Arabic customs and traditions
Arabic Culture and society, Arab culture clothing
Useful background information about the people whose language you are learning.
The Arabic language and its culture
Greetings are exchanged before any conversation takes place
with some of the cultural norms in the Arab World and throughout the Middle East. Being familiar with these cultural norms can be just as important, if not more so, than the actual words you say when meeting new friends.
As in most places, handshakes are the norm amongst people meeting for the first time. However, there are some differences. Arab or Muslim handshakes are not firm like Western handshakes but are more like a loose clasp. This may throw some of you, who were taught you can know the measure of a man by his handshake, but remember that when you’re in the Middle east, your cultural norms no longer apply!
Furthermore, it’s not always viewed as appropriate to shake the hand of the opposite gender. This will vary due to the huge range of attitudes in the Middle east concerning opposite-gender relationships, from conservative to liberal and everything in-between. Normally, in a first meeting between a man and a woman, the woman will initiate the type of non-verbal greeting that she is comfortable with. For a very conservative woman, this may be no more than a brief acknowledgment with the eyes or a quick smile.
Many others are quite comfortable to offer their hand in greeting. The rule of thumb is to follow the woman’s lead!
Among friends, a kiss on the cheek is the norm for those of the same Gender. That may be quite unfamiliar, or even uncomfortable, for some of you, but don’t worry – you’ll soon get used to it. The norm is one kiss on either cheek, but it can be as many as four for women. The kiss itself is more like touching cheeks together and making a kissing noise than actual lip service.
Some less conservative women are just as comfortable kissing their male friends on the cheek as their female friends. Once again, guys should always wait to see what type of non-verbal greeting their female friends will consider appropriate. Female travelers should also be aware of these cultural norms so that they don’t unknowingly give the wrong signals to Arab men.
Generosity is another strong cultural value throughout the Arab world, that will sometimes surprise you. You may just express an interest in something, and before you know it, the owner is offering it to you. Generosity is generally more important than ownership in Arab society.
The appropriate response when offered something is to thank the person for their generosity and politely decline the offer as we have just learned by saying لأ شُكْرًا . If the person insists, more than four times for instance, you would know that they really want to give it to you. At this stage it becomes rude to continue refusing the person’s generosity. To thank someone for their generosity, you can say شُكْرًا جَزيلًا . Yes! You’re right, it means thank you very much.
If you are a guest don’t be surprised or offended if you are separated from your wife and are entertained in different rooms, in Arabic and Islamic tradition men and women will have different rooms for entertaining guests
The Bedouin society hospitality is an important Arab value, their tradition encourages to show hospitality to anyone who comes to their camps
Gulf Arabic is relatively close to Literary
Arabic, while, culturally, what remains of Bedouin society provides a
modern-day insight into the values and social conditions that gave birth
Traditional dress: women
Dress is an ever-changing thing and has always been a form of self presentation
and ʻimageʼ. This is never more so than in the early
twenty-first century Gulf, when there is more of a ʻreligiousʼ tinge to
womenʼs dress code than was true even 20 years ago, and certainly
compared with 40. The traditional everyday dress of Gulf women, still
seen among the older generation, is quite simple. A pair of loose-fitting
light cotton trousers, with narrow, embroidered ankle cuffs, known as
the sirwaal,سروال is worn, topped with an under-gown consisting of a
combined bodice and skirt that reaches to the knee or below. This is
called the darraa3a (pl. daraarIi3). There are several variations in the
design: often, in villages, the material is a simple floral-patterned cotton,
but for special occasions the darraa3a can be much narrower and made
of dark (sometimes black) material, with the neck and narrow sleeves
heavily decorated with gold embroidery and gilded cord.
Girls up to age of puberty used simply to wear the sirwaal سروالand a
simple darraa3a, with a head covering called a búxnug (pl. baxáanig),
which was a face-revealing hood and waist-length bodice. Adult women,
on the other hand, would wear on top of the darraa3a an over-dress,
or thoob, of which there were various types and designations, depend –
ing on the material and type of decoration. In Bahrain, for example,
a soft silk thoobثوب in very bright colors and with extremely elaborate
decoration, known as a thoob in-nashal, was worn for weddings, 9iid
celebrations and other festivities. Outside the confines of the house,
women universally wore a plain black silk cloak, generally without any
decoration, known as the 3aba/3abaaya or daffa (pl. dfaaf), usually
with a face veil. The black filigree variety of face veil is known as the
milfa9 (plural malaaf3a), but a facemask with eyeholes is also commonly
worn in some parts of the Gulf, and is known as the búrgu3 (pl.
baraagi3) or battoulah (plural. bataatiil). In some parts of the Gulf (Bahrain,
for example), a colorful light cotton cloak is worn by village women,
rather than a black silk one, and is known as the mishmar (pl.
