By Maysoon Lange

It is not usual that Libyans invite foreigners (non-Arabs) to their houses for a meal, or even for a cup of tea, and if it does arise,  it means that this Libyan has sympathy for, and appreciates, this foreigner.

The reason why it does not occur often is because of the differences in culture, mentality and language. Most Libyans do not speak, or speak only a little, English and therefore find it difficult to communicate with foreigners. And if they do speak some English they still find it difficult to understand a foreigner because of the different ways of thinking and expressing oneself. Despite all those differences some Libyans like to take this challenge and get to know their foreign neighbour or colleague to brighten up their image and knowledge of other cultures.

Now to explain what is normally expected when the invitation takes place. In Libya, when someone is visiting a house for the first time, it is a tradition to bring a gift for the host family. Normally this gift would be a kilo or half a kilo of sweets (what you normally get from the confectionery shop), depending on the size of the family. Other examples would be baklava, a tart, a box of praline chocolates, a bouquet of flowers, or a vase or similar household item. For families with little children, toys or chocolate for them would be highly appreciated. Gifts that might offend or insult in general would be any kind of alcoholic drink, liquor-filled chocolates, money, or coming empty handed. One thing that foreigners need to understand is that if they bring an edible gift for the host family, this might not be offered later in the day. Here they should not be offended or worried that they haven’t given the right present, because it is only a difference in understanding. The Libyan family would not offer it because if they did, the host might think that this family had nothing else to offer. So in this case they would keep it for themselves and offer the guests what they had already prepared to show hospitality and generosity.

Arriving on time or being late is not normally a big issue in Libyan culture. But Libyans do take into consideration that if inviting a foreigner, this foreigner might arrive on time, so they would be prepared to expect him then. People here like to show hospitality , normally giving a warm welcome and always trying to keep the guest at ease; if any extra comfort is needed they will do their best to provide it. One thing that is also a tradition is that guests should always remove their shoes before entering the house and men are seated separately in one room and women in another. Food is normally served in a big bowl on a large tray with a number of spoons around it. The guests and the host will gather around the tray, then each picks up a spoon and eats from the big bowl at the same time. The word Bismillah (in the name of God) would be used before starting to dip the spoons in the bowl. Of course you are not expected to continue eating until the bowl is empty; you can stop eating whenever you feel satisfied.
Normally the word Alhamdulillah (thanks be to God) is said when a person has eaten to his satisfaction. A nice comment about the food would be very well appreciated, such as saying it tastes very good or inquiring about an ingredient that you might have liked or enjoyed in the meal. Normally after a meal, tea with peppermint and sweets are offered. This is also the time when the guest and the host have a chance to chat and maybe learn more about each other. So it would be disappointing if the guest left right after the meal. This is just to give them time to know their guests more and a chance to harmonise together.

It is not a tradition to send thank you messages after a visit, but assuring them that you had a good time, and enjoyed the food and their company before leaving home would make them happy and certain that they have managed to make their guest feel at ease and impressed. A return invitation would be expected and highly appreciated as well. The return invitation does not have to be right after this one, but should not be too long after either!

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