10 Rules for Communal Eating

As with other aspects of Libyan life, eating manners are ruled by both Islamic preaching and inherited customs.  Eating in groups of 4 or 5 from a communal bowl at the sofra (large tray or low table) is the norm in Libya and most of the Islamic world, using your hands or at most a spoon.  The etiquette that governs this is based upon the Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) teachings, with slight regional variations affected by local traditions and lifestyles.

Regarding this the Prophet (PBUH) said:

There are twelve qualities regarding the table a Muslim must learn; four of them are obligatory, four of them are customary and four of them are good manners. As for the obligatory, they are: Knowing what is being eaten, pronouncing the name of God (by saying ‘Bismillah’), thankfulness and content. The customary ones are: Sitting on the left leg, eating with three fingers, eating from what is next to you and sucking the fingers. The good manners are: Taking smaller bites, chewing hard, minimal looking at other people’s faces and washing the hands. (Reference: Al-Khisal)

Communal eating in Libya draws from these twelve points, yet eating out of the same bowl can be akward and sometimes unwanted.  As public awareness of hygiene and health increases the trend to eat out of one bowl is quickly diminishing. The great week-long Libyan wedding has been reduced to a night at a banquet hall where food is served in courses sitting at a table, as is custom in the West. I personally don’t mind eating out of a communal bowl as long as I know who I am eating with and that the dish is relatively dry. Soup should be served in individual bowls and drinking out of a communal cup is a no-no.

The tricky part for most of us is to eat without offending anyone, especially the host or upsetting yourself.  These ten straight forward rules should make the experience of communal eating a happy one, and will serve as a good reminder to those annoying Libyans who have forgotten their sofra manners.

Since a large part of communal eating involves eating with your hands, it is absolutely necessary that you wash your hands before a meal.  The host may bring a bowl and pitcher of water to the sofra for this purpose.

Depending on how formal the meal is, men and women will eat at separate trays and often in separate rooms.  At family meals, everyone eats together.

As food is served at the sofra on the floor, men will sit cross-legged, whereas it is more polite for women to sit with their legs to one side.

You should not begin to eat until the host has asked you to. After God’s name has been spoken you may begin, as the host will not start to eat until the guests have.

Conversation is usually left for after the meal.  Libyans tend to eat quickly and if you find yourself talking, you’ll most likely end up hungry.

You are expected to eat using your right hand only. In Islam the left hand is reserved for cleansing and is often considered unsanitary.

Eating using three fingers on the right hand is a sign of good manners. Using only two fingers can be clumsy and reflects arrogance; all five are a sign of gluttony.

Respect your boundaries in the bowl. Eating from or near another’s area is both greedy and unhygienic. Choose finger food wisely, once you have handled something you are expected to eat it.  All the dishes are served together, so if you would like something from the other side of the tray, ask the person sitting next to it to past it to you. You should not stretch your arm across the tray to reach it.

It is customary to lick your fingers or spoon after you have completed the meal.  This shows the host your gratitude and that you thoroughly enjoyed everything served.

The host will continue to eat as long as one of the guests are still at the sofra. Indicate that you have completed by saying Alhamdulilah (thanking God for the meal) before leaving the tray to wash your hands. Your host will say saha (to your health) by which you would reply salmik (to your safety). You may also wish to thank the host by saying sofra da’ema (may your tray always be abundant).

* In case you were wondering, I drew all of the graphics myself.  If you would like to re-use them please reference or add a link to We Are Food.

11 Comments Add yours

  1. FreeQA Dawn says:

    Nice of you to gather these ten commandments and present them to us in such a straight forward way, we thank thee highlee for the effortee… and like u said some manners are mandatory where as others are just good manners… i would like to add sumthing to ure list if u dont mind.
    1. if its a shared sofra (especially soup) you shouldnt add anything without the prior consent of your neighbours.
    2. dont chew with ure mouth open, or if u do please dont make those mushy shlushy sounds
    3. i object to point 5 in ure note and state that a conversation should be opened on a shared plate which makes sofra more enjoyable, what is wrong is raising voices and laughter, i think having a conversation on a meal is what distinguishes us from our sammian ousins.
    4. if ure a host ask the guest if anything is missing or desired
    5. if ure a host then give ure guest the big meat😀
    i think i can come up with more but its 4 pm,
    salamz and thanks again for ure note

  2. Thanks as always for your comment. Concerning point 3 on your list, I totally agree that conversation over food is a good thing, but I’m afraid with our Libyan brothers and sisters, you’ll be surprised to find an empty plate in front of you if your engaged in small talk. This point only applies when eating out of the same bowl, since no one will eat food off your own personal plate. Point 1, well noted. Point 5, very true!

