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.