7 Tips when Visiting an Arab Home (Cultural Guide)

Visiting an Arab home can be a great cultural experience. Whether you’re traveling abroad or visiting an Arab friend or colleague in your home country, it’s beneficial to familiarize yourself with the local customs. Every culture has its own do’s and don’ts when it comes to visiting someone’s house, food, gift giving and more.

In this article, I’m going to explain to you the most important things to know before you visit an Arab family home that help you fit in.

View of Amman Downtown
Whether in the Middle East or in your own country – visiting an Arab home can be a valuable cultural experience.

1. Dress appropriately

The first thing to consider before visiting someone’s home is how to dress. You surely want to make a good (first) impression when being invited to someone’s home. In fact, that’s not just a thing in Arab culture. You’d also want to make a good impression when going on a date with someone from your own culture, or attending a job interview. The way you dress can help you make that good first impression, or ruin it. Remember, fine feathers make fine birds.

When visiting an Arab family home, modesty is key. That doesn’t mean you can’t be elegant and well dressed. Quite the contrary, Arabs love to dress well and appreciate beauty. However, most Arabs (both men and women) will choose clothes that don’t reveal too much of their body.

A jeans and a t-shirt (short sleeves or long sleeves) are perfectly common and acceptable clothes in most Middle Eastern countries. As a rule of thumb, choose clothing that covers everything between your shoulders, neckline and knees.

2. Remove your shoes

In Arab culture, it’s very common not to wear shoes inside a home. Shoes are always removed before entering the house. Depending on the country and the type of home, some people keep their shoes in front of the main door while others keep them in a shoe cabinet inside the house.

When visiting an Arab home, it’s best to remove your shoes before entering the home. Your host will tell you where you can keep your shoes. Remember to wear clean socks. Many people also walk around the house barefoot, although that strongly depends on the climate.

Visiting unannounced? If you’re a man, you should wait a short moment before you enter the house to allow women to wear their hijab (headscarf). It’s also common for men to say ya sater (one of the names of God) when entering the house. That phase indicates that there are men visiting who aren’t part of the family. The latest is very Middle Eastern and foreigners aren’t expected to know about this custom.

3. Greet everyone individually

When you first enter an Arab home, you have to make sure to greet everyone individually. So instead of just saying hello to an entire group of people and having a seat, you should greet each person individually.

Elderly people are usually greeted first (regardless of the gender). People of the same gender are greeted with a hug, kiss or at least a smile or a handshake. With the opposite sex, no physical contact is expected but verbal greetings are the norm. Some people shake hands with the opposite gender, others don’t. That applies for both men and women. If in doubt, wait for the other person to initiate the handshake.

If you’d like to impress your Arab host, you can learn some Arabic greetings.

4. Bring a gift

Arabs love welcoming guests! Hospitality is a key value in Arab culture. But remember, respect and politeness are too. A great way to show respect and appreciation for being invited to someone’s home is to bring a small gift.

The gesture is what counts, so don’t worry too much about what to give. This can be anything from a box of sweets to something symbolic for the home. Chocolates, dates and other sweets are always appreciated. You could even make pies yourself and give them to your host. Flowers are an acceptable gift, though they are much less common than in Western countries.

There are a handful of items that you should rather not bring. Remember that alcohol and pork are forbidden in Islam. If your host is Muslim, bringing them a bottle of champagne or wine would be inappropriate.

5. Know which areas are for guests

Homes in the Middle East generally have a different layout than homes in Europe or the US.

Same as in most Western countries, Middle East homes usually have a living room. However, the cultural difference is that the living room is generally reserved for family members, not for guests. This is a very important area in a home. Guests who are welcomed here are considered family. The Arabic living room is known as saleh and usually has a TV which is the main feature of this room.

The area where guests are entertained is called salon. It’s a larger room (more spacious than the living room). It generally has better furniture and decorations than the living room. That area is used for special occasions.

If you’ve been invited for a meal at an Arab home, you’ll probably be having that meal in the dining area known as ghurfat as sufra (the room of the sufra). Sufra is a word that goes all the way back to the Bedouin culture. It means a large piece of leather used to be spread out on the sand to have meals on. While most Middle Eastern homes will have a dining table with chairs, the original name is still being used today.

When visiting an Arab family home outside of the Middle East, things might look a little differently, as home layouts vary internationally. However, many Arabs designate a specific area in their home to welcome people. To be on the safe side, don’t walk to other rooms without asking your host. Wait for your host to offer you a seat, couch or sofa where you should sit.

6. Complement with Mashallah

Are you visiting someone’s home and love that specific lamp or picture on the wall? When you compliment something, use the word mashallah. That applies to compliments for items (I love that picture on the wall, mashallah) as well as people (your hair looks good, mashallah).

Mashallah is an Islamic expression that is deeply rooted in Arab culture. In fact, there is a strong belief in Arab culture that if a person compliments something too many times or focuses on the beauty of something too much, he or she may end up having feelings of jealousy. Whether intentional or unintentional, jealousy may attract the evil eye.

Therefore, it’s common to say mashallah when complimenting something. Mashallah basically means that it’s God’s will that a specific item is this beautiful and that we can therefore enjoy its beauty without feelings of jealousy or resentment.

Pro tip: If you compliment or focus on an item too much, your Arab host might believe that you have grown attached to it and they will end up giving it to you. That’s just another proof of how giving and generous Arabs are.

7. Avoid Politics and Religion

Politics and religion are sensitive topics. That doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss them with your Arab friends at all, but it’s something that you should be tactful and respectful of.

Islam is the predominant religion across the Middle East. However, many Arab countries also have a share of Christians (and some other religions). While the majority of Arabs are Muslims, not everyone is. Asking someone which religion they follow is a perfectly acceptable question. Furthermore, showing curiosity about their religion by asking questions is fine too. In fact, many people will appreciate it when someone shows interest in their religion.

Nevertheless, what you should avoid is to negatively comment or badmouth someone’s religion. That’s especially true when meeting new people. Remember, religion is an important part in life for many Arabs. Therefore, speaking poorly about religion will certainly be taken as an offensive.

Same applies to politics. Generally spoken, Arab politicians are widely respected by their people. Let’s take the Jordanian royal family as an example. King Abdullah, Queen Rania and their kids are very popular among Jordanians. Many people hang a picture of the Royal family (or only the Jordanian king) at their home or office. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t insult that person, as most people would consider that offensive. You’d probably expect the same from your guest when it comes to pictures of people that you hang at your own house.

My recommendation is to avoid politics and religion altogether. It’s easy to hurt someone’s feelings unintentionally. By the way, it’s good to know that even among Arabs, it’s uncommon to discuss any serious topics like politics and religion over a meal.

Questions or Feedback?

Did you enjoy reading this article? Any questions or feedback? Leave me a comment in the comment section down the page. I’d love to hear from you!

Are you interested in Arab culture and language? You’ve come to the right place! This blog is about all things Middle Eastern. You’ll find plenty of useful articles here to immerse yourself in the Arabic language, culture and cuisine.

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