Qatari Boys American Girl Enjoying the Desert
Middle Eastern Etiquette
Aware that I was about to be living in a culture far different from the one I'd grown up in, I did what I could to learn about the "do's" and "don'ts" of living in a Muslim society before I went. The Qataris are Sunni, and part of the conservative Wahabi sect, as are the Saudis. The great wealth of the Qataris has changed some elements in their lives, but not basic etiquette. High on my list of things to remember was that I should always use my right hand for eating and touching anything that someone else was going to touch. The left hand, I learned, was used for "bodily functions."
Regretably, I messed up right away. First week: a few parents take the new teachers out to a traditional tea house, where we're served traditional Middle Eastern snacks with our tea: hummus, of course, pita, some kind of big beans, other things that I couldn't identify. None of the new teachers had ever lived in a Muslim country, so we were all intent on exhibiting our best behavior and showing that we knew how to behave in a different culture. The dishes were being passed around the table for the third time when I realized I had used my left hand to pass the hummus to the Qatari mother sitting next to me. Quickly, I put both hands in my lap; I suppose I thought I could hide my error by making my hands disappear. Fortunately, she didn't notice my egregious mistake.
The whole right hand, left hand thing seemed a bit odd to me until I gave it further thought. Much of the Arabian peninsula is desert, and thus many citizens of Arabia are descended from desert wanderers. In the past, there was no toilet paper. Worse, there was no water, except for the rare oasis, with which to wash hands. Hence, without the modern sanitation aids we have (toilet paper and water), using the left hand for "bodily functions" and the right hand for contact with food, makes complete sense.