Wednesday, October 13, 2010

An Insider's Guide to Egyptian Hospitality

If you want to see the real Egypt, then you have to see Egyptians at home. I would imagine that this is true anywhere in the world, that seeing someone in their own environment lets you to see who they really are.

This is definitely true in Egypt.

And after living in Egypt for a few years, I have realized that Egyptians are completely different when you visit them at home. Particularly the ladies, in the comfort and safety of their own home, will show you (if you're a woman, that is) a side of themselves that they cannot show in public.

In my early days in Egypt, however, I broke more than a few unspoken cultural rules regarding visiting dos and don'ts in Egypt. Luckily Egyptians are very forgiving when you're new in Egypt.

DO take a gift with you. The gift should match whatever the occasion is. If you're visiting a newly married couple, then it is appropriate to give a gift of money (in a closed envelope) and maybe something for their home. If you're visiting a family with a new baby, then bring a box of chocolates for the family and maybe something special for the baby as well.

If there is no particular reason or occasion for the visit, then bring anything from an Egyptian patisserie like a torte (cake) or a mix of Egyptian sweets like basbousa, baklava, or konafa. Sometimes I bake something homemade like cookies or brownies or buy a beautiful bouquet of flowers (especially during the Christian fasting times when they don't eat anything made with eggs or milk).

Just a note: if you bring something sweet don't be surprised if they just set it aside and serve you something else.

DO dress appropriately. Again, the dress should match the occasion. If you are visiting a family to offer your condolences when they've lost a loved one, all ladies should wear black. However, if you're visiting a newly married couple or new baby then avoid wearing black (shirt/blouse) altogether. Most people wear their Sunday best when going on a visit in Egypt, so keep that in mind as well.

DON'T leave too early. There is a certain unwritten code regarding how long to stay at an Egyptian's house, and I am by no means an expert. If you visit a family and just drink something hot or cold (and don't eat anything), then you can stay a shorter amount of time (30 minutes to 1 hour). However, if you eat a meal with the family, you should never get up from eating and leave immediately. Usually Egyptians like to sit and drink something hot together after a meal, so they might be a little hurt if you try to leave right after the meal. So wait at least 30 minutes before you get ready to leave after a meal.

DON'T leave right after someone else arrives. Even if you've been there for hours, it is not polite to leave immediately after another person arrives. So if this happens, the best thing to do is to just stay a while longer (15 minutes or so) before getting up to leave. I guess you don't want to leave the impression that you're leaving because that person arrived.

DO leave before it gets too late. Egyptians will always protest when you go to leave because that's the polite thing to do. But try not to overstay your welcome, especially on the first visit.

DON'T eat everything on your plate. There is some debate as to whether you should eat everything on your plate or not. But traditionally if you clean your plate, you will find Egyptians piling more food on before you can stop them because apparently a cleaned plate means you're still hungry. So eat well but leave just a little on your plate to show that you're full and don't need anymore food.

DON'T add salt to your food. I never knew until recently that it was considered impolite if you added salt to your food in Egypt. Apparently it means that the lady of the house didn't season the food properly (not something you want to imply).

DO return the favor (as in invite them to your house). It is a big deal to invite Egyptians over to your own home. And if you're the lady of the house, well, traditionally the invitation should come directly from you.

Here are a few other things to remember when inviting Egyptians over:
  1. If you're cooking a meal, it's better to have the food ready when everyone arrives. It's okay to not have it 100% ready when the people invited are close friends but generally it's a good rule of thumb to have it ready and just to keep it warm in the oven.
  2. Make sure you have plenty of food for everyone. If you go to an Egyptian's house, they will usually serve you more food than you could ever eat. This means that you should be sure to have more than enough when they come to visit as well.
  3. Be prepared to serve cold drinks and hot drinks. Regardless of the weather outside, Egyptians may want something cold to drink and a glass of water when they arrive (but especially when it's hot out) and something hot to drink while they're relaxing after eating a big meal.
  4. Serve drinks on a tray. Presentation is important in Egypt so embrace this by having pretty trays ready to serve even just one glass of something on a tray.
  5. If someone brings something sweet to eat when they arrive, you can either choose to serve it immediately or to set it aside and serve something else that you have already prepared.
  6. If it's the first time someone has come to your house, be prepared to give them a tour of your home.
  7. Even if someone visits you for just 5 minutes, you should offer them something to drink.
  8. Ask them several times if they want something to drink, and don't forget if they say no the first time that they're probably just being polite so you'll have to insist to get them to drink something.
Being from the South myself, I have to say that Egyptian hospitality puts Southern hospitality to shame. And even though it took me a while to get the hang of what to do when people come to visit, I have finally embraced my inner Southerner to enjoy hosting people in our home.

But like I said before, visiting Egyptians at home really is the best way to get to know them better.

And don't forget that homemade Egyptian food beats any Egyptian food you could buy in a restaurant any day!

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