Moroccan etiquette: 7 do’s and don’ts

10 Jun

Maybe it’s the fact that you’ve had every meal for the last two months at the Chawarma Snack on the corner.

Maybe you are starting to look like neglect, like a kitten begging for food at a cafe.

Whatever the reason, you’ve been invited by your Moroccan friend over for a meal.  Moroccans love to host and feed people.  It’s something they do so well, with so much grace.  You never feel like they’ve put themselves to any trouble, and that is something only a gracious host can do.

And here you are, the American, maybe a little overwhelmed by the kindness you are being shown.  Maybe you’ve never sat down for a 3 hour lunch with your family, on a normal weekday.

Then maybe you are wondering, how, oh how can I be just a little less awkward?  You walk in with your shoes on, only to discover that everyone else has left theirs by the door.  You offer compliments to your host, only to notice that it makes them extremely uncomfortable.

No need to fear, morocco mama is here.  With some heads up advice that will grant you a modicum of social acceptability.

And of course, you always have your “I’m an American and I don’t know how things work” free pass, which you will invoke often and freely, as you should.

1. Do bring something.  Some soda, juice or fruit are acceptable.  In more old fashioned households, bring milk or cones of sugar.  If there are kids in the house, bring some yogurts.

Don’t bring a hot dish or salad.  Moroccan hospitality is not “pot luck style”.

2. Don’t walk all over the carpet with your shoes on.

Do wear clean socks. Don’t wage biological warfare with your sweaty foot odor once those sneakers come off.

3. Don’t say wow! Don’t gush effusively about everything and everyone in your host’s home, as in “this house is the most amazing house I’ve ever seen!”, or “wow, that’s such a cute baby!”.  Chances are you are being honest and/or polite.  But you are making your Moroccan hosts squirm and sweat.  Moroccans do not like to receive direct praise.

Do say tbarkellah! When Moroccans like something, they praise the Creator, and not the creation.  Tbarkellah means “Blessed is God”.  It can be used interspersed with the compliments you want to give, e.g. “You’re a good cook, tbarkellah”.  (I will do a longer post on the concept of “tbarkellah” at a later date, inshallah).

4. Do learn everyone’s name. And remember it.  Ask about everyone’s parents, health, children, etc.  What you are saying is “I care about you and yours”.  Next time you see your friend, ask about all the people you met.

Don’t let the conversation get one-sided. Chances are your host will be very gracious and ask you lots of questions.  Show them that you value them as much as they value you, by asking similar questions.

5. Do say bismillah. This is the blessing that Muslims say when starting anything, be it eating or any other activity.  It means “in God’s name”, and it’s a way of saying that one is doing the thing “for God, by God’s will, and, hopefully, with God’s blessing”.  And when you’re done eating, say “alhamdulillah”.  That means “all praise is God’s”, and that marks the end of whatever it is you’re doing.

Don’t wander. You will be eating from one plate, however, stick to your territory, don’t go exploring.

6. Don’t hog the meat.  Your host will honor you by serving you as much meat as she can afford to.  This can range from a few bites to a whole sheep, depending on her budget.  Look around and see how many people are at the table, then check out the meat, and do the math.  Start in slow, for the first few bites, just dip little bits of bread in the sauce.  If there are veggies, move on to those.  After a good 5 minutes, then you can make your move on the meat.  Your host will make sure you do.  If you refuse the meat, then you are saying “I think you’re so poor that I don’t want to eat your family’s meat” and that’s insulting.  However, you don’t want to consume meat so fast that your host feels obliged to keep pushing more and more over to your side of the dish.  Did I mention you are all eating out of the same dish?

Do pace yourself.  You might stuff yourself with the traditional first course, Chicken Tajine with lemon.  You finally stop eating, and your host removes the dish.  Only to bring in the traditional second course, Beef with Prunes.  Uh-oh.  You’ve pulled an American, and now you’ll have to just keep eating.  Which is not such a bad thing.  But try to ask the person who you’re most familiar with early on in the meal if this is all there is.  They won’t mind.

