Every country and culture has its rules of etiquette when going to visit people at home. I’m going to give you a crash course on how things are done here in Egypt to avoid some of the confusion. Even I have made some fatal errors when visiting. I would go by the British rules of etiquette that my mother had drumed in to me as a child. You will find that some of the rules are similar to the ones you already know, while others are very different to those in Europe.
Egyptians are very hospitable people and they always say ”Itfadal or Itfadaly” which means help yourself. They don’t mean it literally. So, if some one says you’re welcome to pass by any time, they are being polite. Call them ahead of time to take an appointment to see them. They will also use the phrase ”Itfadal or Itfadaly” if you compliment them on something they have. They don’t really mean that you are welcome to take it.
When you go you should be dressed nicely. If the occasion is a luncheon then semi formal is probably the best way to dress. Women, should wear either a nice dress, skirt or top (not too short or revealing) or a pant suite (bright colours) and don’t forget the bling (jewelry), don’t go over the top, (you don’t want to look like a Christmas tree) keep it simple! Go with the saying, less is more. (Don’t be shocked if you see other women wearing the crown jewels and knuckle dusters for rings)
Gents should wear shirt, trousers and shoes should be polished!
When you arrive at the door of the house that you have been invited to, don’t stand directly in front of the door when you ring the bell, Stand to the opposite side of where the door opens, so that you can not see directly in to the house, but don’t be too far away so that they can’t see you in the spy-glass. (this is a caution just incase someone is unveiled and needs to cover up and to make sure that everything is set before you enter the house)
Before entering the house look to see if there are shoes or a place for shoes to be taken off by the door. Some households prefer that shoes not be worn in the house. If you’re not sure ask.
You should never be on time. It isn’t rude if you do arrive on time, but you will be the first and the only person there for a while. So it is best to come half an hour later from the time that they tell you. For example if the invitation is for 8 pm, arrive at 8:30 pm.
**** If you are a groom going to propose, (to ask the family for their daughter’s hand in marriage) then you should be on time or 15 minutes late at most. It’s considered an insult otherwise. It means you are not ‘THAT’ interested in their daughter.
If you receive a wedding invitation, (card in hand, (now a days facebook invite or phone call)) don’t go to the wedding at the time that is stated on the invitation, you will be the only guest there for a LONG time! It is best to go at least an hour or an hour and half late. (Bride is never ready on time anyway)
When you have been invited in to the house and are sitting down you will be asked what beverage you would like to drink (tea, coffee or soft drink…very rarely will a house hold offer beverages with ‘spirit’) , you have to drink anything that is offered. It’s insulting otherwise, it’s as if your saying what they have to offer isn’t good enough for you.
The above rule applies if you are offered chocolate or a sweet, you HAVE to take at least one.
If it’s someone you don’t know well and you are thirsty, you can’t ask for a refreshment like tea, coffee or a soft drink , that would be too forward of you. It’s ok to ask for a glass of water.
If the hosts are traditional (old school), then it is best not to cross your legs in front of them, they might consider it rude.
Invited for Tea or going to congratulate (new house, marriage)
If you are invited for tea then flowers, gift for the house or the lady of the house.
If your visit is to congratulate then the gift to take with you is usually silver or crystal.
There is an ongoing debate about Sharbat (celebration drinks). Some people think it is rude to drink all of the drink and that you should leave some of the liquid in the glass. While others say it’s fine to finish it. I suggest you do as the Romans do in this case, if you see people leaving some of the liquid in the glass then do the same.
-Lunch or Dinner
If you are invited to someone’s house for dinner then it is customary to take a kind of desert. It is always best to buy a whole cake. Don’t take anything savory because the message you may be sending is that you have brought the food that ‘you’ like and prefer to it with you.
If you don’t know the hosts that well and it’s a buffet lunch or dinner you wait for them to tell you twice that the buffet is open before you make your way to it. Don’t start right away, wait for the host to have at least served one person before you help yourself.
You don’t have to wait for the host to start eating especially if it’s a buffet dinner.
You don’t need to be shy, Egyptians are very generous at their dinner parties, if you would like more of something have more. At a buffet dinner you just go back and help yourself. At a sit down dinner, you ask for another helping and they will be thrilled that you like the food and will generously add more to your plate.
At a sit down dinner it is best to wait for the host to begin. Some people don’t mind their guests starting, while others do. It’s best to play it safe. (again, apply the ‘When In Rome’ rule)
If you leave food on your plate its an insult that you didn’t like the food. Try as best as you can to finish what has been served on to your plate. When you are done place your knife and fork next to each other.
Expect to be served more than you can eat, they don’t want their guest to go hungry. Take your time eating, that way you won’t have the host add more helpings on to your plate. They will try, but just politely decline and say that when you are done with what you have, you will have some more or say you’re not shy, if you want more you will ask for more. There will be occasions when the host just insists and plops it on to your plate anyway. Don’t feel guilty if you can’t finish it, just try to make your plate look as empty as possible. (most people don’t have pets, so you won’t be able to feed the dog or cat under the table)
If your plate is empty before most of the people they will add more food to it, so eat slowly. The host will be embarrassed if they see your plate empty. They will feel that they haven’t given you enough food.
Compliment the host on the food during the meal (T’islam Edayki = bless your hands).
After dinner is served there is usually a half an hour of digestion before desert, tea and coffee are served. You may turn these down if you are too full, but don’t be surprised if a plate of desert is thrust in to your hand anyway.
When you are being offered food (main course or desert) by the host and you ask for a small helping, You will NEVER get it. They will always be generous with what they offer. The excuse of being on a diet will not work. The only thing that you can get away with without having desert is if you are a diabetic.
It is VERY disrespectful if you leave right after a meal, ”Deef el magnoon eli yakul wey oum” (translation = A crazy guest, who eats and leaves). The only culture that I know of that does that are the Saudis.
If you have been invited for a dish party and you leave you dish there, don’t be surprised if your dish is returned with something in it. It is a golden rule that you can not return a person’s plate back empty.
If you’re a smoker do not light a cigarette unless and older person offers you one. You shouldn’t smoke in front of elders because it’s considered disrespectful.
When you leave you have to say good-bye to your hosts and then a general good-bye to everyone.
Don’t be surprised if you receive a call or a text message from the hosts the next day thanking you for coming and for the present or cake your brought.
I hope this helps you. If you can think of others that I may have missed please add it on by adding a comment.