x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Ask Ali: On table manners

Ali Alsaloom on Emirati table manners and women's right to own and care for animals.

Andrew Henderson / The National
Andrew Henderson / The National

Dear Ali: I have been invited to an Emirati friend's house for dinner. What are the table manners? Are there tables? NJ, Dubai

Dear NJ: Yes we do have tables but most of us don't dine at tables! We eat at the majlis, which has cushions lining the room and pillows to rest our backs on. The main seat, located in the middle of the majlis, is given to the eldest family member. All others will be seated to his right or left, according to the age hierarchy.

The Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) instructed Muslims about eating manners. When he was eating with a young man, he asked him to thank God, then eat with his right hand the food that was near and to the right of his dish.

We don't have to worry about what utensil goes on the left or the right because we don't use them. We eat with our hands.

Well, I know what you might be thinking: how disgusting. But it's not. Using our hands is healthier and cleaner than using a spoon. No one but myself will be eating with my hands, and God knows how many people have used the same spoon and whether it was washed properly.

When the meal is served, you don't just dig in. There is an etiquette: your hands need to be thoroughly washed before you take the first bite. The serving trays are usually large enough to serve between six and 12 people, so you might not even notice you are sharing a dish.

As I said before, use only your right hand at the table or when offering any food or drink to someone. The left hand is traditionally used for personal hygiene, so it is not supposed to touch food meant for others. This is why a long time ago, thieves used to have their right hands cut off. It was an added disgrace because they would have had to use the left hand for everything.

While scooping rice from the tray in front of you, move your hand to the edge of the tray. Make a fist so the rice doesn't spill, then put it in your mouth. Remember to scoop from the same spot you started from.

This is the traditional way of eating. In our families today, some might eat in this manner while others will be using spoons and forks, just like you.


Dear Ali: Did Emirati women historically own falcons, salukis or any other animals, or did that right belong exclusively to men? IN, Abu Dhabi

Dear IN: Women have always been able to own animals. A woman might inherit a falcon from her father, for example, even though it's unlikely she'd hunt with it, nor would she take care of it the same as she would sheep.

Historically, chickens, goats, sheep, camels and donkeys were the main animals that women cared for; the hunting animals were mainly tended to by men.

Falconry, for example, requires a man to walk for long distances in the desert, while speed and strength are required to handle a saluki as it runs after rabbits, gazelles or even other salukis. Such physical exertion would not be proper or healthy for a woman.

This has nothing to do with being sexist or considering a woman weak or not equal, but simply shows our respect for the nature of our daughters, our sisters and our mothers. In the old days on the farm, and continuing in the modern UAE, it has not been women's main burden or duty to secure food for the family - that was more the man's job - so women were rarely involved in falconry or saluki raising.


Language lesson

Arabic: Sabah elward wa elyasmeen

English: Sabah means morning, ward means flowers, and yasmeen is jasmine.

When someone wishes you "Sabah elkhair", which means "Good morning", you reply by saying, "Sabah elward wa elyasmeen". This phrase translates to "A morning of flowers and jasmine" or "May your morning be filled with flowers and jasmine." It's a twist on the more common reply of "Sabah al noor", which means "A bright morning to you".