The late American chef, world traveler, raconteur and foodie Anthony Bourdain once said, “You learn a lot about someone when you share a meal together,” and no words could ring more true if you are studying Arabic and want to learn more about the culture. In fact, whether you’re visiting one of the many Arab speaking countries or you have an Arabic language partner right in your hometown, one thing’s for sure – Arabs are known for their hospitality, and you’re going to get invited for a meal either out at an Arab restaurant or in their home.
Many of you who regularly read our articles know how much we love to talk about Arabic cuisine – those delicious snacks and meals made according to centuries old recipes that reflect the historic culture of trading spices and herbs throughout the region. Whether its mansaf or maqlooba, we could go on and on about what delicious meals and tasty treats makes us salivate just thinking about them. However, this article is not about what foods to eat, but rather how you should act when you’re invited to eat them. After all, you want to make a good first impression, don’t you? With that in mind, here are some tips on proper etiquette when you’re invited to eat with an Arab:
Pork is NEVER the Other White Meat
Arabs are restricted by Islamic conventions from eating pork, most carnivorous animals, and unscaled fish. Alcohol is also forbidden, so you can forget about bringing that bottle of wine as a “thank you” gift when invited to an Arab home.
Make Mine “Halal”, Pal!
Let’s say the sandal was on the other foot and you wanted to invite your Arabic neighbors over for a weekend barbecue. According to Quranic tradition, meat must be butchered in a halal or permitted way. The good news is that you don’t have to quickly search the internet and find out the best way to butcher your own meat according to Islamic standards before your neighbors arrive. Most butchers in Europe and America are now required to label their meat as halal if it was butchered in the permitted way. If you don’t see a label, just ask! (By the way, lamb is the most common meat eaten in Arab countries, so if you want to be neighborly, or you just feel like mixing it up, throw some lamb on the barbie. You’ll both be glad you did!).
Snacks? No, Thanks! (Yes, Please)
When an Arab offers you a snack as their guest, politely refuse the first offer and accept the second offer. However, in Arab tradition, it is naturally assumed that that guests will accept at least a small cup of tea (or sometimes Arabic coffee) which is offered as an expression of friendship or esteem. It’s considered rude to decline the offer of drink.
How Right You Are
When served something to drink, accept with your right hand only! When eating, drinking, offering, or passing food and drink, use your right hand only! The left hand is considered unclean, so when eating with Arabs, especially when taking food from shared plates, use your right hand only! In case you didn’t get it, when eating or drinking, accepting food or drink, shaking hands, and pretty much everything else you would do as a guest in an Arab home, use your RIGHT HAND ONLY!
You’re Plate Is Going to be Full
Any foreigner that has ever been invited to an Arab house to eat will tell you the same thing: “If you leave the house hungry, it’s your fault!” Be prepared to have food piled on your plate in copious amounts and not just once, either. Once you’re down to that third plate and simply can’t eat anymore, your hosts will continue to insist on you having more. Politely refuse the fourth helping and don’t worry about eating everything on your plate as this is considered a compliment with everyone being satisfied that you ate so much.
Imagine No Religion (or Politics)
The dinner is the climax of conversation and entertainment but keep in mind avoiding discussions on political issues (both national and international), religion, alcohol, and male-female relations over dinner or tea, as you may not only offend your guests, but in some countries, it could land you in even bigger trouble with the government. And learning to speak Arabic in jail is probably not on your list of best ways to practice when you want to learn Arabic language skills.
So, there you have it! Now get out there and enjoy some delicious food and even greater Arabic conversation. Until next time, sahtayn!
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