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Arabs enjoy inviting guests to their homes for meals; you could be a guest at meals any time. Meals provide the host and hostess with a perfect opportunity to display their generosity and demonstrate their personal regard for you. Arabs usually invite guests through an oral invitation and by sending a written invitation. If you plan to visit a family in Bethlehem, for example, you must know the time of the invitation and how to act during and after the meal.
Most of the Arab families have specific times for lunch and dinner, so it is very important to be on time. Lunch is at 12:00 p.m., and dinner is at 6:00 p.m. To be on time is very important if the dinner is formal and official. If the guests arrive early, there is plenty of time for conversation before the meal. Conversation does not generally take place after the meal for an everyday invitation. Most of the members of the family will be waiting for the guests; they all have helped in preparing the meal.
Separation between the men and women while eating is very important in the Arab society. Many families prefer to let the women eat alone; therefore, if the meal were for men only, you would not find any women sitting at the table. In some cases, if the guests are both men and women, women can sit at the table. At wedding parties, for example, the men sit alone and the women sit alone. This separation of men and women is very important at wedding parties.
When the guests sit at the table, they find many kinds of food that the host and hostess have prepared. Arabs serve a great quantity of food when they entertain. They are famous for their munificence, or great generosity, and are very proud of it. They usually prepare two or three times more food than the guests can eat. In fact, they do not try to calculate the amount of food actually needed; on the contrary, the intention is to present abundant food that shows generosity and esteem for the guests. The food does not go to waste; it is consumed by the family afterwards.
Encouraging guests to eat is a part of the Arab custom and is also required for good manners. You can expect to be offered second and third helpings of food, and you should make the gesture at least once for accepting.
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"Oh, but you must eat!"
"I really couldn't."
"You don't like the food?"
"Oh, but I do!"
"Well then, have some more!"
A guest is expected to express admiration and gratitude for the food during the meal. Because they are trying to be polite, many people eat sparingly on the day they are invited out to dinner because they know how much food will be served that evening.
When you have eaten enough, you may refuse more by saying, "Al hamdu lillah," or thanks be to God. When the meal is over, and you are about to leave the table, the custom is to say, "Dayman," (Always) or "Sufra dayma," (May your table always be this) to the host and hostess. The most common responses are "Teesh" (May you live) and "Bilhana wa shifa" (to your happiness and health). This shows the kind of love that the family gives to its guests.
Arabs encourage their guests to remain after the meal and extend conversation. After a meal, you will be served tea or coffee, often pre-sweetened. Conversation continues for a while longer, perhaps an hour, and then the guests prepare to leave. When the guests announce their intention to leave, the host and hostess usually exclaim, "Stay a while; it is still early!" This offer is ritual, and you may stay a few more minutes, but this expression need not be taken literally and does not mean that you will give offense by leaving. Generally, you can follow the example of other guests, except that you do not have to stay after midnight.
Arabs are generous in the hospitality they offer to friends, and generosity to guests is essential for a good reputation. My family invites many guests to our house to share food because having guests in your house is a part of the culture. Arabs feel insulted to be characterized as "stingy" or "inhospitable." A guest is often given a seat of honor and is thanked for his visit.