Previously in the Bifocal column, we discussed the responsibility of members of Libyan society to attend special occasions such as weddings and funerals.
But, what are the traditions that members are obliged to perform while at those occasions; that, if not followed would be considered an inappropriate disregard of custom?
Much of the way Libyan society runs is centered on satisfying societal expectations and maintaining relationships – a clear display of the role that regionalism plays in the country today.
Some of the traditions that are considered unavoidable are those of offerings, as they convey the care for the other person, and symbolise the desire to continue sharing societal ties.
In occasions such as weddings or the celebration of a new child, all the food, and servings of nut-based sweets are displays of hospitality. In return, the acceptance of an invitation and the attendance of a guest solidify the mutual desire for that relationship to continue.
This is important to understand about Libyan culture, as one could unintentionally send the wrong message.
Not showing up to a special occasion can be interpreted as a lack of concern for the host of the party, and may result is the host virtually erasing the no-show guest off her list for future occasions.
A reasonable explanation, of course, would excuse the no-show and would prevent tension from building. (It’s not like you need a doctor’s note, but you could say attendance is almost taken as seriously as school attendance.)
As for the guests who do attend, among the expectations they face include the offering of what is known as rami – a small fortune of money that is given to the host of the party. The amount of the rami differs depending on the guests’ financial capabilities.
For the middle-class Libyan female, the average range amounts to about 5 – 10 LD. For men, or for occasions in the family, the amount increases depending on the person’s generosity.
In short, the normal gift to present in celebratory events is cash. And, interestingly, the money is often offered to the families of the marrying couple, not the couple themselves.
During parties that celebrate the birth of a new child, the rami may be offered at the baby’s grand entrance – when the mother, holding her baby in a white silk outfit, enters the venue and offers a peek to family and friends of her new-born.
While awing over the baby’s cuteness, bills are stashed between wrinkles of white cloth by guests. The mother smiles but pays close attention to what amount was given by whom because the rami is a gift expected to be offered back when the roles reverse, and the guests host their own events.
No doubt, the most fascinating aspect of the custom is when the host of a wedding, often the mother of the bride, performs the exchange.
The mother of the bride – an elder woman wearing a traditionally wrapped striped, silk dress – can be found near the exit of the wedding hall.
While bidding guests farewell and thanking them for attending, the mother of the bride is slipped bills while shaking hands with guests.
The mother resists at first, looking sincerely embarrassed. Her polite refusals are overwhelmed by the guests’ insistence. Meanwhile, their hands remain locked, as they refuse and insist some more.
Under the blare of music that keeps the party alive behind them, the guest and mother of the bride look as if they are playing a small game of tug-a-war.
Finally, the mother submits to the inevitable and thanks the person before moving on to the next exiting guest. The mother never noticeably looks down at her hand, but forming a system of stashing the bills in separate pockets, or looking when no one is paying attention, helps the mother remember which bills were given by whom.
Memories prove quite remarkable in Libya, as hosts often recall how much they were gifted years after the occasion takes place.
The elder women help their younger and growing generations with this tradition, often reminding daughters how much they were given in order for an equal or greater amount to be offered in return.
Tradition can carry on long enough to make it hard to remember how or why it began. But the answers to those questions hold less meaning than what the tradition signifies.
Most Libyans will tell you that with rami, the money is not what matters, but it is the thought that counts.
Every culture has its own version of how to convey feelings for another member of society. I’d say Libya’s version is quite affordable.
Previously published in ‘Tripoli Post’ on 23 June 2012