There are a lot of things a mother does in preparation for the arrival of her child. She preps a nursery, installs a baby capsule in her car, and buys a pram and an assortment of onesies. She fills her baby bag with muslin wraps, bibs, dummies and nappies. She packs her hospital bag, double-checks her birthing plan, applies for paid parental leave, and counts down the days with bump selfies labelled by week – 36 weeks, 37 weeks, 38 weeks, almost there, am I there yet?
But if she’s Lebanese, she often has one additional item on her pre-baby checklist: prepping for the display of sweets, candies and chocolates that greet visiting family and friends as they arrive home to ogle the new baby.
I cannot remember a time when we didn’t get something sweet upon our visit to the parents of a newborn. It was something I had known my entire life, so when my Anglo-Australian in-laws and non-Lebanese friends on social media remarked on what a champion I had been in the past for not only welcoming visitors while in the throes of new-baby madness (complete with all the bodily changes I was going through post my c-section birth), but for giving them a treat to say thank you for their visit did I realise that this was a truly Arab thing that not everyone was accustomed to.
I cannot remember a time when we didn’t get something sweet upon our visit to the parents of a newborn.
It’s no secret that Arab communities are among the most hospitable people on the planet. For as long as I can remember, visiting friends were made welcome in my childhood home with an assortment of food stuffs, and my boyfriend in my early 20s always knew when it was time to leave our place because my mum would bring out plastic containers of kafta, hummus and tabouli for him to take home. So naturally it made complete sense that we’d want to offer a token of gratitude to those who came bearing gifts to congratulate us on the birth of a child, and the Helwayni was how we did it.
The word Helwayni comes from the formal Arabic word ‘Halwa’ or sweet (although in colloquial Lebanese Arabic, we just say helou), and can simply be explained as a kind of Bonbonniere. And while it has been a constant part of my upbringing, it has taken on a decidedly modern shift in the Lebanese diaspora over the last few years.
Where we once got pink or blue mlabas (sugared almonds) wrapped in white organza pouches, a single chocolate bar wrapped in pink or blue foil, or a serving of meghli – a Levantine rice pudding spiced with caraway, anise and cinnamon, and garnished with nuts – our increasing affluence (at least, relative to that of our parents and grandparents), and the push to perform this affluence on social media, means that the simplicity of the Helwayni has taken a turn. We’ve gone glam for the gram if you will, and I don’t know how I feel about it.
These days, new mothers are likely to outsource their Helwayni: personalised cookies, stamped with the child’s name; chocolate bark infused with pink or blue accents, nuts and edible flower petals packaged in beautiful boxes with engraved acrylic tags and bows; personalised cigars for the men and bottles of Moscato for the women. The chocolates are personalised too, but now you’ll also find custom lollipops, artfully-packed Oreo domes and macarons, and teeny jars of honey and jellybeans. All atop a (sometimes-hired) fancy table often decked out with additional props, like colour-coordinated books bearing the baby’s name, birth date, weight and height on their spines.
These days, new mothers are likely to outsource their Helwayni: personalised cookies, stamped with the child’s name; chocolate bark infused with pink or blue accents, nuts and edible flower petals packaged in beautiful boxes with engraved acrylic tags and bows; personalised cigars for the men and bottles of Moscato for the women.
There’s nothing wrong with any of the above of course. People are free to interpret traditions in whatever way they wish to, something I’m seeing increasingly as the traditional Lebanese wedding zaffe (once the domain of the tubbel and zamoor – a drum and flute-like instrument) starts incorporating saxophones and violins. But I fear that sticking to said traditions would brand me as stingy, or worse, as indifferent to the child in my care.
What complicates things further is that I haven’t exactly toed the line in the past. Where I have steadfastly held on to some things, there are others, like marrying a white man, or sending my daughter to a mixed school rather than the Lebanese Catholic one that’s not too far from home, that have made me feel like I have rejected some parts of what is seen is acceptable in my community. And I don’t always want to feel like I’m on the outside, looking in.
But I also get people’s desires to experiment. While my mother kindly made my daughter’s Helwayni in 2014, I decided to get a little creative with my son’s three years later. I was all about the puns, and guests got cookies stamped with the words ‘cookie-d lovingly over nine months’, and little clear boxes of starburst chews (‘bursting with appreciation for your visit’) and gummy bears (‘beary grateful you stopped by’). But they weren’t exactly a hit. ‘Why do you think that was the case?’ a Lebanese friend asked me recently. I shrugged. ‘Maybe they didn’t look expensive enough.’
As children and grandchildren of migrants, we’ve transcended the bonds of the past that limited what our parents and grandparents could and could not do.
And this here is my issue. As children and grandchildren of migrants, we’ve transcended the bonds of the past that limited what our parents and grandparents could and could not do. We have so much more at our disposal, and we’re expected to live and spend because of what has been sacrificed to get us here. We’re not supposed to talk of struggle, or buy vintage (even if it’s cool to do so), or upcycle. Many of my friends view such things with disdain, and it certainly complicates things for those of us who are all about consciously consuming.
I have no desire to perform for social media or social expectation. And yet, I have decided to just outsource my next Helwayni for my own peace of mind. Most of these businesses are run by fellow mothers, so at least I’ll feel like I am making a good choice somewhere. And, I suppose, I could always eat my feelings if I am still conflicted when the time comes. Lord knows I will have enough helou to do so.
Sarah Ayoub is a freelance writer.
This article is part of a series on Multicultural Motherhood, exploring diverse experiences of birth and parenting, edited by Saman Shad.
Other articles in the series can be found here: