Palestinian Culture

Etiquette

The following information outlines basic etiquette in Palestinian culture. However, be aware there are many individual variations depending on one’s religion (Muslim or Christian), income status, level of urbanisation and location. The customs of Palestinian migrants and refugees can also vary significantly depending on which country they live in (see Exile, Migration and the Diaspora in Core Concepts).


Basic Etiquette

  • Pay respect to those older than yourself in all situations. For example, standing up when they enter a room or offering them your seat. It is considered extremely rude to show anger or disagreement towards an elderly person or interrupt them while they are speaking.
  • Western clothing is common and acceptable. However, there is a level of modesty expected in day-to-day clothing. For example, it is not appropriate to be barefoot in public. It is advisable for women to dress modestly, ensuring their legs, arms and shoulders are covered. 
  • Timekeeping is much looser than in English-speaking Western countries. For example, someone saying, “I will be there soon” does not necessarily mean that they are on their way. It is advisable to ask a person for a specific estimated time of arrival. 
  • Many Palestinian men are raised to show chivalry, respect and honour to women by opening doors, giving them their seat and carrying items for them.
  • If one offers an invitation to someone, it can often imply that their entire family is invited. It is good to clarify this beforehand.
  • People do not split bills in Palestinian culture. When people go out to dinner or an event, there is a general expectation that men pay for women. It is considered shameful for a woman to pay for a man. 
  • If the bill is for two people of the same gender, generally the person who invited the other will pay. Otherwise, both individuals will usually compete with one another with one person conceding to let the other pay for them under the agreement that they will cover all costs during their next outing.
  • Some people may also expect those who are substantially wealthier to pay for others with more modest incomes. However, it is polite not to order expensive items or dishes when there is an understanding that you are not the person paying for them.
  • It is polite to use the right hand (or both hands together) to gesture, touch people or offer items. According to Islamic principles, the left hand should be used for hygiene purposes. Therefore, it is considered more unclean and should not be used for functions such as waving, eating or offering items. 
  • Avoid eating, drinking or smoking in front of a Muslim during the fasting hours of Ramadan. In Muslim-majority countries, it is considered disrespectful (and often legally forbidden) to engage in these activities in public.
  • It is very rude to attempt to talk to or walk in front of someone who is praying.
  • Avoid having private conversations with unrelated members of the opposite gender, or being alone together in a confined space (e.g. a car).
  • Do not flirt or make comments about how good-looking someone from the opposite sex is.
  • Present yourself in a clean and tidy manner. Palestinians generally value good hygiene and grooming. For example, it is common for Palestinian men to get treatments at salons for their facial hair.
  • Being wasteful with food or money is not looked upon favourably.

 

Offering and Complimenting Items

  • Palestinians generally extend an offer multiple times. It is often polite to decline gestures initially and accept once the person has insisted. This exchange allows the offering person to show their sincerity in the gesture, and shows the receiver’s humbleness. Accepting on the first offer can seem greedy.
  • Be sure to offer everything multiple times in return. If you only offer something once, a Palestinian may respond, “No, it’s okay”, out of modesty and even though they meant to accept on the second offer.
  • Many Palestinians hold a strong belief in the evil eye whereby one’s misfortune is caused by another’s envy, sometimes taking the form of a curse. Do not compliment something more than once or continue to praise it once you have acknowledged it. This may cause a person to be wary that the evil eye will be jealous of it. It is best to make compliments more general (e.g. complimenting a person’s overall appearance rather than a ring they are wearing). 
  • Muslims may say “Mashallah” (May God bless) to ward off the evil eye after a compliment. Doing so also shows that one doesn't have bad intentions by the comment.
  • Show gratitude and humility when offered a compliment. For example, responding with an equally respectful compliment on the same subject. 

 