  3. Wahda Wahed says:

    Hello There,
    I would like to highlight few points and I hope you will accept them as sincere constructive rather than personal criticism or attack.

    First, I would like to point out that there is no such thing as the Libyan Nation or People. We, Libyans, came from all over the world. The Barber dwelled in the North West of Libya (and some of the North East) and the rest was inhabited by people who drifted from all over the world: Greece, Crete, Rome, Sicily, Egypt, Turkey, Arabia, Africa, and many more. So you need to revise the myth of the Libyan People/Nation, etc.

    The second thing regarding your cookery book about Libyan cuisine, I believe it is false and I may go as far as to say wrong to use Libyan Food/Cuisine, while in fact you are only talking about Tripolitanian cuisine. Unless you go to North East Libya and try and investigate the Cyrenaican Cuisine and head to the south and taste and investigate the Fezzanian cuisine, your book is misleading, as it doesn’t represent all Libya or Libyan food. Do you know that in Cyrenaica, that is North East Libya for you, there are 100s of ways to cook Hassa. The Hassa Dernawi is totally different from the Hassa in Benghazi or El Baida or Tamassa or Telmaitha etc. Do you know that the new version of the traditional Mathrouda in Benghazi is totally different from the one made in El Kuyfia, even though it is only 30 kilometres away from Benghazi!

    Unless you modify your book to include the Tripolitania cuisine only or do a thorough research that include Cyrenaica and Fezzan (the South), and state so in the book, the credibility of your book remains questionable.

    What I gathered so far, from reading the few posts on your blog, particularly the Kasheek anecdote – as anyone who speaks the Libyan dialect well and knows a bit about history and Arabic grammar can tell that the word Kasheek is Turkish and not Arabic/Libyan – made me question your ability and knowledge to carry on such task, writing a book about Libya and Food and the rest. I think you need to read more about the history of North Africa and may also suggest to take up some Arabic courses to improve your Arabic grammar, as speaking the dialect is not enough. That would help you to analysis the origin of words in the Libyan dialect , so that you will not confuse a word as Kasheek as being Libyan!

    Please make sure to take my points into account.

    Salam

    Wahda

  4. Thank you for your lengthy comment.

    I would like to clear up a few points with regards to what you have written, starting from the beginning. First of all, I find your claim that (I quote from what you have written) ” there is no such thing as the Libyan Nation or People” offensive to me and every other Libyan national. The objective of the We Are Food blog is to bring the Libyan Nation together, politics does not play a role here. I assume from your comment that you are anti-Libyan, which I find quite contradictory for someone who also claims to be Libyan. Yes Libya has been the crossroads for many civilizations, but this only goes to show the importance of Libya’s location. No country on this planet has been immune to external influences and change. Even the great Roman empire was brought down and many people left their mark in Italy thereafter. As such, according to you, no country exists on the planet Earth.

    With regards to my book. I must say you are critiquing something that doesn’t yet exist. I wonder how you came to the assumptions that you did. As for the blog, I only began to write on July 11th of this year, which means I have been writing for just over two weeks now. You have jumped to the conclusion that I am writing only about Tripolitanian food, a wise person would have waited to see if there was more to come. I never claimed to be a food expert, but I do believe I am a good cook and a good researcher. This project is still in it’s infancy, and I am sure it will blossom and prove fruitful as time goes on, as this project stems from my passion for good food and my love for my country.

    Furthermore, the multitude of ways by which a recipe can be made does not differ only from town to town, but from cook to cook. You can read more about this in my “It’s just soup” article.

    With regards to your point about my level of competency of the Arabic language, now your criticism has become personal rather than objective. I have not written a single word in Arabic by which you could judge that. The example you reference, Kashik being a Turkish word. I never wrote that I thought it was of Arabic origin, it is a part of our Libyan dialect. In fact, as many other Libyans, I assumed that it was derived from the Italian “cucchiaio”.

    I must also say that I have extensive knowledge of Libyan history, as my degree thesis in Architecture was a study of the Urban Development of Libyan cities dating from ancient times to present day Libya. I am well read, and my work in architecture is well respected both here and abroad. I am also working on another book in this field.

