People who are travelling in the Middle East can often be lucky enough to be invited to meet the locals socially. Many are worried about the local "etiquette".
First of all, don't be! You will invariably be judged on your intentions rather than on your actual manners. If it is obvious that you are well meaning, then almost any "gaffe" will be overlooked. If you behave as you would at home, then in general you will be welcomed on your own terms.
However, here are some does, some don'ts and some explanations : as I say, it is not obligatory to follow them, but this is how anybody knowing a bit about the culture would behave.
I realise that this page is slanted more towards a woman's behaviour than a man's. Sorry, I do try to give both sides, but it just comes out that way, and most of the time I don't even notice. However, the rules are unquestionably less constraining for a man anyway. Also an Arab man is more likely to mix regularly with "foreigners" than are the women, and is thus less easily surprised in the case of unusual (from the locals' point of view) behaviour.
When you are introduced : if you are a man you can shake hands with another man without hesitation. Similarly, if you are a woman you can shake hands with another woman. Note that women who know each other or who feel friendly towards each other usually greet each other by several "cheek kisses". The number tends to vary, usually four or five, but don't worry about that bit. If a woman offers to kiss you, then be flattered and let her "lead". You may well find that she shakes your hand at the beginning of the meeting and says goodbye with a kiss. That's fine, and means that your encounter was successful!
Men should wait for a Arab woman to offer her hand and women should similarly wait for a Arab man to offer his. Many women prefer to avoid touching a man they do not know well. Many men, but especially older men, avoid touching a woman at all if she is not related to them, in that case they may offer an elbow (!) which you should try to shake more or less as if it was a hand. I know that this sounds funny, but do it anyhow! A man may also have washed in preparation for prayer: in that case he would avoid touching a woman before praying, whereas another time he is quite happy to offer his hand.
Don't be offended at the number of personal questions that everybody asks. "How old are you?" "what's your job?" "are you married?" "where's your husband/wife?" "do you have any children?" followed either by "How old are they?" or "Why not?" You can also be asked "How much do you earn?" (remember to divide it by however much seems appropriate according to the country. A Western salary invariably seems like uncounted riches to an Egyptian or even to a Jordanian! In Jordan, I usually divide or multiply by three when talking about money, this seems to work out about right). If you offer anybody a present from your own country, you can be quite certain that they will ask how much it cost. This again is not considered rude. You don't necessarily have to be absolutely truthful when answering!
You can perfectly well ask all these questions right back! If you have any photos, they will be examined with enthusiasm by everybody, never mind that they don't know the people on the photos. This is a good "conversation starter", especially if you have photos of your family or of your home.
Another one is to announce that you would like to learn Arabic, and ask the names of anything you can see. Especially if you note these words down as you hear them, it is a very useful exercise.
Drinking tea : this is all over! It is polite to accept a second glass: if you don't want it, then you should smile and have a reason for not accepting ("I've been drinking tea all day, I shall have a problem tonight!" is usually very successful, it brings smiles of understanding). You can refuse a third glass if you want to, put your glass back on the tray, and when somebody prepares to pour you some more, place your hand palm down flat over the top of the glass.
If people insist on pouring anyway, then just don't drink the tea! If you do, you will have the same problem a few minutes later. If pressed, you can relent and drink it in a couple of swallows just before you leave.
If you are offered coffee by anybody Bedouin related, in which I include the whole population of south Jordan, you should "shake the cup" when you give it back. Not doing so is considered to mean that you want some more! Just tilt it two or three times, slightly and quickly from side to side, holding it between finger and thumb.
I was amused to see Tony Blair fall right into that one, and on television, when visiting the Gulf! Obviously insufficiently briefed.
Note that a good "out" to almost any invitation is "please forgive me, I am dead tired, I must go somewhere and sleep!" This is accepted by everybody I have ever met, the invitation might turn into "why don't you sleep here?" but it is easier to get out of this one - and just occasionally it might be accepted with gratitude.
When you arrive somewhere in response to an invitation or at an official reception of any kind (in which I include weddings and so forth), you will probably be greeted by a senior member of the household (or as senior as is free at that particular moment), offering you coffee. In this case, the coffee is very strong and bitter, and is just a few drops in the bottom of a handleless cup. Drink it down in one gulp (yes, I know it's also very hot!) and hand back the cup, shaking it as described above. Later, you will probably be offered "normal" coffee, but this is the welcome to the household. Very occasionally you might meet this welcome ritual in a hotel. Behave in exactly the same way, and try not to sneer at all the tourists who don't know how to react to this offer of coffee!
If you are invited to visit a house for a meal or just for tea, here is the usual procedure : first of all, a lot depends on the social status of the household and how accustomed they are to receiving westerners. As usual, I am giving you the simpler households, largely Bedouin inspired. For the higher status households, western standards pretty much apply.
