A Thanksgiving Reflection on Hospitality in the Middle East

A very good friend of mine (David Swanson – click here for his blog) works as a pastor of a church in the Chicago area.  A couple of months ago he asked me to write an article to accompany a sermon series he was doing on hospitality.  The original article can be found on the church’s website (here), but I asked David if I could post it on my blog as well.  In light of the Thanksgiving holiday I thought that hospitality is a timely topic.  After all, during the holiday season we tend to invite people into our homes and practice this special form of love.  Here in Jordan hospitality is practiced everyday in ways that are different than we had experienced in the States.  This article reflects a little of what I have learned about hospitality while living here in the Middle  East.

The Fourth (Forgotten?) Love

I have enjoyed the privilege of living as a guest in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan for the past few years. If you are not familiar with Jordan it is the small, but influential nation to the east of the Jordan river. It is rich in biblical history and I like to think of it as the “Other Holy Land.” The country is small, almost landlocked, and predominately covered in desert. The people are mostly Arab Muslim and many of them have strong cultural ties to their Bedouin roots. Hospitality is one of the chief defining characteristics of Jordanian culture. Jordan is known as the country of “ahlan wa sahlan.” This is Arabic for “welcome,” or more literally “welcome and welcome again in the future.”

You haven’t truly experienced hospitality until you have been received as a guest in a Jordanian shop or home. It is not unusual to be served hot tea or coffee or a cold soda or juice while you are perusing the wares in a small shop in the old city. As a somewhat cynical westerner I first saw these gestures as some sort of marketing ploy – a way to guilt me into buying something. After all if the shopkeeper ran down the street to buy drinks for my family or took the time to prepare tea how could I not buy something in return. However, over time, I have come to realize that guilt and innocence don’t play as large a role in Jordanian society as American. Rather shame and honor are much more powerful societal motivators. It is very important for Jordanians to honor their guests through hospitality and avoid the shame of giving a poor welcome.

When a guest arrives at a Jordanian home, it is considered poor manners to keep them waiting on the doorstep. You keep a stranger outside, but a guest you immediately welcome into your home. Greetings are exchanged and can be quite lengthy. These include wishes for peace and god’s blessings as well as inquiries about health and the extended family. Greetings often include a kiss, once on the right cheek and then several times on the left if you are particularly close or wish to honor the one so greeted. Kisses are almost exclusively given along gender lines as it would be shameful for a man to kiss a woman in public.

Guests are often received in a room separate from the living area in the home and a sink or bathroom is usually nearby for the guests’ use to refresh themselves. Drinks are always immediately served. This is usually juice or soda or tea or perhaps all three over the course of a visit. Water might be served, but never by itself. Glassware is preferred over plastic and in any event the very best table service the household has will be used. The host does not ask if a guest wants something, or even give a choice of beverage. The host honors his guest by offering the best refreshment he can offer and the guest reciprocates by gratefully drinking whatever is given. The host will continue refilling the guest’s cup without asking until a subtle shaking of the cup side-to-side indicates that the guest is satisfied.

A typical visit can last for hours. If a guest makes signs that they are leaving too soon, this will result in strong protests from the host. The host traditionally signals that the visit is drawing to a close by serving one last cup of Arabic coffee. If the guests is insistent on leaving earlier than this, the host will invariably quickly prepare the coffee all the while wondering what is so important that the guest has to leave early.

Never say you have to visit another person for in doing so you dishonor your host by saying that the next person to be visited is more important than your current host. Simply say you have a pre-existing appointment which universally seems to be honored as a reason for leaving early.

These modern conventions are deeply rooted in the Bedouin history of Jordan. The modern nation was only born a half century ago and before that the majority of the people were engaged in a semi-nomadic agrarian way of life. Society was organized along tribal lines and allegiance to family, clan, and tribe were of paramount importance. Today, modern Jordanians still know their tribal lineage and family remains a more important subset of society than the individual. In honor-shame based societies the
actions of individuals brings honor or dishonor upon the larger group to which they belong. Therefore welcoming guests and strangers with genuine hospitality brought honor for the tribe, whereas a meager welcome would bring shame.

There are two Bedouin traditions from times past that still inform Jordanian hospitality today. The first is that of welcoming strangers for three days. The second is the offering of three cups of coffee to the guest.

Bedouins customarily welcomed strangers for three days without asking questions. This meant giving food, water, and shelter for all people and animals that were present. Only after three days was it polite for a host to inquire directly about the guests origins and business. Then the host would decide if he would extend the welcome or send the strangers politely (but perhaps firmly) on their way. This custom arose out of the great equalizing nature of life in the arid regions of the world. The desert humbles all men. It is impossible to survive long without provisions and provisions are only sustained over time by participation in a group. Travelers were always outside of their usual family and tribal support network and as such were often dependant on the hospitality of strangers for their survival. A generous welcome of someone would often ensure reciprocity if needed at a later date.

