Marhabā, which is used as English-speakers use “Hello”, carries within it the the idea that the one greeted is welcome, that there is plenty of room. Arabic words, like words in Hebrew, are formed from roots. Each root leads to a tree of words. The root word r-h-b gives us rahb, which means spacious or roomy but also “unconfined” and “open-minded, broad-minded, frank, liberal.” It is also the root of rahaba, the word for the pubic square. Marhabā is a good greeting for liberals, who at their open-minded, broad-minded best, can find there is plenty of room in the public square.
The Egyptian poet and scholar Farouk Mustafa translated Ahlan wa sahlan as “you are among your people and your keep is easy”. Like Marhabā, the greeting marks a welcome, and a curious one. Ahlan wa sahlan is not said simply to one’s own, to family and friends and fellow citizens. it is said to foreigners, to travellers, to people who are not, in the ordinary sense, one’s own. Like the American “Come in, make yourself at home”, it is said to people who are not at home, who might be turned away. The greeting recognises a difference only to set it aside. Ahlan wa sahlan recognises that there are different peoples, that people belong to different nations, and that they might find themselves in a foreign country, among alien people. This greeting marks the possibility that the other, the alien, the wanderer, and the refugee might be met with a welcome.