If you are invited for a meal, one usually takes a small gift for the household. Flowers are a good idea, but you can't always get them - if you do find any, then remember that you should take an ODD number and not (for instance) an even dozen. You could also take dried flowers or artificial ones, the latter are pretty cheap so take a nice bunch, and present them like fresh flowers. Chocolates, biscuits or Arab pastries are also very acceptable. Remember that it is not really polite to take something that the household would consider as being very expensive - (see lower down) - ask the shopkeeper if in doubt, explain the position.
I admit that here I have suggested rather uninteresting gifts, but these are the "safe" ones. Somebody who knows the household might take something a bit more adventurous that he/she knows would be liked, but if I were you I should play safe!
The usual way to offer a gift like this is to hand it over as inconspicuously and as soon as you possibly can, even to the person who opens the door or to one of the children. Just mutter deprecatingly "this is for the house" or something similar. You may feel that the thanks you receive are scanty or downright inadequate. Don't be offended, this is normal. However much your gift is appreciated you are unlikely to receive more than a polite thank you. Don't be upset, the host or hostess might be absolutely delighted without ever saying more than the equivalent of "very nice".
I was worried the first time or two this sort of thing happened, until somebody said "wherever did you get the glasses that you gave to Muna? They are very attractive, she is showing them off to everybody and we all want to buy some like them for ourselves".
In many households the inmates commonly take off their shoes when entering, but this does vary a lot. You can pretty well know the position by looking at the outside of the front door, if a lot of shoes are lying around, this means take them off. Wear slip on shoes or sandals in case. As a general rule, if there is a carpet, you should offer to remove them, if the host says, don't bother, then don't bother - unless, of course, you see your hostess glaring behind his back! You will also see if the household in general is barefoot. If you need to use the bathroom, sandals will be offered, you should wear them in the bathroom only.
If you are invited to a meal, then very often the eldest son (or daughter if you are sitting with the ladies) will bring around a jug of water, which he/she will pour over your hand or hands. There will be a basin to catch the water, soap is usually available if wanted, and a towel will be offered immediately. This saves getting up to wash. If you are accustomed to eating with your hands, then offer the right hand only to be washed. Most people offer two hands anyway. However, when eating, of course use only the right hand. Almost certainly a spoon will be offered, don't hesitate to accept it. Everybody may eat from a common plate, take the food immediately opposite to you only. Somebody will certainly pile up "your" sector with the choicest pieces, eat what you can. Try to be neither the first nor the last to finish eating, it is a good idea to take small spoonfuls and eat slowly. When you are full, say so (pat your tummy and say you couldn't fit in another crumb!). Add a compliment or two and everybody will be pleased [no need to burp!] In general water is offered only at the end of the meal, there might be a common glass here as well, so drink it down quickly and hand the glass back! When people have finished eating, they will usually get up immediately to wash hands and mouth, without waiting for everybody else to finish. If this happens when you are still eating, then take your time! After that, everybody lies back on the cushions, the men will get out cigarettes and the conversation will begin.
Just to say this : In Arab countries it is not common for a man to ask permission to smoke in the presence of a woman. However he WILL ask permission if he wants to drink alcohol when you are there. You can be pretty sure he won't do that in front of his parents, though, whatever his age!
After a meal, coffee will be served, probably tea also after a short interval, or perhaps soft drinks. After this, you should offer to leave; you will be pressed to stay, it is for you to decide how sincere this is - roughly base yourself on how animated the conversation has been, how much you are enjoying yourself, how much you think THEY are enjoying themselves, plus various imponderables which you will recognise - exactly for what reason you received the invitation etc. In general, an invitation to supper is not necessarily an invitation to spend the evening.
The ladies : if you are part of a couple, they are unlikely to appear, the same if there are men from outside the household present. If you are a woman alone, they MIGHT put in an appearance, and in any case it would be perfectly proper to ask if you could thank them for the meal. However it would not be rude not to do so.
I find it very useful to take along some handwork (crochet, embroidery, knitting, etc) on these occasions. It is an immediate introduction to the female members of the household, who all want to look and perhaps try for themselves. In any case, it would help when the general conversation turns to Arabic or to a subject in which you are completely uninterested, and it is always an infallible ice breaker. Frequently you can also get good advice on what you are doing!
If you are seated on the ground (almost certain if you are visiting the Bedouin!), remember that it is downright insulting to point the bare sole of your foot towards anybody. Most people sit cross legged, and it is a good idea to cultivate this habit! You will see that when they want to stretch out their legs they usually cover their feet with a blanket or towel.
I invariably have with me, folded in my bag, a large headscarf, useful for all kinds of purposes, and in this particular case to drop over my feet.
An interesting point when visiting with the Bedouin concerns the widespread Western misconception of "Bedouin hospitality". I am not implying that it is not perfectly genuine but the Bedouin tradition requires the guest to provide something in return. The host has the privilege of determining the level of this exchange, which is why I said earlier that it is not considered polite to take too expensive a gift when invited to a house. However, even a glass of tea drunk in a Bedouin tent really calls for some sort of return. It can perfectly well take the form of sweets for the children for instance, chewing gum or some sort of small toy, or a packet of cigarettes. If you have some fruit with you it would be welcomed eagerly. In all these cases, even (or especially) the cigarettes (!) offer the gift to the WOMEN. If you have nothing at all to offer, then you can always produce a few dinars, they will ABSOLUTELY NOT be taken for any sort of insult. If you are hesitant about this, then give them to your host/hostess murmuring that they should "buy something for the children".
