mother. "And how do you sit on the rug?"

"We sit so that the bottoms of our feet face no one," answered Amina.

"Correct. What else must you remember?"

"We must remember that it isn't polite to stare at someone while they eat. We should look down at our own food."

"Fine," said Mother. "Now go to the sitting room to your places."

Mother went to the door of the majlis to tell Uncle Hasan and Father that dinner was ready.

"Please sit down, Uncle Hasan," Father said. He indicated to Uncle Hasan that he should sit in the place of honor beside Father on his right side. "Bismillah, in the name of God," Father said quietly, before the family began to eat.

The meal was as delicious as everyone knew it would be. Amina and Muhammad ate so much they thought they might burst!

The two large trays of fruit - the oranges and apples, the dates and figs, that Father had brought - were the last things to be eaten. Then, after everyone had finished the meal, Father said with thankfulness, "al-Hamdu lillah!" which means "Thanks be to God!"

Uncle Hasan leaned back against the pillows and said, "What a fine meal that was! I thank you for your hospitality and generosity. I am so full, I don't know if I can move!"

Muhammad laughed. "I'll help you, Uncle Hasan!" he said. Then Father, Uncle Hasan, and Muhammad went to wash their hands before going into the majlis to sit on the couches there.

Amina helped her mother, Aunt Samia, and Grandmother clear the food away and prepare tea and coffee.

Grandmother carefully took the tiny coffee cups out of the cupboard. Amina loved to hold them and look at the pretty blue flowers that decorated them. She put the coffee cups on a tray and then put the small tea glasses on another. When the coffee was ready, Mother carried the tray with the coffee cups into the majlis.

Mother poured the hot, fragrant coffee into the little china cups and offered it to all the adults. Muhammad and Amina liked the smell of the cardamom spice that was in the coffee. Mother poured second cupfuls for everyone. But, when she offered a third, each person tilted his cup from side-to-side to show that he had had enough.

Later the grown-ups had sweet, mint tea. The teapot was left on the table so the adults could continue to sip tea as long as they wanted. Since mint tea is such a soothing, refreshing drink, the children were sure the sipping would continue for some time.

Diane Turnage Burgoyne has degrees in political science and inter-disciplinary social science, and lives in the Eastern Province of Saudia Arabia.

Background Notes
Written by Diane Turnage Burgoyne

Popular Foods

The family of Amina and Muhammad prepare an elaborate meal for Uncle Hasan's welcome, a typical Eastern Province menu for a guest. A whole lamb is steamed in a roasting pan on the stove and stuffed with rice, chicken, and nuts. It is then put in the oven to brown.

Mahshi kusah, zucchini (courgettes) stuffed with fried ground meat, spices and pine nuts, is served along with mahshi tomat, tomatoes filled with the same stuffing. There is also salunah, a thick gravy, salatah, a salad of tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce, Arab bread, sambusak, and kabsah, a dish made of chicken, lamb, or fish mixed with rice and tomatoes.

Such a meal is served to show the generosity and hospitality of the host, traits highly valued in Saudi Arabian society. It has been said that the best compliment that can be paid a Middle Easterner is to say that the person is a good host.

Mealtime Manners

Before the meal begins Mother calls the children into the kitchen to remind them of their manners, considered very important. The children know they must eat only with their right hand. Eating with the hand was the accepted form in traditional society. Today, Saudi Arabs may use silverware instead of eating in the traditional manner, depending upon the type of food being served, the occasion and the location. In the city, silverware is used often whereas in the village and certainly in the desert, the hand may suffice for everyday use.

Mother's second question referred to the position in which the children sit. Since Saudis traditionally sit on rugs when they eat, the position of one's feet is important. It is considered impolite to point the soles of one's feet toward anyone. The most common positions to eat from are with one's legs to one side, with them crossed, or in a squatting position.

Mother also reminds the children to look at their own food and not to stare at anyone else. She also makes sure the children remember to say bismillah, "In the Name of God," before beginning to eat.

The Coffee and Tea Ritual

After the meal is finished, Mother serves coffee and tea to the family. All over the Middle East, the making and offering of coffee is an important duty of a host, whether city-dwelter, villager or nomad. In Arabia, in the desert, great ceremony is given to coffee-making. The coffee beans are roasted over an open fire, pounded with a mortar and pestle. The coffee is then flavored with cardamom and served in tiny cups with no handles. It is poured from a shiny brass coffee pot held in the host's left hand into the small cups in his right hand, enough to give the drinker three or four sips. The cup is refilled until the guest shakes his cup to signal he has had enough. Today in the city, coffee is, of course, made on the stove. One Arab coffee cup is filled with ground coffee and put in a small coffee pot. About one cup of boiling water is added to it. This mixture is brought to a boil three times, being lifted off the heat for a moment after each boiling until the foam subsides. The pot is then filled three-quarters full with more boiling water and boiled again. One tablespoon of cardamom is put in another pot. This pot is then filled with the boiled coffee and left sitting for fifteen minutes. The coffee is light brownish-yellow in color when served.

Tea is served after coffee, usually in glasses rather than cups. It is sweet and sometimes laced with mint. The person who pours the coffee and tea is usually the youngest adult, who serves to show respect for the elders.


This description of a meal offered to honored family guests in the Eastern Province of today's Saudis Arabia is taken from Amina and Muhammad's Special Visitor, a teaching storybook intended for English-speaking primary-school children. Written as part of a Middle-East curriculum sequence, the book includes a glossary and notes for teachers.


This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the March/April 1988 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1988 images.