The way the Lebanese wish each other season's greetings at significant times of the year is by visiting. This is a custom that seems to have died down in the West except in the case of paying one's respects after a bereavement.
If a personal visit is not possible, then a phone call is acceptable as a substitute but only if accompanied by a very good excuse and an abject protracted apology. The custom of visiting is universal in Lebanon and is performed for all sorts of occasions that are normally covered by cards in the West. The Lebanese visit on birthdays and births, on the occasions of marriage and death, illness and graduation; they visit each other when they are travelling or returning from a voyage. While the visit is prominently performed for religious occasions like Christmas or Eid1, it is the same tradition across all the 17 plus religious communities.
Seasonal cards are a relative newcomer to the Lebanese culture scene, and they are not accepted as a polite way of wishing someone a Merry Christmas (Eid Majeed) or Blessed Eid (Eid Mubarak) unless it is in a professional capacity or you live abroad and are sending wishes by post.
Who to Visit
The elders of a family generally only visit each other, whereas the younger generations have to make their way around to all the more senior family members in order to pass on their greetings. For example, a couple may have to individually visit two sets of surviving parents, eight older siblings between them, fourteen aunts and uncles, thirty cousins senior to them, godparents, grandparents, great aunts and uncles and so on.
What to Wear
To visit appropriately, you have to get dressed up smartly. The wriggling, protesting children are encased in their Sunday best, all the while being threatened with broken bones if they speak out, misbehave or have second helpings. It is an essential part of this tradition to make the best attempt to traumatise them for life.
What to Take
You never go into a visit without carrying a gift. This can be anything for the home, but is most often something homemade, grown in your garden or cooked in your kitchen. Those are the most valued gifts as they show you care - you planned and you took time over your offering. Typical gifts include home-pickled chilli and thyme-flavoured olives, homegrown beetroot, yoghurt or home-pressed raw (unpasteurised) cheese made from goats' milk, a marble cake, a kings and queens cake (with little rings in it for the kids - a French tradition), a gallon of palate-evaporating home-distilled arak, homemade mulberry cordial, stunning sweets made from Abu Sfeir orange peel or a selection of shop-bought yummies.
Most Lebanese homes have a winter sitting room, the warm, cosy, comfortable den at the centre of the home. Very often, this room has a wood-burning or diesel stove, as many older homes have no central heating. These stoves and their pipes are dismantled in spring and put in storage until autumn.
When you arrive at the home of your host, you all kiss three times on the cheeks and then you are escorted en masse to the formal lounge of the home, as opposed to the sitting room. This formal lounge is very rarely used and normally resides in dust covers which only come off for special occasions. The furniture is usually expensive, fancy and excruciatingly uncomfortable and the room is guaranteed to be cold.
The Spoken Ritual
The words spoken are like an elaborate dance around complicated blessings and ancient appellations involving God and ancestors, health and longevity and children and further progeny. Interruptions in this context are seen as a compliment and, to the barely comprehending outsider, the words seem to flow and clamber over each other in their desperate efforts to be the most powerful incantation.
Written Arabic is read from right to left and includes some consonants that are unfamiliar to most non-Arabs and non-Muslims. To accommodate people who can speak but not read Arabic, a phonetic system of writing in the Latin alphabet has developed during the age of the Internet and SMS. This allows the many different dialects to shine through in writing and substitutes numbers for some of the 'Arabic' sounds:
- 3 = the guttural 3ain2, a throat consonant
- 7 = the pure hissing h
- kh = the X in Spanish: Xavier
- 2 = a glottal stop — the first sound before the 'a' in 'apple'
The first things said are usually holy day-related and usually go something like this:
Visitor: InshaAllah Yin3ad 3aleykon— May this moment [of joy] return to visit you and yours.
Host: 3alaynah w3aleykon— Us and ours and you and yours.
Visitor: Khalleelna yekon w khalle hal dar— God keep you for us and keep this home safe.
Host: Khalleelkon hal 3ayleh w hal 2mar— God keep this family of yours safe and protect these moons [beautiful children].
Visitor: Khallekon fo2 rasna 7erseenna— God keep you above our heads, protecting us.
This can go on for several minutes and is truly a miracle to behold, with much chest-touching and head-inclining.
When you offer your gifts, you will say something to the effect of 'Please accept this gift which is not of a standard to reflect your worth to us'. The response is usually '3aybeshshoom 3al 3azeb', which means 'Shame on you for troubling yourself'.
The Host's Offerings
In between the wishes for happy marriages, healthy children, long lives, God's benevolence and other desirable occurrences, the food parade begins. In the past, cigarettes were the first offering, on an ornate silver tray, but this tradition has become less acceptable thanks to diaspora immigrants who are horrified by it.
First comes the homemade flavoured liqueur3 in tiny glasses on another ornate silver tray with a fancy bowl full of white sugared almonds. Following that is a wide assortment of cakes full of nuts and honey, citrus fruits, homemade sweets, chocolates, you name it — all in procession. As soon as you finish one thing, the next arrives, all the while amid mild admonishment from the hostess that you don't like her food. Everything is offered twice and the word 'no' is incomprehensible at these occasions, with or without an appended 'thank you'.
At the end comes coffee, in gorgeous tiny cups. It is socially unacceptable to turn anything down unless it is a second helping. Stuff goes into pockets and handbags, it is secreted into tissues and up sleeves, but it must be taken. The skilful art of saying no to food is by no means an easy one to master!
The Little Angels
The children sit there in Victorian silence, dangling their feet and crossing their eyes at each other, speaking only when spoken to and looking up into fiercely threatening maternal eyes when they dare.
The Great Escape
The visit usually ends with the wife making a surreptitious gesture to the husband (if they are the husband's relatives) or the husband making a grand gesture to all and sundry (if they are the wife's relatives). Cue more kisses and fancy words all round, until the children explode back out of the front door and race to the car.