x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dive head first into the Lebanese social scene

The protocol Lebanon is a place so full of contradictions that it often overwhelms visitors and residents alike.

The Lebanese are known for their spontaneity, warmth and hospitality.
The Lebanese are known for their spontaneity, warmth and hospitality.

Lebanon is a place so full of contradictions that it often overwhelms visitors and residents alike. On the one hand, it is lawless. Stop signs, traffic lights, one-way streets, road rules - all are considered optional at best. On the other, it adheres to a strict but largely unspoken code of social conventions. Lebanese hospitality is touchy feely and effusive but at the same time, there are invisible lines that are not to be crossed.

Consider the standard greeting among men, women, intimates and strangers: three quick kisses to the right, left and right again. Some people will moistly smooch your cheeks. Others will merely brush the jawbone. Others still will greet you with a flourish of air kisses that mean you have to follow their lead and adjust your own actions quickly at very close range. However, if someone of the opposite sex presses their hand to their chest in greeting instead of offering many bisous, it means you must do the same, out of respect for their religious convictions.

Lebanon is a tiny country. Everyone knows everyone else and there are zero degrees of separation. You will likely encounter questions that would otherwise seem like an abrupt invasion of your privacy. If you are not ready for full, personal disclosure, then be prepared to politely dodge questions about your salary, rent, how you vote back home and so on. That said, do not consider such lines of inquiry license to ask whatever you want of your Lebanese hosts. Do not ask people what religion they are, for example, where their political allegiances lie or how they spent the civil war.

The Lebanese have their own system for determining a person's identity: what is your family name and what village do you come from? The answers to these two questions yield a wealth of information but only if you know the codes. As for what people were up to in times of strife - accept the fact that you might not really want to know. The Lebanese are, generally speaking, hyper-social and leisure time centres on food. If you can help it, never say no to a meal, a taste of this or that dish, a tea or a coffee. Timid refusals will not be taken seriously. And if you plan to pick up the bill for a dinner at a restaurant, you will have to seriously outmanoeuvre your Lebanese companions to do it. Be ready for marathon meals and tables heaving with enough food to feed a small army.

The Lebanese are known for their generosity and warmth - enjoy it and reciprocate. Smiles go a long way and although almost everyone speaks three languages, if you try a few words of Arabic, your attempt will be met with utter delight. Finally, there is such a thing as Lebanese time, which is fluid and for all intents and purposes late. Spontaneity and adventure are given far greater value than promptness. So leave your fastidious planning and meticulous organisational skills at home and be ready to relax and take things as they come.

kwg@thenational.ae