If a guide has taken you to the Bedouin tent in question, he will be prepared to take care of this. However, if YOU take the initiative, it will be much approved by everybody as showing that you know how to behave! You may well find that your guide treats you quite differently afterwards. You do have the option of consulting him on exactly what to give and to whom, and the same applies if you are invited to something a bit more elaborate when in his company, or in that of any local.
As I say, the level of the hospitality offered should really determine the level of the return gift ; a lavish supper calls for much more than would a simple glass of tea. This advice is not to be taken to extremes; a Bedouin will happily entertain somebody he considers a friend without thinking for a second of any return. But I do suggest that you bear the general idea in mind and remember that a casual guest or a tourist arriving on an impromptu "visit" is not at all the same as an invited personal friend. It is not a bad idea to have something always with you that can be used in these cases : I once heard somebody say that they always took several spare cheapish watches with them, so that they could take one off their wrist and offer it as a "present" if the situation seemed to require it. A very good idea.
This is something that many Westerners fail utterly to understand. They leave praising "Bedouin hospitality" when in fact they have completely failed to grasp the idea of returning it. Occasionally this leads to misunderstandings that can leave a host very unhappy over the way in which "he has been treated", when even a token gift would have satisfied him.
I have just come across a "traveller's tale" written in the nineteenth century which comments on this. It is so apposite that I am quoting the relevant paragraph in full :
One word as to the hospitality of the Arabs. I had read beautiful descriptions of its manifestation, and in some way or other had gathered up the notion that the Bedouin would be offended by an offer to reward his hospitality with a price ; but, feeling naturally anxious not to make a blunder on either side of a question so delicate, I applied to my guide Toualeb for information on the subject. His answer was brief and explicit. He said there was no obligation to give or pay, it being the custom of the Bedouins (among friendly tribes) to ask the wayfaring man into his tent, give him food and shelter, and send him on his way in the morning; that I could give or not, as I pleased; but that, if I did not, the hospitable host would wish his lamb alive again; and from the exceeding satisfaction with which that estimable person received my parting gift, I am very sure that in this instance, at least, I did better in taking Toualeb's knowledge of his people for my guide than I should have done by acting upon what I had read in books. It may be that, if I had gone among them poor and friendless, I should have been received in the same manner, and nothing would have been expected or received from me; but I am inclined to think, from what I saw afterward, that in such case the lamb would have been spared for a longer term of existence, and the hospitality confined to a dip into the dish and a mat at the door of the tent. (Extract from "Incidents of Travel in Egypt, Arabia, Petra, and the Holy Land" by John Lloyd Stephens who visited the area in 1835)
The way to address people : the usual formal/polite/friendly way of speaking to somebody is to call them "Mother" or "Father" of (insert the name of the eldest son, or the daughter if there are no sons). The Arabic is for instance "Um Mohammed" (mother of Mohammed) or "Abu Mohammed" (father of Mohammed). It is not rude to address people by their first names, but usually this is done (contradictorily - how very Arab!) either by people who know them very well or by those who know them scarcely at all.
If you don't know the name of the son, which is very often the case, you can perfectly well ask : "Abu er?" and he will cheerfully fill in the name for you, "Abu Omar" or whatever. Do try to remember it for the next time!
An older man or woman is usually addressed as "Hadji" (often shortened to "Hadj"') or "Hadja". If you know their first name you can use it as well : "Hadji Haroun", "Hadja Maryam". Compare this to saying "Sir" or "Madam".
I am assuming that you are reasonably well informed about dress. A woman should normally wear fairly loose-fitting clothes and cover her upper arms, as well as her shoulders and her knees. Oddly enough, this can be more important than covering her head. Moslems know and accept that non-Moslems go about with the head uncovered, but the rest of it comes under the category of "modesty" and it truly isn't a good idea to be considered immodest.
If you are a woman and are expecting to meet a sheikh or other specially pious man, try to cover your arms right down to your wrist as well as your head. Strictly speaking, you probably don't NEED to, but he will be much more comfortable with you, and it is a compliment to your host to try to conform to custom at least a little bit.
Men should also cover up pretty well, except perhaps on tourist sites, or of course on the beach. You will practically never see an Arab wearing shorts at any other time. It is considered fairly indecent to wear shorts to go shopping, for instance. People probably won't actually SAY anything, or at least not to you, but it isn't pleasant to think about what they might be saying to each other. Short sleeved shirts are perfectly acceptable, but bare chests in public places are not.
That's all that I can think of right now. Just relax, nothing is very serious, you should have a good time, and I am sure you will make a lot of friends.
top of page
home - next (the Bedouin of Wadi Rum)
return to the "meet the people page"
İRuth Caswell 2002