ʻCoveringʼ is known generically as Hijaab,حجاب and is an expression of
the Islamic concept of Hishma ʻmodestyʼ, something that both genders
are enjoined to practice, but especially women. In recent times this has
taken the form of a new type of ʻIslamicʼ dress now common in many
Arab countries, in which a floor-length, all-encompassing maxi-dress
is worn with a headscarf that covers the hair and is wrapped tightly
around the face, often in white or black. Women who wear this style
are often referred to as muHajjabaat ʻcovered womenʼ.
Gulf personal names are generally of the form: given name-fatherʼs
name-grandfatherʼs name, for example Khalid Ahmad Omar,جالد محمد عمر and
this applies to both men and women. In some countries, notably Oman
and Saudi Arabia, it is quite common to insert bin ʻson ofʼ between the
second and third names (bint ʻdaughter ofʼ between the given name
and fatherʼs name for women, who do not, incidentally, change their
name on marriage). This bin/bint is normally inserted in the
Names of members of Gulf ruling families and other VIPs.
A further element is the tribal or clan name, which is put at the end, after either the complete
three-part name or after the first two elements. This is optional, but is
the norm in some countries, in particular Oman. Thus a typical Omani
name might be:
MuHammad bin sayf bin mAajid al-baluushi
ʻMohammed son of Sayf son of Majid al-Balushiʼ
The names of ruling families have a different style of tribal reference:
they use the word āl, meaning ʻfamilyʼ or ʻ(royal) houseʼ, and not the
same, despite appearances, as the definite article al- used in ordinary
peopleʼs names. So, for example, the name of the current Ruler of
Hamad bin 3iisa bin salmaan Al khaliifa
ʻHamad son of Isa son of Salman of the House of Khalifa
Traditional dress: men
The traditional Gulf everyday male attire is a long white shirt, topped
with a headdress and head rope. The long shirt has various regional
names within the Gulf, and the way it is cut, and the style of the
collar, are also regionally specific. In Kuwait and Oman, the usual
word for it is dishdaasha (pl. dashaadiish), while in Bahrain, Qatar
and eastern Saudi Arabia the term is thoob (pl. thiyaab), which simply
means ʻdressʼ, and the term can also apply to womenʼs long dresses
too. In the UAE there is a third term: kanduura (pl. kanaadiir). On
formal occasions, a lightweight cloak is worn over the long white shirt
and is known as a bishtبشت. This is of brown or black wool, decorated at
the neck, shoulders and front edges with gold thread. A sarong-like
loincloth, known as wizaar (pl. wzira), is commonly worn by men when
they are involved in manual jobs such as building, fishing and
The white cotton or (in winter) heavier chequered red and white
headdress is known as the ghutra,غترة and is worn on top of a plain white
skullcap known in Qatar and Bahrain as the ga7fiyya,قحفية and elsewhere as the
Taagíyya. The black head rope that holds the ghutra in place is called
the 3igaal. This word literally means ʻtethering ropeʼ and it was originally
used to hobble camels, a convenient place for storing it when not in
use being on the head! In Qatar and the UAE, there is often a long
tassel (or two) at the back of the 3igaal that hangs down to the middle
of the wearerʼs back. In Oman, different headgear is the norm. For
the everyday, an embroidered cotton cap is worn, called a kúmma
(or kímma, pl. kamíim). There are many designs, but the basic shape
is always the same and is unique to Oman. A head wrap may be worn
on top of this turban-style, called the mSarr – made of cotton for
everyday wear and silk for special occasions. In the south of Oman, a
tassled version of this is common, known as the shmaagh, as in the
picture below. The blue, magenta, red and orange silk headdress worn
only by the Sultan of Oman and the members of his family is known
as al-3ama ama s-sa3iidiyya, ʻthe Saʻidi turbanʼ, after the name of the
Sultanʼs family, the Āl Bu Said.
Footwear depends on the time of year. In the summer, na3al, sandals
(called waTiyya in Oman) are worn. European-style shoes, worn in
winter, are known throughout the Gulf as juuti (pl. jawaati), an Indian
The Gulf ghutra and
The shmaagh, Omanistyle
The Omani mSarr