So what is family life in Lebanon like? Just as in our own country, children are held in high esteem and the family unit is very important. In all groups the family tends to be very close knit.
In Understanding Arabs, Margaret K. Nydell describes the roles of the mother and father in an Arab family. She is not writing specifically about Lebanon but as far as generalizations go, the statement applies to Lebanon as well.
In the traditional Arab family, the role of the mother and the father are quite different as they relate to their children. The mother is seen as a source of emotional support and steadfast loving kindness. She is patient, forgiving, and prone to indulge and spoil her children, especially her sons. The father is seen as a source of love, but may display affection less overtly; he is also the source of authority and punishment.13
Again, I feel compelled to point out that the above statement is a generalization. Many examples of families can be given in which the above statement is not entirely true.
In the cities and among the wealthy and educated classes family life looks much as it does in the West. However, in the countryside the extended family is still the norm. Along with their father, “Babba” (there is no p in Arabic thus babba instead of poppa) and mother, “Mamma” a child might live not only with his or her brother, “Akh” and sister “Akht,” but also his grandparents might live in the same house. Lebanese children call their grandfather “Jiddo” and their grandmother “Taytay.” These are phonetic spellings of informal spoken Arabic as are other Arabic words that will be used in this paper.
It is common for a mother to call her child “Mamma” and for a father to call his child “Babba.” Other family members might refer to a child by the position they hold as well. There are totally different words to describe the in-laws on the father’s side and mother’s side of the family. Your uncle on your mother’s side would be referred to as “Khalo.” An uncle on your father’s side is referred to as “Yammo.” “Yammo” is also a term of respect that is used for an older man who is a friend of the family as a term of respect.14 The value of this custom of specifically identifying family members is that it reinforces family relationships.15 Much of what is done, and how it is done, in Lebanon depends on a knowledge of family relationships.16
It is also possible that your uncle and aunt as well as your cousins might live in the same house or nearby. Again, this is more common in the countryside. The Lebanese child is very close to his or her cousins. Often times, a cousin may have the same standing as a sibling. (Note: for more Arabic words see Appendix A.)
Rarely would a child be put in day care, it is much preferable for the grandparents to take care of the child. There are several advantages to this, including safety, cost, and certainty that the grandparents will pass on values such as respect and honor that are important to the family.
Respect and Honor
In a Lebanese family, it is very important for a child to show respect. When adults in Lebanon meet each other on the street they exchange greetings asking about the health of each other and their families. Often they kiss on the cheeks three times (first to the left, right and then left again.) Young people also show respect when greeting adults.
Along with respect, the child is expected to do nothing that will shame the family. A child is taught from an early age to abide by the rules of society. It is felt that if a child (or adult for that matter) does anything that discredits himself that individual will bring shame to the whole family. This would be unacceptable because the future of the whole family may suffer as a result.
If you are a boy in Lebanon your family would have different expectations of you than if you were a girl. In all regions, socio-economic groups, and religions of the country the male is favored above the female. When a son is born the father will give a bigger feast than when a daughter is born. When the first boy in the family is born people start calling the parents “father of (son’s name)” or “mother of (son’s name).”
The first male child born to the eldest son is named after the grandfather. (The father’s father.) This is done to pay respect to the grandfather. This practice insures that the grandfather’s memory is honored after he dies.
It can be said that in more cases than not the family unit in Lebanon is very strong. Lebanese social and economic tradition is based on the close-knit family. A business owner would prefer to hire a family member before hiring someone else. This comes not only from the standpoint of trust but also from a feeling of obligation to take care of family members. Even politics in Lebanon finds its roots in the family.
Just as in our own country, school is a very big part of a child’s life in Lebanon. A major goal for a family is to get a good education for the children. Children must go to school from the time that they are six years old until they are fourteen. Primary education is free, but if the family can afford it, they might send their child to a private religious school to get a better education. French and English are often taught in private schools. After primary school a student may elect to get a secondary education in a low-cost government school or a technical education at the National School of Arts and Crafts. After secondary school a student may attend one of the many universities such as the Beirut Arab University, Lebanese University, Saint Joseph University, or the American University of Beirut. Many students go to universities in other countries. Children who go to college earn great respect from their family. Children in Lebanon receive one of the best educations in the Middle East and 86.4% of the population is literate; 90.8% of the males and 82.2% of the females age 15 and over can read and write.17
How Children Spend Their Leisure Time
Children in Lebanon spend their leisure time in much the same way that children in America do. One of the favorite pastimes of children in Lebanon is playing soccer. Basketball is another sport which is becoming popular in Lebanon. Urban children play in schoolyards and playgrounds. In the summer children like to swim and play other water sports. When they are at home they often watch television or play ping pong or board games.18 Video games are available, but are not as widespread as in the United States. Children may play on bicycles and Big Wheels. Recently a Barbie Doll with Arab features has been introduced. For those children who can afford it, water skiing at the shore and snow skiing in the mountains is popular. Children from higher income families are more likely to have toys that are similar to those of Western children.
Children also like to hang out with friends. This is learned from their parents who love to socialize. It is more likely that a child’s mother would socialize with her friends at home, while the father might visit a café where he would play cards, chess, or a board game called Tawaleh that is similar to backgammon. They also enjoy playing billiards.19
If you were a child of an upper class family, whether Christian or Muslim, there is a good chance that you would read and write in both Arabic and French. Babar the Elephant and Asterix and Cleopatra are two popular French series for children in Lebanon. If you were from the more educated class you might read in English as well. If that were the case you would read many of the same books that American children read. Children from wealthier families grow up with much the same toys, and books, as children in the US.
