(Sprinkling rose water on the guests' hands after the meal)
Where a Guest is REALLY a Guest!
Um Sa'ud (Mia Ponzo)
November 2001 Issue KTM
Almost everywhere in the world the guest is treated as a very special person. When you have a guest in your home you go out of your way to make sure the guest is comfortable, and well fed until the end of the visit. This is true of every civilized culture. Here in Kuwait this rule stands, and in fact is even more so, since it is not only a simple cultural standard, but is actually religiously ordered, and even the specific nature of the hospitality is outlined.
According to the Islamic religion (the official religion of Kuwait, as well as most of the other countries of the Gulf region, and surrounding regions) a guest is defined as any person who comes to your home. Even if you don't know him, for example, maybe a person was passing by and stopped while traveling, even that person (who is a total stranger) is considered a guest, and must be accorded certain "inalienable" rights. They must be given lavish food on the first day, and thereafter, must be given whatever the regular food of the people of the home eat (unless the hosts wish to extend their hospitality and continue giving them special food), and they have the "right" to a place to sleep for three days. The tradition that describes these rights of the guest (or traveler) in no uncertain terms, but reminds the guest (or traveler) that the entitlement is for three days only, and after that it would be considered a burden and to move on.
Another Islamic tradition tells people who are invited as guests in the homes of others, to not show up for the dinner very early, to eat, sit a little, and then take leave, since it might be a hardship on the host if the guest were to stay longer. Unless the host states clearly another arrangement, or when he sees the guests leaving, makes a sincere effort to get them to stay longer, the guest is urged to leave and not to make himself a burden on the host and the host's family.
The first time I ever went to an invitation hosted by a Kuwaiti woman, I was in awe. I mean, I grew up in a family where one side is Italian, and the other side is country English, and food, in great amounts, was always abundant on the table at any gathering, whether it was for family or other guests. The people of both of those cultures are deeply charitable, and over indulging toward the guest, but I was not prepared for what I saw that first time at a "real" Kuwaiti women's gathering.
Wherever I looked there was beauty, and elegance. Now, this was a home of a wealthy woman, and wherever the eye went it was met with splendor, but this wasn't the main thing, that drew my attention. It was the constant serving of the guests that really made my head turn. I came know, later, that the evening went through the typical phases that most, if not all, evenings where people have been invited to another person's home in Kuwait go through.
When the guest enters the home, she (or he) is greeted with great enthusiasm, and warmth, always with a handshake, and often with hugs and cheek-kisses, and seated. (Handshaking and kissing when you meet a person you haven't seen in a while is part of respect and honor in Kuwait. Both men and woman do it, similarly to Europeans, South Americans and others, and it takes many forms, from the forehead or nose kiss out of respect for elders or very important people, to the air kissing of friends, and, according to traditions, city folk go back and forth and kiss on both cheeks, while Bedouins only kiss on the right side, either once or in multiples, depending on how close the family relationship of the people is, or how well loved they are by the person who is greeting them). Whether it is the home of a great, wealthy merchant or the home of a simple person, it is the same. You are then treated to such hospitality, that it is more like an art than a gracious act. (The next steps that are done, are mostly the same throughout the Kuwaiti culture, but may take different twists throughout the evening, and be more embellished depending on the event).
Usually once the guest is seated the beverages will be served, this perhaps, due to the climate here in Kuwait being so hot, a person coming in from outside, would most likely be hot and thirsty, so first off, water and/or juice would be served right away. Immediately after that the traditional bitter Arabian coffee would make its rounds, served in tiny cups by either the host or the server. At the same time the coffee is being served there will be dates or other tiny delectables served, to offset the bitter taste of the coffee. The rounds will be made several times, until it is sure that everyone has had plenty. After that the tea will come out, and make its rounds. This usually very sweet Arabian style tea, will often be flavored with herbs like mint, sage, thyme or saffron, served in tiny little teacups with little tiny spoons to stir the sugar to the desired sweetness. Generally, along with the tea, there will be little dishes of salty nuts or seeds to munch on. If dinner is going to be served, then sometimes the tea stage of the serving will wait until after, but more than likely tea will be served anyway, even if dinner is being served later. If there is no dinner, then the tea is usually accompanied by plenty of little bread items, or other small delicacies, that are savory, like little miniature sandwiches, etc.
When dinner is served, whether it is done with the guests seated on the ground, from a communal tray with a great mountain of rice and a delicious lamb on top, (surrounded by salads and other accompaniments) or a lavish buffet with an array of international foods, along with the traditional Arabian fare, it is always a time of frenzy, activity and a lot of munching and talking going on! Here in Kuwait, traditionally, it is bad manners for the host to get up before the last of the guests has finished eating, just in case the guest would be embarrassed and stop before getting his fill. I am always amazed, though, at how fast they manage to finish. In my house we used to sit at the dining table for hours, eating and grazing, while we talked to our guests and had a grand time, but here, in Kuwait, the actual meal, is over very quickly, perhaps to make more time for the post-dining festivities.
After washing and all, the guests retire back to the place they were at the beginning, or perhaps to another drawing room, in the case of a more wealthy host, and get ready for the coffee and tea ritual all over again! At this time the dessert is served, whether it is traditional Arabian sweets, or more international fare. And the rose water and perfumes are passed around. The Kuwaiti host or hostess will go out of her way to shop for and choose scents that would be pleasing to the guests, and they are usually quite costly, like ?oud, or musk oils and other traditional perfumes.
After an interlude of more brisk conversation, the incense will be passed around. This incense is called "bukhoor" and is the bark of special trees from the far east, usually from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, etc. "Bukhoor" is usually very expensive, the choosing of which, is an art on its own. This "bukhoor" is burned in a vessel called a "mabkhur" in a great smoking cloud atop little pieces of charcoal, and passed around to each and every guest, who pulls the lovely scented smoke in towards himself with his hand so that it gives its aroma to the hair and clothes. This smoking of the incense signals the end of the gathering, and that it is time for the guests to leave. As the guest leaves amid a lot of goodbyes, hugging and kissing, the host always politely invites the guest back another time soon, and leads him to the door. It would be bad taste to let the guest go to the door alone.
The guest at a Kuwaiti home leaves feeling truly honored and respected and almost always full to the brim. The next time it may be his turn, and he will rise to the occasion by providing the best that he can, no matter if rich or poor, giving his guest all the care that he can. This is what the Kuwaiti tradition of the guest is all about, and the guest in the Kuwaiti household always comes away feeling like a king!