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An Arab dinner - Italian perspective/memories

Ermete Pierotti, Doctor of Mathematics and formerly an Italian civil and military Architect-Engineer to his Excellency Surraya Pasha of Jerusalem in the 50's of the 19th century

in this amusing description, portrays his experiences on habits at table in the homes of locals.

Ermete starts with a large tray placed on a carpet spread on the floor on which the pita bread is laid out. "The different attitudes of those dining are curious - one sits cross-legged, another kneels, some lie comfortably on one side and altogether they form a very picturesque group. The host himself honours his guests with a choice piece of meat on pita which is the one and only main platter. The bowls of dishes and sauces are shared and everyone dips in his bread with his fingers".

Pierotti, the refined European, gives a particularly colourful description on eating: "normally, each guest uses all ten fingers - he takes a handful of rice from the bowl and squeezes it tightly into a ball which he then puts into his mouth. After that he shakes his open hands over the dish". Needless to say how all this affected Pierotti's appetite and he says that he was careful to limit his interest, to those places where utensils were not put out, to only those plates which had not been polluted by so many fingers dipping in.

No less amusing is his reference to the more modern homes in which not only spoons were distributed to those partaking of the meal, but also knives and forks. The result, very often, was incredibly ridiculous, he writes, for the local person who is not accustomed to these tools and tries to act as a European, pricks his lips with his fork or hurts them with his knife, and would then cast them out of his hands, accompanied by a silent curse against the devious ways of foreign fashions, whilst attempting to stop the dripping blood.

Pierotti continues lamenting that everyone at the table drinks from the same three glasses which unfortunately do not contain wine and about the music which is too loud in the course of the meal. In conclusion he adds a warning to the European traveller in the East: allow me to please warn every reader of this book, lest he go to be a guest wearing his finest clothes for whoever carves a dish uses only his hands, and in tearing the meat violently asunder, he plentifully bespatters those near him. Sometimes too, a guest's heart is so warmed with the good cheer that he waxes affectionate and seizes the first opportunity of giving his neighbor a hug with his greasy hands, or throws him a prime chunk of meat as a polite and gracious attention.