"Halawan?" What is it?
By: Haneen Abu Al Neel/Arab America Contributing Writer
I am so close to graduating from my Master’s program, I can taste the Halawan, but what is it? “Halawan” can be any kind of sweets that you offer to family and friends when you achieve a long-awaited goal. Many visitors to the Arab World might have heard the word “Halawan” used during a celebratory season like graduations, weddings, engagements, the birth of a new baby, a new job, promotion, and more.
“Halawan” in Arabic is derived from the source “Hilu/ Helu”, which is a noun describing food translated to mean sweets or desserts. To avoid sounding creepy, I would recommend that you make sure you know the person before using it.
As mentioned above, “Halawan” can be given at many happy occasions but also when one overcomes a difficult situation psychologically or physically, like the success of a medical operation. If you have funny friends, you might also hear it when one tries to guilt-trip the other about not congratulating them on a recent achievement–I do that a lot, because, you know, I am funny. Essentially, “Halawan” is a colloquial phrase used to refer to the gift, edible or not, as a celebration of a recent achievement.
Now, there are various justifications for “Halawan.” When one gives “Halawan,” one announces that they are sharing the joy of their loved ones. Although not explicitly ever stated, giving Halawan also denotes one’s good intentions. It also means that the gift giver bears no malice towards their loved one’s achievement.
In the Arab culture, this proof of intentionality in gift-giving and of one’s underlying emotions is priceless. Receiving a “Halawan” is significant as well, although much more enjoyable. Unlike conventional gifts, a Halawan is not attached to the expectation that the gift is reciprocated somewhat immediately. This is not to say that both acts of gift-giving are not equally valuable and culturally engraved. On the contrary, we find the silliest excuses to celebrate life and give gifts, whether that is to celebrate a promotion or merely a good friendship.
There is unspoken etiquette of the gift-giving culture in the Arab World. The first most apparent one is that a gift is expected but never asked for. Requesting gifts can come off as rude and entitled. When a gift is presented, there will inevitably be the “ah you didn’t have to.” That is almost always the most fun part to observe for me, probably even more for foreigners.
Depending on the social dynamics of the family, this exchange can be utterly hilarious or throws people into a drive down memory lane. Regardless, when the gift is edible, it brings us to etiquette rule number two. It is always expected of the person receiving the gift to present it to their guests to share almost immediately after it was given. In a more casual setting, this usually looks like me running to the kitchen and arranging a suitable presentation. Oh, how do I love it when guests bring us a collection of Baklava, mainly because I get to eat the first few bites!
Don’t let this scare you away though. In the Arab world, any gift is appreciated because it signifies a gesture of hospitality. Essentially, we love sharing food and gifts because we love sharing great moments with our loved ones.
Though we celebrate every occasion where some form of gift-giving takes place, it is rarely about the materialistic value of the gift. In some instances, and due to the countless events we have, the giver cannot afford to come bearing the most luxurious gifts. Many popular gifts are locally designed accessories, garments like Hijabs, or if you are my aunt…a duvet set. At times, the best gifts are those entirely intangible ones. Cards that bear the occasion’s colors, decorated with the most loving and kind of words can be all is needed.
In the Arab world, this comes easier because we have the advantage of a very poetically inclined language. There is one expectation, though. Whatever you bring, it must be the best quality, be it a cheap bracelet or a card. One must put in the time to test and choose the most durable and best quality in the price range determined.
Gift giving in the Arab World is fun. The most enjoyable part of the process is the journey to pick the present and the person’s reaction to it. While the best gifts are the edible ones, in my opinion, it is crucial to choose a gift that reflects the time you have put into choosing it. This recommendation is because that care in choosing the present is directly correlated to how dear the person you’re gifting it to.
There is no better way to put yourself in an awkward situation than showing up to a social event empty-handed, or worse, with a last-minute gift. But worry not, we are a people that love our poetic language. You can always wrap your gift with the best decorative phrases of love and affection, and you’ll get all set.