Decoding the majlis: From the lamb, to the mgahwi and everything in between
The majlis is inseparable from Qatari culture. Qatari writer, K.A., talks about the room, the practice and the brotherhood within.
‘Majlis’, derived from the Arabic word “joloos”, refers to the ‘act of sitting’, or in other words, a place where you can sit. Literally, “the place where sitting happens”.
A sitting room, not so much different from a living room.
The majlis is a reflection of the people who occupy it. Simply put, it differs from person to person, from brother to brother.
As for appearance, like any living room, a majlis varies according to income, personal taste, social status and factors of that nature. The majlis of an affleunt person would be quite different from that of an average person, yet would serve the exact same purpose.
I would like to put across two extreme cases. In the middle would lie every possible variation you could imagine.
A typical majlis that belongs to a rich man would be disconnected from the house. The structure would boast of marble floors, complete with fine Italian custom-made chairs and coffee tables, hand-carved doors, painted with the tears of goldfish, and so on and so forth. You get the picture. It’s fancy.
As per current trends, you would see an entrance that leads guests to various sections of the majlis. This would include anything from a “grand” or “big” majlis to a daily majlis, a dining room, a small pantry for the preparation of tea or coffee and the likes (speaking of which, if you haven’t tried ginger milk, please do. If you do, don’t blame me), an office/study room or one for the kids to duck into and play in while the adults are being… adults. Any other amenities under the sun may be added according to personal preference or need – I’ve seen gyms before, I’ve even seen one with a full on recording studio in a back room and a guest bedroom. I ain’t judging you, old man.
A man of lesser means would typically have the “stock standard” edition of a majlis. Just the one room, a modest set of chairs or the traditional seating cushions on the floor, decorated carpets. Real old school stuff. And oh, a TV set has become somewhat of a necessity in a majlis too!
Again, I repeat , all variations fathomable do lie in the middle.
What do you do in a majlis?
The main reason why the majlis came into existence was, from the cultural need to have a room to receive male guests who are unrelated to the family. And there is also the majlis for females and that is usually inside the house.
The prime function of a majlis was to receive guests, friends, neighbours, help-seekers etc. However, it has now evolved to serve other functions such as a forum for people of common interest, propose business ideas, strike deals or even discuss which country would make it into the finals of the FIFA 2014.
How a guest is received depends on who he is: regular if it was a group of my father’s close friends, or grand if we want to wow him.
If you ask me, a majlis is simply who the majlis has. My majlis, for instance, has a small majlis, a big majlis, a small oven in the dining room and an office on the side. It looks different when we are expecting guests for dinner. We all are dressed up sharp, the floors swept, tables cleaned, fresh ground coffee kept ready along with tea (our new thing is green and thyme tea) as well as seasonal beverages.
We meet the guests at the door, sit them down, engage in polite conversation. Being of a younger generation, as per tradition, you only speak when spoken too, but I usually get away with a few well-placed comments. The “mgahwi” (Arabic for the one who pours the tea/coffee into the cup) would swoop in as soon as the guest sits down in the majlis, to greet him with a cup of coffee. How a guest is received depends on who he is: regular if it was a group of my father’s close friends, or grand if we want to wow him. Meanwhile the food would be set up on a table in the dining room. Usually under the supervision of my brother or me.
Food is usually served on a round plate that could seat 10 men around it. On it is yellow rice topped with bits of fried chopped liver, eggs boiled with the lamb and fried, and a sprinkle of raisins, cashews and other condiments. In the middle of the plate would be the lamb – whole, except for the hands, legs, ribs and head which would be flanking the lamb on either side. The placement must be impeccable, for example serving a lamb without the head is an insult. Then, and not without a final glance and a little reluctance, we give father the secret signal that the table is set.
And dinner is served.
During the meal it’s the task of the host to pin point the best bits of the lamb and offer them to all around the table.
The placement goes a little like this. The guest of honour, or the oldest, would be placed at the head of the plate with the lamb facing him (away from the rump, because that is no way to honour anyone is it?), and then the table would fill in. During the meal it’s the task of the host to pin point the best bits of the lamb and offer them to all around the table. In case there are more people than can be seated all at once, the younger ones, and the sons of the host would wait till the first wave is finished and gradually occupy the chairs that remain empty, the host would stay seated until all the guests are fed and done. Round two on the plate is usually more brutal because of the lack of adults. Then the left-over food is distributed among the staff, and bits sent to poor families and workers living near by – nothing goes to waste. After that dessert is served, followed by more coffee and tea, a fine incense “oud” we call it, would be burned and, our heroic “mgahwi” would offer it to all sitting there; to the guest first and then to his right, three times around.
Minor note, traditionally there were no tea boys, so those jobs fell on to the shoulders of the host’s sons, and still to this very day if my grandfather or a very honoured guest arrives, the tea and coffee pouring, the incense rounds, and many other duties, are performed by yours truly.
The majlis comes to life daily, after the sunset prayer, when we bump into some neighbours and sometimes drag one or two with us for a cup of tea. We sit there every night, watch TV with our friends, our fathers’ friends, even the kids have their friends come over. And if you are a regular, you don’t even have to call ahead, just walk in. And talk. About everything and anything.
And if my old man isn’t around, the same majlis takes a different turn. The ash trays come out, There’s pizza on its way, The formality disappears, we are now just a couple of guys hanging out, watching the latest episode of The Game of Thrones.
The majlis is now ours.
The writer can be followed on Twitter: @TheWildQatari