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SHEER GREETINGS & HOSPITALITY: THE GOD GIVEN

A  friend  will  come  in  storm saying  ‘what  kind  of  a  person is  x ,  all  this  time  I  took  him  for a  nice  guy.’  You  would  wonder what did mister  x  did so wrong to anger  your  friend  in  that  manner and  ask  ‘what  did  he  do  to  you’. Your friend would reply, ‘we have known each other for a long time and he doesn’t greet me well’. And if you are not familiar with the Eritrean way of life, you may find yourself taken aback by this.

Because life is communal, relationships are personal, social encounters are therefore intimate. When one greets the other, it is supposed to be deep and heartfelt. Mere shuffling of ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ won’t work. Every one is expected to know who is who and respect the family bond that one has. And when  bumped  to  encounters,  is expected  to  give  warm  and  long and  elaborate  greeting,  showing deep  interest  in  that  person  and letting  the  encounter  know  that he  cares. And failing to do so is socially disapproved, and may be seen as deviant behavior.

A person is said to be nice and breezy according to the kind of greeting he shares with other peoples.  A person’s place in the society or community is underlined by his habit of greeting. Because relationships  are  at  personal bases,  that  person  is  supposed  to take  interest  in  the  well  being  of the encounter and his family. And if he fails to do so, if he fails to be greeting charmingly, he is taken for self-centered ‘I don’t need any body’ kind of guy.

So  often,  people  size  you  up and  measure  you  on  the  basis  of your  ‘hello  habits’,  and  if  you  are  a  little  distant  from  what  is normal, i.e., not sharing a long and elaborate greeting with encounters enquiring about the well being of all the family members, you would print  a  wrong  image  of  yourself on others. And however nice you may be, people would have a low opinion of you, and remark ‘he doesn’t even satisfy you with his greeting.’ It is like what good you can  do,  if  you  don’t  even  do  the simplest  and  effortless  greeting satisfactorily.

There was this comedy about a teenager and a much older relative of his. As the story goes, the  teenage  boy  was  smoking hiding  from  his  parents,  and  the much  older  relative  happened  to pass by the place the boy was at, and stops to greet him. Frustrated by  the  sudden  mishap,  the  boy dodges  the  burning  cigarette in  the  pocket  of  his  t-shirt  and reciprocates  the  greeting  of  his relative  and  they  rub  shoulder  to shoulder and shake hands.

The  much  older  relative  then, starts  to  ask  the  boy  about  his health,  education,  and  enquires about the well being of the family members one by one referring by their names. In short, the greeting takes  more  time  than  it  should, and  the  lively  cigarette  that  the boy  tucked  in  his  pocket  burns his cloths and reaches all through to his skin. And at the end the boy makes quite a scene, to the dismay of his relative, by screaming ‘we are all fine!’ out of sharp pain.

When  people  are  in  a  hurry though,  it  some  times  poses  a problem. Because it means that if you want to do things in time, you have to throw a simple hello and run to your affair.  Nevertheless, in our lives greetings is not just saying hello to some encounter, it is a way of reciprocating the care of others over you, showing who you are. It is a way of saying I am here, and I care.

More  over,  for  Eritreans,  a greeting  is  a  God  given  right  of people.  One doesn’t pay for it, doesn’t toil for it. There is a belief that God has given us the concept of  greeting,  so  that  we  learn  to be  nice  to  each  other  and  hence spread  the  spirit  of  peace  and harmony. Especially in the country sides, not greeting the passers by you encounter, even if they are perfect strangers, is seen as an act of such indecency. If you happen to ask why, because ‘selamta is of God’s’, would be the answer you get from a typical Eritrean.

Along with greetings, Eritreans are also known for their hospitality. As flattering as it may sound it is also an everyday happening.

As a stranger when crossing the border of no-man’s circle and entering in to the life circle of the Eritrean soul, merhaba would be the first sound you would hear. And most likely, it is probably the first Eritrean word whose meaning you would find out the soonest.

Merhaba as a word is so common among the Eritrean ethnic groups; it is often hard to recognize the word’s root language.  It  is  like Amen,  which  everybody  says it  and  knows  what  it  means  but nobody  cares  to  find  out  from where exactly it came from.

Highlander  or  lowlander, Christian  or  Muslim,  everybody welcomes  a  guest  with  a  worm merhaba;  meaning  ‘you  are welcome  in  my  house’.  It  is widely  believed  that  guests  are a  blessing  to  have  because  it’s utterly satisfying to welcome and accommodate guests.

Sometimes  it  is  highly intertwined  with  the  host’s  faith as  Eritreans  are  religious  people. At  the  sight  of  a  new  face,  the household  member  will  welcome you  warmly.  One doesn’t even care whether the guest is where he intends to be. So even if the guest is  in  a  wrong  place,  he  is  still accorded  a  warm  welcome  and proper  guest  accommodations, beginning  with  the  warm  water to  wash  the  feet,  to  the  beautiful coffee ceremony.

Very often, the guest realizes he is in the wrong house only a little later because unless he asks first, it would be highly improbable for the host to start enquiring. This is so,  because  it  is  considered  rude to  ask  people,  who  they  are  or what they want, when they come to your home.

There is a saying that goes, beal hade mealti aykseska, equivalent to ‘first impression is the last impression’. So being an Eritrean the  last  thing  you  want  to  give  a guest  is  the  wrong  impression. And  at  times  even  if  you  don’t have enough for yourself, you give plenty to the guest, under the spell of thinking that because he doesn’t know you, if he is underserved or under attended,  he  will  hold  upon  you a bad judgment.

So this hospitality, at the other extreme of it, doesn’t consider the reality.  Because,  the  household, even  if  it  doesn’t  have  much, may  offer  whatever  it  possesses to  you,  leaving  the  children  and other  members  of  the  house hungry.  And  also,  because  the guest  is  there  only  for  one  day, he  is  treated  with  the  best  dishes the  household  can  afford.  It may be that the children always eat the tea and dry bread for breakfast, and the eggs are always for sale to help in the economy of the house. But  when  a  guest  is  there,  he  is provided  a  breakfast  of  baked eggs.

Nevertheless, even though the hospitality comes with its disadvantages; Eritreans would never abandon it.  For  what  it  is worth,  Eritreans  would  continue to utter Merhaba with a charming smile  at  the  sight  of  new  face  at their doorstep.

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