Visitor to an Arab family
The ideal way to experience Arab language and culture is to live with an |Arab family that belongs to that culture. You will absorb knowledge and impressions about Arab society through the things you see and the things you hear, even the things you eat.
As a visitor to a contemporary Arab household you will find, on the one hand, a fascinating mix of traditional ways, traditional language and traditional behaviour towards guests. On the other, you will see the way in which Arabic society has adapted to modern life in its own distinctive way.
An Arab family home
The family home could well be a two-storey house with a garden. It could be shared with the owner’s parents or parents-in-law. As a house may well have more than one generation living there, children and grandparents mingle very easily, without the need for elaborate baby-sitting arrangements
The home would have the usual facilities, kitchen, bathroom(s), bedrooms, etc. Traditionally an Arab house was divided into two distinct areas. In many modern homes, especially in the GCC countries, this tradition is still maintained.
Areas exclusive to women
There is the area exclusive to the women (and the close male relatives), which in some countries is still called the Haram-lik.
And then there is the area open to (male) strangers and visitors, appropriately called, the salam-lik. In this area there will be the room for receiving guests, the ‘majlis’, a place for sitting.
Haram-lik has its origin in the Arabic word Haram (forbidden) and Hareem (female area).
Guests would normally have their accommodation in the salam-lik, separate from the host family. However, in families where there is no separate guest bedroom available, the hosts will often move family members around to accommodate the visitors, usually in the most comfortable room of the house.
Apart from the Haram/salam division we can see important cultural factors in the other rooms used. Let’s look at two basic needs, eating and bathing.
Different rooms in an Arab house
The dining–room in many countries is called ghurfat as-sufra, ‘the room of the sufra’. sufra is a word going back to nomadic Bedouin culture. It means a large piece of leather which used to be placed on the sand as a tablecloth. The word is also found in a phrase used by a guest thanking a host for a meal: sufra dayima, meaning ‘May your table last for ever!’ This is often abbreviated to simply dayima.
For the bathroom, i.e. the room for bathing, a word is used which goes back to the earliest days of Arab urban life, the Hammaam. This was, strictly speaking, the public bath, but now the word can mean either the domestic bathroom or the public baths. The bathroom, i.e. the toilet or WC, is often referred to as bayt ar-raaHa. Literally, this means ‘the house of rest’.
As we move from room to room, it is noticeable that there is nowadays a good degree of air-conditioned comfort.In the family living area, and possibly in the room used for receiving guests, the television set will have a very distinct importance. All Arabic countries have both terrestrial and satellite television. Sometimes the TV set can seem to dominate life in the home as it is often the main feature of the family’s own area and the majlis.
- Remember to take off your shoes before you enter a house or a room.
- Be careful when admiring and praising things you’ll find in a household. Your host may feel obliged to give it to you as a present.
- If you find a portrait of the current ruler in the household, you should avoid saying anything about him or even his policy.
- If you are a man, you should wait outside the house or rooms until the women of the house have put on their veils or scarfs.
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