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.