    I would like to ask you to refrain from posting remarks which some of my readers may find offensive. You are more than welcome to give your opinion within the boundaries of this blog as explained on the “About” page, based on the fact that the Libyan Nation does exist.

    Sarah

  5. Wahda Wahed says:

    Of course Libya as people and as a country exists now but go back 700 or 800 years ago and tell me about the Libyan dialect, the Libyan food, the Libyan Red Devil, and of course the Libyan nation. I’m a Libyan and I’m a proud Libyan but facts are facts.

    Lady, you are contradicting yourself a lot and I repeat A LOT: once you were hopeless at cooking, now you are a gourmet cook; once you lived most of your life outside Libya, and now you are an authority on Libyan history, architecture, dialect, food, etc; once you are writing a book about Libyan food, now you are writing another book about Libyan Architecture!

    As for improving your Arabic skills, believe me it won’t do you any harm and no matter how good we are at something, there is always a place for improvement. I thought you said you are a researcher, an academic, an architect, an experienced cook -tell me what else to add to your list of titles. Typical, Libyans and their love of titles.

    Lady, I rest my case. Hopeless to say the least.

    No more commenting, do not fuss.
    Regards

    Wahda

    1. ليبي says:

      أسفاً، أجد نفسي أحياناً مضطراً لخوض نقاش عقيم كما هو الحال في معرض ردي عليك، سيدتي الغاضبة.. الهوية إكتساب من حيث مرجعيتها الثقافية (الجغرافية / الأنثروبولوجية) لا السياسية، من هذا المنطلق فأنا وطعامي وفني ليبيين. ليست حدود وجواز سفر ما يحدد هويتنا كما تعتقدين. أذكر هنا أدونيس في تعريفه للهوية حين قال بأن بيروت عربية أكثر من دمشق بما ساهمت في البناء الثقافي العربي. وهكذا سارة ليبية ثقافياً (هوية) لأنها حملت ثقافتنا الليبية على كتفيها وأعتنقتها دفاعاً وتوثيقاً وأخيراً فكم من مستشرق أغنى ثقافتنا الليبية وكم من ليبي أبكاه.

  6. FreeQA Dawn says:

    its 9 am so here goes the rest of me list
    6. under no circumstances should u evr …….. wait a minute, whoc hanged the subject here?
    things turned out bad man, they werent very constrcutive
    u better type slow cuz ure spellings wrong
    aaah lid it will ya
    anyways, wat do u think?
    i think u cant please everyone, if u please some u displease others, so just please ureself
    …… back to the topic
    6. be a good guest, behave ureself and watch ure manners, if u dont like the host u shouldnt of accepted the invitation.
    P.S. nice punctuation and good layout of thoughts both of you, i wish it was put to better use
    Salamz

  7. Dear Readers,

    Thank you for your kind words and continuous support. I apologize for the digression which has occurred in the discussion of “10 Rules for Communal Eating”. I believe everyone is entitled to their own opinion, I am also entitled to disagree. I ensure that such an episode will not occur again.

    Now back to the article, FreeQa Dawn, point number 6 probably says it all!

    Sarah

  8. ZeyAd says:

    Let me just say:
    what’s important is the we are now a one united nation. Are we a soup (going with the blog’s theme) of different nations put together?
    yeah, but who cares. This is part of our rich history and I can’t think of a nation that wasn’t formed of many ethnicities at different times of its history..

    Concerning topic and so we don’t lose focus on it, here’s my take:
    The thing with communal eating is that while it’s the more practical and cost effective way to feed guests, it’s not going well with the germophobic and health conscious age that we live in and this will make it go into a slow extinction.
    That is unless we change it in a small way to make it go with the 21st century. I suggest a simple solution of a partitioned bowl!.
    This way we’ll not lose the closeness we feel by sitting in a circle around the bowl but we’ll lose the disgust that we feel about eating with someone else (especially a stranger) who puts his kashik back and forth between his mouth and the bowl, and we also can have conversations without fear of the others finishing the bowl.
    The good thing is that when full it’ll look the same as the old bowl.
    You’ll start cheering for this idea if you just think about the massive amounts of leftovers left behind when we leave barriers of cuscus between us and our neighbours in food.
    I think I’ll patent it!

  9. Cool idea ZeyAd, I think it could seriously work! Maybe if I get a chance, I’ll draw a diagram of it (of course I will credit the idea to you). I’m sure all the people who get stuck washing the dishes will thank you for it!

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