Thursday, March 29, 2007

Rules in Lebanon – Part I

The first impression any visitor to Lebanon would get is that this country simply has no rules. Traffic is a total nightmare, apartment buildings are seemingly empty or disheveled since many years and the concept that appointments are meant to be kept has not yet arrived in this part of the world.

Little do these visitors know! After a few months (or years, depending on your observation skills), you start to pick up a lot of rules. Too many rules, even. And it’s way too easy to break them.

Like saying ‘Yes, please’ in response to being asked if you want coffee. No matter how much your body is craving coffee, you always have to say “No, thanks”. The host will have to repeat the question at least twice before you can finally accept.

It seems quite unpractical to go through these motions every time, but once you understand the concept of pride in the Arab world, it sort of starts making sense. Even if you’re very thirsty and would really like that cup of coffee, pride forbids you be come across as too eager, for that could easily be mistaken for begging. And the last thing a Lebanese wants to seem is desperate.

Speaking of coffee, if you are the host, never ever make the mistake of serving it first. Coming from Holland, I am used to start an evening with friends with at least two cups of coffee. It gives you energy to entertain your guests. After finishing the coffee, you would move on to soft drinks, wine or whatever. Not so in Lebanon. Here, they serve you coffee last!

During my first few visits to people’s houses, this was quite confusing because I thought the hosts were rather impolite. I remember constantly thinking “When is that darn coffee coming?”, only to get it at the end, right before you leave. What good would that do? Those midnight coffees sure would keep you awake at night. After a few visits that provided the exact same experience, I couldn’t help it and complained to Brigitte about this whole coffee etiquette.

She started laughing and explained that she always feel the Dutch are impolite with their coffee being served first! Huh, what gives?

Turns out that all the Lebanese serve coffee (or tea) as the last thing to their guests. It’s like a pick-you-up before you head home again. So she always had the impression that the hosts in Holland don’t have time for the guests and want them out of their house as fast as possible because they serve the coffee minutes after the arrival of the guests.

Another similarly confusing difference in rules is whether or not you should finish your plate. In Holland, you always finish your plate when you’re invited in someone’s house for dinner. It shows how much you have enjoyed the food: an empty plate is the best compliment a cook can get.

Like the coffee, it’s exactly the opposite in Lebanon. Here, if you finish your plate it means that you didn’t get enough. An empty plate is a sure sign for the host to put some more food on your plate…so you can imagine my first meal at my mother-in-law: I kept on eating and she kept on pouring!

Both of us were really trying to be polite, but at a certain point I had to blink first: my stomach was getting upsettingly full. Luckily Brigitte understood what was happening and she could convince her mother to stop giving food to me. Anyone who knows the generous hospitality of the Lebanese will know how much convincing that took!

After a while, you learn how to deal with this and you simply leave something on your plate. This is still impolite in my eyes, but luckily no one else interprets it this way. Besides, when in Rome, do as the Romans. It’s fascinating to learn about these hidden rules which you can only observe through experiencing a different culture. Thank God the Lebanese are nothing like the Dutch and vice versa.

Stay tuned for more Lebanese rules in Part II!


Gerard said...

Thanks for this clarifying text. Nine years age I had to leave a peace of very nice mango on my plate at the house of my sister-in-law to be, because my stomach was overcrowded and my head dizzy of food. And I felt uncomfortable about this event up to today. Now I finally know that this was the most polite thing I could do. This will sure help me in coming visits to my family in law. Already as a way of survival, I made habit not to eat unless offered and not to finish my plate completely. But now I know I cannot be more polite.

Gerard said...

I'm sorry for my bad English. Of course nine years ago it was a piece of mango.

Riemer Brouwer said...


heh, sounds familiar. I once read the following sentence:
"He was talking to the lady witch was standing there"