7.  Do stop when you’re full. Of course your host will keep saying “kool, kool”, eat, eat.  That is just what good hosts do.  Believe me you are not offending anyone if you stop eating when you’re full.  If your host says “kool” and you hesitate for just one second, then she will think that you are just stopping to be polite.  Once you make the call, make it final.  I usually say “I’m not being shy, I swear I’m full, alhamdulillah”.  And that works for me.

Don’t be lazy.  When the meal’s over, at least offer to help clear the table.  Of course they won’t let you, but don’t let them train you to be lazy.  Learn from what they do, not what they say.  When I am invited, my Moroccan hosts are usually so competent that I just watch in amazement how they pull the whole thing off.  Usually, it’s because there is a strong team of people working together.  It’s rarely just one person doing all the work.

That’s my list.  Did I miss any?

By the way, I had to google “do’s and don’ts” spelling.  I went for the easier to read version, whereas the more grammatical form is “dos and don’ts”.  No apostrophe “s” for plural.  I never knew.

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27 Responses to “Moroccan etiquette: 7 do’s and don’ts”

  1. Catherine June 11, 2010 at 3:34 pm #

    Ah Nora! Here I am wanting you to take on the deep waters of Islam and its position in the modern world, how Muslim societies can and must interact with the west – and here you are with a guide to Moroccan eating and hospitality! You are quite right of course… Eating with people they become companions – etymologically, people you share your bread with – and the divisions of culture, race, creed and dress become less relevant. I always liked the way Moroccans eat from one plate, sharing the best (the meat) out equally, or as equally as can be, at the end. Bon appetit, sahaa, enjoy your meal!

    • moroccomama June 16, 2010 at 10:11 pm #

      Catherine, you obviously expect a lot from me, ha ha. One day perhaps I’ll be the ambassador you think me to be.

  2. ummbnb June 12, 2010 at 9:31 pm #

    Ah, memories. The first time my prim American mother visited Morocco and ate with my Moroccan in-laws she tried so hard to eat with her hands. She’d even practiced prior to going. But she just couldn’t do it. It was funny though. My ex-mil always provided her with silverware and even her own plate just in case.

    I love Moroccan greetings – all arabs, really. Salamu alaikum – wa alaikum salam – labas? – labas. – koolshee labas? – koolshee labas, al hamdulillah. – sehe labas? – sehe labas. – al hamdulillah. – al hamdulillah….and on…an on….and on. LOL!

    • moroccomama June 16, 2010 at 10:13 pm #

      I like that most Moroccans are pretty flexible with their guests too, like your ex-mil.
      Sounds like you got the Moroccan greetings down. The more times you say labas, the more you care about the person.

  3. itto June 14, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

    salam alaikoum sister, thanks for this useful guide which I can hand on to visitors now… but I really had to laugh about no.4 !!! remember the names.. oh my… all the abdullahs, mohammeds, aishas and fatimas… I love thes names but they all have the same… and still, after 8 years, it is difficult for me to remember who is who…mashaallah.
    hope you got my mail about the healing blog…
    xxx itto

    • moroccomama June 16, 2010 at 10:14 pm #

      Wa alaykoum salam Itto, glad you stopped by. I know everyone has the same name, but usually there is a nickname or second name, esp. with Mohammed. Is this true where you live?
      I sent you an email about the healing blog, hope you got it.
      Love,
      N.

  4. Nuvola June 18, 2010 at 10:11 am #

    Oh, I’m going to organize my trip in Marrakesh for July and I found so interesting these your advices and your blog at all! We will be probably invited for a meal by our maroccan friend…now I feel more ready for that!TXS

  5. Hadia Goldhawk September 15, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

    Assalaamu alaikum Nora. I just love your blog, and Eid Mubarak. Insh’Allah, we will meet one day as I would love to spend more time in Marrakesh. Allahu Alam. In the meantime, keep up the good work. Much love and salaam from Hadia.

  6. Sherr October 8, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    Chokran for all the tips and advises!Alhamduliliah!

  7. Haitham Al-Sheeshany January 18, 2011 at 6:51 am #

    Many thanks for this post, I learned a lot indeed!

