When you walk the streets of Lebanon, people will greet you in a million ways. Some examples are:
Kifik? (How are you? for a girl)
Sabah al khair/nour (Good morning/afternoon)
Bonjour (if you are in the Christian side)
I am sure there is a hidden key to which one is the most appropriate, depending on the person you are talking to, but I personally mostly use MarHaba since it generally applies to everyone, no matter what time of the day it is.
What really intrigued me since I got here was that people will 9 times out of 10 reply "Ahlan" or "Ahlan Wa Sahlan". However, people also say "Ahlan" when you come in a shop, when you ask for something, and when you say "Thank you". So I figured out that "Ahlan" was the equivalent of "You are welcome".
However, like everything in Arabic, I knew there was something more to it than the simple straightforward English "You are welcome". So I asked a Lebanese friend and did a bit of research online and this is what I found:
"Ahlan" literally means "family, kinfolk." "Sahlan" literally means "easy". So 'Sahlan' might refer to something equivalent to "May you tread an easy path (as you enter)."
Another explanation I found read: "The word 'Ahlan' means something like "You arrived among your family", or as we sometimes say "Make yourself at home". It's the same idea : with us you're home, you're in your family. It an expression of hospitality and friendliness.
I know that many times I use words automatically without meaning them. Or even worse, I hear things without really reflecting upon what they mean. Recently, a very wise person told me that the highest thing one can do for another is to welcome that person with respect and love. And when I heard that, it dawned on me that people in Lebanon have been welcoming me as their family every day, in every encounter.
I have written before about Lebanese hospitality which already blows my mind. So this little word "Ahlan" has truly transformed my experience in Lebanon and my experience of the Lebanese. How generous is it to welcome someone they don't know with the respect and love they would offer a family member? And how can they say "You are in your family" to a total stranger?
For a foreigner, who has been taught to mistrust strangers, this is a revolutionary concept. By learning to apply it, I can see how this will improve the quality of my interactions and the overall quality of my life in Lebanon. I will also maybe loosen up a bit and not be so stressed out or focus on the differences between "them" and "me".
What a paradigm shift! I walk among my family in Lebanon... The challenge is "Will I be able to drop the BS and truly welcome them back?" I think it is definitely worth trying.