Ian Edelman in Doha

Expat exploits in Qatar

Arabic hospitality


Last week I went on a new managers induction course. There were nine of us… two Brits, one from the USA, a German, an Italian and four Qataris.

The course introduced us to the vision and objectives of the organisation, then swiftly moved on to diversity. Our trainer, an Egyptian, got us to discuss the dynamics of an organisation where half the staff are expats and the language most used is English.

As with diversity training everywhere, understanding the culture of others was a key topic. As expats we found it difficult to know the cultural dos and don’ts.

Towards the end of the session, the trainer suggested that we somehow find ways of getting to know each other better..

One of the Qatari guys suggested that we all come to his ‘Majlis’. This translates as ‘place of sitting’. In many Arabic countries it means an assembly or formal meeting, but here in Qatar it applies to a communal meeting place in or near the home. It is normally a men-only affair, although in this case they allowed our female American colleague to spend the evening with us.

In this instance, the Majlis was shared by our host, his brothers and cousins all who lived very closed by. It was a very large, marble floored hall with around 35 chairs arranged around the walls. An enormous chandelier hung in the centre. The dominant colours were gold and browns.

We were met by our host as we arrived. He was wearing a thobe and headdress, exactly as most Qatari men do everyday. We were introduced to a brother and a cousin, then taken into the Majlis. We sat and chatted, as one by one two more brothers and five cousins arrived. We shook hands as we were introduced. The Qataris didn’t shake hands but touched noses three times.

We all introduced ourselves and talked about what we did and why we’d come to Qatar. The Qatari guys told us about their jobs. There was a lot of very good-natured banter between them, particularly ribbing the oldest brother… there was a lot of laughter.

Whilst we talked, a servant, also dressed in a thobe, bought round a series of drinks. First Arabic coffee poured from the large jug into a tiny cup. It is a slightly bitter drink as the coffee beans have hardly been roasted… it is also flavoured with cardamom. When he came round to refill your cup, if you didn’t want anymore you held out the cup and shook/rotated it gently from side to side. Then we ate dates, and another round of drinks, this time small glass cups with hot milk laced with ginger.

Our host said it was time to eat and we moved to another large room. We would be eating seated on the floor. We took off our shoes and entered. Around the room were ornate settees.

On the carpeted floor two very large silver trays. The trays were covered with yellow rice and in the centre of each one half a cooked lamb. Our tray also had the lamb’s head… this showed to guests that we were eating a complete lamb.

Three young boys, sons of two of the men had been playing in the Majlis sat and watched us eat. It would be their turn when the adults had finished.

We ate with our hands, that is only our right hands. Everyone just dipped in pulling off pieces of meat, gathering up rice and squeezing into a small ball before eating.This was followed by a selection of the most amazing homemade deserts.

After eating we went outside and sat on chairs on the terrace. More coffee and more conversation. Subjects were diverse, but also included wives, and in one part of the discussion having more than more than just one, which two of the men present had.

At around 10pm the evening drew to a close. We said goodbye to the brothers and cousins and thanked our host for his generous hospitality.

We were made to feel at home. The unfamiliar was explained. There was humour  and self-deprecation. It was an insight into another world. It was a very special evening.


2 thoughts on “Arabic hospitality

  1. Another world indeed. Did you find out what the wives, sisters and daughters were doing at the same time?

  2. This is a great post, probably the best so far on your blog. Sounds like an excellent thing to have done.

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