    H.

  8. Andrea G Fletcher-Joudi December 24, 2011 at 6:03 pm #

    I loved this post!

  9. Gemma January 8, 2012 at 12:51 am #

    I’ve only recently found your blog. It’s very interesting to hear about your life! You might be pleased to hear it’s prompted me to put more research into finding a way to learn Arabic and for the first time, I managed to find a textbook with DVDs that go alongside it so that is definately on my shopping list for next month!

    I was wondering if the phrases you mentioned in your post would be appropriate for those who are not of the same beliefs and if it would be disrespectful if you did not say them. I would like to travel when I am older and I’m trying to learn as much about different cultures as I can now so as not to offend… :-)

    • moroccomama February 14, 2012 at 2:23 pm #

      Gemma, thanks for reading. It is appropriate to use the phrases even for non-Muslims, in fact I think it’s very respectful and shows that you’ve taken some trouble to learn some part of this culture.

  10. F. R August 10, 2012 at 3:26 pm #

    Great blog!
    I am Moroccan but has lived most of my life outside Morocco. My husband is English and he has been reading your blog as well, very helpful. Thank you.

  11. Pauline September 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm #

    Assalamu alaikum Nora,
    Just found your blog and I love it! We are moving to Morocco soon insha’Allah, to El Jadida, and I’m from NM, so it’s very interesting to see familiar things gathered in one place here.

    • moroccomama September 19, 2012 at 9:30 pm #

      Wa alaykom salam dear Pauline,
      Wow yeah I’ve blogged about both those places. NM is very dear to my heart. Which city are you from? I just love the sky and beauty there. May your move be a fruitful one insha Allah.

  12. Jamil November 16, 2012 at 1:49 am #

    Oh how I wish I would have read this before I came to Morocco!

  13. Kabi November 20, 2012 at 4:14 pm #

    Great article! I think you’ve missed the right-hand, left-hand rule.

    • moroccomama November 20, 2012 at 11:55 pm #

      Oh yeah, my son is a lefty so we are reminded constantly of that rule.

  14. Morrocan - BC, Canada December 18, 2012 at 5:05 am #

    Hi Nora,
    This post was great, I was laughing all through it. Especially when I got to “Don’t wander”!!!! LOL that’s was awesome; the Don’t wander rule is the first rule one’s learn as a child when start eating with people….hahaha lot of memories.

    Just for the Rule of saying bismillah, alhamdulillah, isha’Allah and why not; don’t feel that you’re obliged to say it; eventhough it’s a great to do as for asking God’s blessings.

    • moroccomama December 18, 2012 at 8:09 am #

      thanks, glad you got a good laugh :-)

  15. Jacqueline March 4, 2013 at 2:42 pm #

    Asalam Allekum
    I am planning my first trip to marrakech later this year and I am very excited about it. I have spent a lot of time over the years living and working in muslim countries, especially egypt and meal time etiquette sounds very similar although all dishes are put out at the same time and we always sat on the floor with a plastic coated tablecloth on the floor. It was typical for everyone to have a spoon to eat with, this was useful to eat soup and rice and it was also acceptable to use pieces of bread to dip into soup and into the sauce that the meat was cooked in or to make a piece of bread into a little scoop to pick up a piece of meat or vegetable. It was very important to only use the right hand to touch food and to eat with. If several people were eating together each course would be split into a few small bowls and spread around so that everyone could reach everything. This meant that you might only be sharing each bowl with one or two other people. One thing that is the same in all muslim countries are phrases which come from the koran such as bismillah, allhamdolellah, inshallah and so on. This should give me a headstart with getting by language wise in morrocco.

  16. kyoungdo89 November 26, 2013 at 2:17 am #

    Reblogged this on pcvjamesinmorocco and commented:
    Its amazing how different the eating culture is from the US and Korea. I’ve always found it odd when different cultures ate with their hands but I guess I will have to adapt. I’m still bringing chopsticks…

  17. Colebricht December 17, 2013 at 7:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on No More Couscous.

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