Hospitality in the Arab World
By: Noah Chani/Arab America Contributing Writer
When it comes to hospitality, Arabs are well-known for being masters in the art of welcoming. Historically, the origins of this behavior stem from the willingness to house and feed rogue desert travelers who passed through town. The ultimate goal of Arab hospitality is to honor a guest and break the ice, thus ridding people of the “awkwardness” and fear that comes with meeting a stranger.
In the Middle East, hospitality is a ritual. Typically, rituals are only left for the most sacred of traditions, and in Arab culture, the treatment of your guest(s) falls under this sacred caveat. Hosts follow a strict welcoming procedure to ensure all guests receive the same level of generosity, no matter the time of day or year. Because hospitality is held with the utmost importance, guests are meant to be welcomed into the family circle, even if they are strangers. Creating an ambiance of inclusion is the secret to the successful welcoming of a guest. By becoming a temporary member of the household upon entrance, they are also guaranteed protection from harm. Ultimately, a true Arab will do everything in his power to make guests feel at home, which also means: “no” isn’t an answer.
Karam, the Arabic term for ‘generosity’, is an incredibly important part of the host’s faith. It signifies treating your guests with the utmost generosity and honor since failing to do so brings shame upon you as the host. Reputations are tarnished if word gets out that you’re an ill-prepared host. To prevent this from happening, the relationship between host and guest must be carefully crafted to maintain authenticity and promote inclusion.
In terms of the hospitality process itself, guests are expected to be welcomed outside the house, then escorted inside. The finest sitting room is where they are next directed to bombarded with an array of snacks and treats. In most cases, older guests receive greater levels of hospitality. For instance, they sit in the most central area of the home and in the most comfortable seat.
Tea or coffee with dates is a traditional Arab greeting dish, even before the main assortment of snacks. Traditionally, the pot’s first cup of tea or coffee is poured for the guests as a sign of respect and willingness to protect them.
Keep in mind, no amount of will power on the planet will help you turn down food from an Arab host (trust me I’ve tried). No matter how full, food just keeps on coming, if not shoved down your throat until it is gone. Why? Most hosts, sometimes correctly, assume their guests aren’t comfortable getting themselves another serving of food or are simply being polite and not doing so. The result: an over-hospitable host pushing unwanted food in your direction. The same confusion and miscommunication occur when a guest claims it’s time to leave. Such a statement is taken as a polite formality, and so hosts insist on guests staying longer.
Arab hosts are prepared to make any necessary accommodations in their dining or entertainment plans to give their guests the best possible experience. If you are a guest in an Arab home, it is important to know that you come first. Do your best to combat the awkwardness that comes with everyone being overly polite and courteous towards one another, without coming off as impolite yourself. Enjoy the special treatment and embrace it as customary, so the host may feel a sense of fulfillment regarding their duty to pamper you like you never thought you could be.