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international dining etiquette

Egypt

  • No Pork
  • No Eating with the Left Hand
  • No Alcohol

Dining etiquette for eating with Muslims. Islam prohibits eating pork. Meat must be prepared halal. Do not eat in front of your Muslim colleagues, or invite them to join you for a meal, during the day during Ramadan.

Dining etiquette for drinking. Always accept the cup of tea and/or coffee. Never pour your own drink. Be alert throughout the meal as to whether or not your neighbor's cup or glass needs refilling. If it is less than half full, it needs refilling. If your glass is less than half full, your neighbor or host is obliged to refill it. If he or she does not, do not refill it yourself. Indicate your need by pouring a little more drink into your neighbor's glass, even if it doesn't really need it.

Dining etiquette before the meal. Before meals guests say, "Sahtain' (the equivalent of "bon appetit"), or "Bismillah (in the name of God) when the meal is over, guests should also say, "Daimah" ("may there always be plenty at your table").

Dining etiquette for guests. Do not fill your plate full at first. It is better to return for more.

Dining etiquette utensil use. You may or may not be given 'Western utensils. Throughout the region, people use spoons, forks and knives or no utensils at all. Use only your right hand for eating. Hold any utensils in your right hand. Never use your left hand for eating.

Dining etiquette for eating with your hands. A great variety of foods can be eaten with the hands, most of the time using bread like a utensil to scoop up some of the food. Here are some other things to note about eating in Egypt:

  • Wash your hands before you sit down to eat if you will not use utensils. Many restaurants have washrooms and sinks out in the open specifically for this purpose. You will also need to wash your hands again at the end of the meal, especially after eating the saucy dishes, since you've probably got some messy fingers by the end of the meal.
  • Use your right hand when picking up and eating food: never your left hand. Keep your left hand at your side. Do not place your left hand on the table, and do not pass food with your left hand.
  • Pork will typically not be on the menu.
  • Alcohol will usually not be served with the meal.
  • Men and women may be asked to dine separately.
  • If you absolutely cannot eat without some kind of utensil, it's usually perfectly all right to ask for one.

Dining etiquette for smoking. The nargilah, or water pipe, may be offered at the end of the meal (this is filled with tobacco, marijuana and hashish. This may be illegal. Fresh mints or caraway seeds may be offered as a special treat just before you go.

Dining etiquette for leaving. Expect to be told that it is too early to leave the first time you try: stay a while longer, but if the hosts serve some ice water or another cool drink you should leave soon thereafter.

Dining etiquette for seating. The most honored position is at the head of the table with the second most important person, or the honored guest, seated next to the head of the table. (Spouses are usually not invited to business meals in restaurants. Do not ask if your spouse can join you: it will embarrass your Egyptian colleague. However, your spouse might be invited with you to a meal at home, especially if the spouse of the host will be there, which will probably be the case. The invitation will then be phrased, "My spouse invites your spouse.") Be prepared that in some more traditional homes, you might sit on carpets on the floor at very low tables. Men and women eating at more observant homes may dine in separate areas (and spend the entire evening separated) or at separate times, with the men dining first.

Dining etiquette for accepting food. You will always be offered more food. Leave a bit on your plate if you do not want more food. You will be implored to take more two or three times, in the form of a little ritual. The game is as follows: first you refuse, then the host insists, then you refuse again, then the host insists again, and then you finally give in and take a little more. This is known as the uzooma (the see-saw dialogue of imploring, rejecting, and finally submitting). If you really don't want anymore, take very little and leave it on your plate. Your host will constantly ask you if you are enjoying yourself and will implore you to have more. To leave food on your plate is a sign of wealth; to have more food to offer is also a sign of wealth. You may always have additional beverages: drink enough to cause your cup or glass to be less than half full, and it will generally be refilled. A reminder: never refill your own glass: always refill your neighbor's glass, and he or she will refill yours.

Dining etiquette for order of service. The honored guest is served first then the oldest male, then the rest of the men, then children, and finally women.

Dining etiquette for when to begin eating. Do not begin to eat or drink anything until the oldest male at the table has been served and has begun.

Dining etiquette for the end of the meal. At the end of the meal, it is appropriate to thank the host or hostess for a wonderful meal.

Dining etiquette for restaurants. In informal restaurants, you may be required to share a table. If so, do not force conversation: act as if you are seated at a private table. Women should be sensitive to the fact that they may be seated only with other women. Wait staff may be summoned by subtly raising your hand or by making eye contact; waving or calling their names is very impolite.

Dining etiquette for discussing business. Business meals are generally not good times to discuss business or make business decisions. Take your cue from your Egyptian associates: if they bring up business. then it's okay to discuss it, but wait to take your lead from their conversation.

Dining etiquette for paying the bill. Usually the one who does the inviting pays the bill, although the guest is expected to make an effort to pay. Sometimes other circumstances determine who pays (such as rank). Making payment arrangements ahead of time so that no exchange occurs at the table is a very classy way to host and is very common. Western businesswomen, if out with men, will have a problem paying the bill at a restaurant: if you want to, make payment arrangements ahead of time, and don't wait for the check to arrive at the table. It may be easiest to do this at one of the international hotel dining rooms (they are rarely as much fun, but they are very convenient, and they do avoid a lot of problems!).

Dining etiquette for tipping. Tips run about 10 percent, and are typically not included in the bill (but double-check to be sure).

Dining etiquette for serving a meal. Do not serve alcohol or pork.


- , Editor, Etiquette Scholar

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