Just as in our country, what your home is like is going to depend upon how much money your family has and if you live in the city, the suburbs, or in the country. In the city people often live in two to four bedroom apartments made of concrete. 20 Depending on your family’s situation these apartments may be very basic accommodations or they may be quite luxurious with all of the modern conveniences. In the city, homes have two water systems. The water system for the kitchen is chlorinated and the water system for the rest of the house is not.
People who live outside of the city live houses that are traditionally made of limestone walls and tiled or thatched roofs.21 Further out in the country the houses are even more basic. Many farmhouses are made of earth and include a room called a Liwan (“LEE-wan”) that opens on to the outside through a large arched doorway. The flat roof of the house is covered with dried mud.22 This mud roof often cracks when the weather is hot in the summer and the family has to go up on the roof to make repairs.
As mentioned above, in the Palestinian refugee camps the shelters are close quartered with poor sanitation. However, even in the middle class there are many more people to a house or room than we are used to in the United States.23 The extremes of living conditions in Lebanon illustrate the diverse socio-economic situation in the country.
As with any cuisine, the locally available produce plays a major role in what people eat. Thus it should not be surprising that olive oil and fresh fruits and vegetables, which are available in the area, are staples of the diet. Lebanese cuisine however uses many spices that are not indigenous to the country. Geography may play a role here. As mentioned elsewhere, the location of Lebanon at a crossroads of sea and land travel brought in the influence of many cultures. Likewise as a trading center, spices from far reaching areas became available to the Lebanese.
Lebanese food shares certain similarities with the cuisines of other Middle East countries. Common ingredients include lamb, eggplant, chickpeas, yogurt, garlic, mint, and olive oil combinations. In Lebanon, however, they are combined and prepared in a way that helps to make Lebanese food especially delicious.24
Felafel, hummus and ful are indispensable dishes for most meals. Felafel (“FEHL-a-fehl”) are balls of chickpea paste mixed with spices and deep fried. It is often served in pita bread with fresh tomatoes and/or pickled vegetables. Felafel can be eaten with Arabic bread. A variation of this is shawarma (“shah-WAHR-mah”) which is made with meat.
Hummus (“HUM-us”) is made with chickpea paste and mixed with lemon, sesame oil, and garlic.
Fuul (“FU-ul”) is made with fava beans (either whole or ground), garlic, sesame seed oil (tahini) and lemon.
Kibbih or kibbe (“KIBB-ee”) is made of meat and cracked wheat shaped into a ball and deep-fried. They are often stuffed with more meat, chopped walnuts and onions.
Traditionally, lunches and dinners are eaten in a leisurely manner. In Lebanon it is the custom to eat many foods with the fingers. The left hand is never used when eating. Meals often begin with tabbouleh (“tah-BOOL-uh”), which is a salad of chopped parsley, onions, tomatoes and cracked wheat. It is often scooped up with pita bread which is used a spoon. Besides hummus, a strained yogurt, called lebni, and an eggplant dip, baba ghanuj, are popular. Lamb served with rice is often the main dish. The lamb may be in the form of cubes on skewers or stewed with okra. Grilled lamb is also popular. Sometimes the lamb is ground and mixed with spices and parsley and onions. Chicken is another favorite main dish.
Oval shaped bread called khobez (“KOH-bez”), which is popular in many Arab countries, is often served hot with meals. In the United States this is known as pita bread.
A Mezza (“MEZ-a”) is a spread of hot and cold hors d’oeuvres. There are many different dishes on a mezza such as rice and meat wrapped in grape leaves, mashed beans, spicy meat balls, and shish-kebab jab.
Coffee and tea are popular drinks. They are much stronger than what we drink in the United States. Turkish coffee is often very thick and muddy looking, and is served in a demitasse with sugar. Arabic coffee is flavored with cardamom and served in small cups that have no handles. Sugar is not put in Arabic coffee.
Wine is sometimes served with meals. Arak is an alcoholic drink that turns a milky white when mixed with water. Jellahb (“JELL-ahb”) is a non-alcoholic drink made from raisins and served with pine nuts. Limonada (“LIM-on-AH-DAH”) is lemonade. Some yogurts are also drunk.
Desserts tend to be very sweet. An example of this is baklava (“BAHK-lah-vah”), which is a flaky pastry, filled with honey and chopped nuts and covered with a thick rose-flavored syrup. Milk custard with pine nuts and almonds, and semolina cakes filled with walnuts or dates are other popular deserts.25
The following is a description of a Beirut restaurant as described in Jean Said Madisi’s memoir,
. She tells of entering the restaurant called Ajame, through arched doors, and passing huge mounds of mangoes, custard apples, pomegranates, grapes, figs, and whatever other fruit was in season. After a long wait for a table, because the restaurant was a gathering place, the waiters sat you.
…small, round, brown earthenware dishes would come to your table full of foul, hummos and baba ghanouj, pickles, olives, onions, salads of all sorts. You would cut a piece from the round loaves of warm bread served in small wicker baskets and dip into those dishes with the assurance that this was the best food of its kind in the world. Then would come your shawarma, shisk kabab, fish, or other entrée, and then dessert, usually fresh fruit from that mound exhibited at the entrance. Finally would come the coffee, bitter or sweet, served in small cups and lingered over.26
Lebanon is not a typical Arab country even though the people of Lebanon identify themselves as Arabs. It historically had strong ties with the West, and from 1918-1946 it was a French mandate. At one time Beirut was considered the Paris of the Middle East. Today Lebanon has a blend of French and traditional Arab culture. This blend of the two cultures is evidenced in the Baalbek Festival.