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.