Visiting

  • Visiting people’s houses is a central aspect of Palestinians’ social life and an important social obligation. People visit one another to celebrate events, catch up on community news and also to commiserate and support each other through hard times. For example, it is customary for a grieving household to receive visitors consistently for three days after a death. 
  • There are many differences between Palestinian family homes. Customs can also vary depending on the formality of the visit or your relationship with the person. Nevertheless, you can expect to be welcomed and received with hospitality.
  • It is best to arrange a time to meet to allow your host time to prepare for your visit, although relatives and close friends may visit one another regularly without giving notice. 
  • Common expressions of welcome include “Ahlan wa sahlan” (You are welcome here) and “Tafadal” ("Please" meaning ‘Come in’, ‘Sit down’ or ‘Help yourself’ depending where the person is gesturing).
  • It is polite to bring a gift whenever invited to a Palestinian home. See Gift Giving below for more information.
  • Expect to be offered a drink (e.g. tea, juice) and snacks (e.g. cake, nuts, fruit) as a gesture of hospitality during your visit. This is generally followed by coffee. 
  • If a visit extends in length, a Palestinian host may also invite guests to join the upcoming household meal (see Eating below). 
  • It is courteous to make positive comments on your host’s hospitality and home (e.g. the view from a window, the location of their home, cleanliness or the general décor). However, be careful not to compliment a specific object or item too heavily, as it is customary for your host to offer it as a gift. If they try to give it to you, insist that you appreciate their gesture but do not want to take it. A Palestinian is likely to offer the object out of and may end up giving you something they wished to keep if you accept.
  • While many Palestinians are not concerned with gender segregation, some religiously conservative families may require men and women to socialise in separate rooms.
  • Do not explore a person’s house or enter rooms you have never been in before without being invited to. This includes looking for the bathroom. Always notify your host so that they can give other family members time to clear from the area if they’d like to maintain their privacy.
  • Palestinians generally feel uncomfortable directly asking someone to leave their home. Therefore, try to read non-verbal cues in order not to overstay your welcome.
  • Towards the end of a visit, it is customary for the host to ask the guest to stay for coffee. Palestinians refer to this as the ‘goodbye coffee’ as it is a polite way to signify the end of the visit. Guests should leave after drinking it.

 

Eating

  • Cleanliness is very important in Palestinian culture. Wash your hands thoroughly before eating.
  • Notify your host about any dietary requirements in advance (e.g. vegetarian). Palestinian hosts often go to great lengths to provide plenty of food for their guests and can be very disappointed if the person refuses to eat what they have prepared.
  • Most Palestinian families generally eat their main meal together, including during Ramadan. Men and women may eat separately in some circumstances (e.g. if the family is highly religious or the number of people eating is too large). 
  • It is important to wait for everyone to be present before starting to eat, even if the meal is casual. Palestinians try not to eat separately out of respect for the family.
  • The father is usually served first out of respect, followed by the mother. However, guests are served first if present.
  • Palestinians generally eat with the right hand. It is impolite to pass food to one’s mouth with the left.
  • Most families eat with utensils from separate plates. However, some traditional Palestinian food may be served on a common dish from which people serve themselves with their hands.
  • Practising Muslims do not eat anything containing alcohol or pork, in accordance with Islamic custom. 
  • It is polite to accept multiple helpings (if offered) to show how much you enjoy the meal and your host’s hospitality. Refusing food can be interpreted as rude. However, be aware that servings may be rationed in some low-income families.
  • According to Muslim practice, it is advisable to finish your plate. However, hosts may put extra food on a guest’s plate out of respect or prompt their guests to have more servings than they can feasibly eat. It is acceptable to decline this or leave food on your plate if you simply cannot finish the meal.
  • Some people politely leave some food on their plate at the end of the meal to indicate to the host that they have provided adequately. Otherwise, if your plate is empty, your host may keep refilling it with more helpings of food.
  • As a host, try not to eat quickly and wait until everyone has eaten a fair amount before saying you’re full. It is customary for everyone to stop eating and conclude the meal once the guest is full or finished.
  • After the meal has finished, a serving of tea, fruits, sweets or coffee is commonly offered. Coffee is often served at the conclusion of a meal. Usually, guests leave soon after drinking the coffee.

 

Gift Giving

  • Gift giving is an important part of Palestinian culture, especially when visiting people’s homes. 
  • People may bring snacks or flowers when visiting someone’s home. It can also be good to bring something for children (such as sweets).
  • Gifts are also given on special occasions (e.g. marriages, births, building a new house, holidays and graduations), or when visiting someone who is sick. People usually wrap these gifts and put them in a nice bag. 
  • Offer and receive gifts with two hands or the right hand only. 
  • There is not always a clear process surrounding when gifts are opened. Traditionally, recipients open the gift in front of the giver to show appreciation. Some may send a message to the giver assuring that it will be used internally and they will not ‘re-gift’ it to others.
  • It is best not to give gifts that contain traces of alcohol or pork. Some Palestinians may drink alcohol. However, you should be assured of this fact before giving wine or liquor. It is more inappropriate to give alcohol to a woman.
  • Reciprocation is an important part of gift-giving. Palestinians usually remember the circumstance or occasion when a person gave them a gift, so that they can return the gesture at a similar time in their life. 
  • Palestinians usually try and give quality items as gifts. A very ‘cheap’ gift can sometimes be interpreted as a lack of thought regarding the friendship. However, if someone gives an overly lavish or expensive gift, Palestinians can feel pressure to match the cost of the item at a later time.
  • It is traditional for Muslim Palestinians to give to their community during Islamic holidays, such as Eid and Ramadan. For example, the men in a community may check on everyone’s mothers, sisters, daughters and aunties to give each a gift or some money.

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