Once welcomed into the host’s tent the guest would often be served three cups of coffee. These were more than just liquid refreshment, but powerful symbols of the host’s intentions and the guest’s position. The first was the cup of peace, then the cup of friendship, and lastly the cup of protection. If you received all three cups the host had silently pledged that he would protect you as one of his own family members while you were a guest in his tent. Not a commitment made or taken lightly.

Today these customs can be observed in their original form in some of the desert tents of Jordanian Bedouins who live far from the bright lights of the big city. However, their essence, if not practice, still permeates the society in general. I have never witnessed people who are quicker to welcome strangers and provide for their needs. This is true both on the level of individuals and family, but also on the macro-level of society as a whole. Historically Jordan has freely welcomed waves of refugees into their small borders and provided for their needs (Circassians, Armenians, Palestinians, and Iraqis immediately come to mind).

I have been told that the moment the stranger crosses the threshold of the door and enters the house he or she becomes a guest. The words are not grammatically related in Arabic and carry very different meanings. If you have been received into the home and shared food and drink it is impossible for you to remain a stranger in the Jordanian psyche. Your customs and actions may be strange, but you have become an honored and protected guest. Some people I know view this even more broadly, saying that the moment I stepped on Jordanian soil I became a guest deserving of hospitality.

This welcoming of the stranger is also an important Biblical principle. We see it played out repeatedly in the stories of the Old Testaments, where the patriarchs of the three great monotheistic religions crisscross the desert offering and receiving hospitality in their tents not unlike Jordan’s modern Bedouins. In the New Testament, Jesus likens offering hospitality to strangers to offering hospitality to the Lord himself and goes even further in linking the lack of offering hospitality to being disowned on judgment day (Matthew 25:31-46).

This notion of welcoming strangers and offering hospitality is actually closely linked linguistically. Although time has shrouded the origins of the term in English, the Latin roots of the term “hospitality” are linked to the words for “guest” and “host.” The host in Latin was literally, “The Lord of strangers.” If we dig deeper and look at the Greek word used in such New Testament commands to “share with God’s people in need. Practice hospitality.” (Romans 12:13) and “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” (1st Peter 4:9), we find that the term is philaxenia. Think of the more familiar term philadelphia which is commonly translated “brotherly love.” Philaxenia on the other hand could be “strangerly love” or “love for the stranger.” We might be well advised to add this term to its three better known cousins (philadelphia, eros, & agape) in order to round out our understanding of the depth and importance of offering hospitality as an important aspect of love.

This is more than simply asking our brother who is always over if he wants a drink. It’s more than showing our Aunt Maddie who stopped in on her way to Florida where the bathroom is. It’s more than telling friends from church to “make themselves at home.” Think about it for a moment. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Love for the stranger. Hospitality is an act of love; an act of love not for those who are like us, but for those who are unlike us.

Nothing could probably be farther from the modern American cultural psyche. From childhood we are taught to distrust strangers. Another Greek term might better sum up our attitude towards them: xenophobia. We usually keep strangers on the doorstep, talking to them from behind a chained door, if at all. If they cross that threshold no transformation takes place, they simply become strangers inside our house – invading our personal domain. Even with the best of friends and family we schedule visits days, or sometimes weeks in advance. We think that how we welcome a guest only reflects on us personally as individuals. Furthermore, in our modern society no one is really in need of provision and protection when they arrive on our doorstep, are they?

But perhaps we forget that we belong to a larger family … a tribe. A tribe whose head is Jesus, and our actions actually bring honor or shame to His name. Even if no one else sees how we welcome a guest in our home (or perhaps to think more broadly – our neighborhood, our city, our nation), He does and He has made it clear that welcoming the stranger is something that is very important to Him. This means getting over our fear of people who are different from us, those who might even on the face of it seem to be our enemies. I wonder if Jesus so highly values love for strangers because he realizes something vital, that perhaps we miss.

We are all strangers here.

Every last one of us, no matter nationality, race, tribe, or religion is a sojourner in this world. We are all just passing through.

And maybe, just like the occupants of the Bedouin tent deep in the desert, we are all in need of both giving and receiving hospitality when least expected and with no questions. After all, it is not only a matter of survival, but also of great honor.

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5 Responses

  1. The Good Samaritan.
    If we could start regarding each other as travelers and not as despised Samaritans, we would make a great step.

  2. Thank you for a well-written post.

    In old Arabic poetry, the concept of hospitality has long been celebrated as a good trait. A miser, on the other hand, is always criticized for his lack of hospitality and good nature.

    Though these traditions live on within Jordan, they are not what they once where. When someone visited the country with no place to stay, it was very common that people automatically get into a heated competition to host him. What it’s really interesting is that invitations are not meant to be a form of void social communication; they are driven by good intentions and innate hospitality.

    I agree with you on Bedouin’s renowned hospitality. Let’s hope that such virtues will be revived in the entire world.

    • Thanks for the reference to Arabic poetry. I have noticed the same thing about misers in an anthology of short Palestinian fiction as well as a collection of Arab proverbs that I have. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. This is your best post yet, Brian! You have captured the essence of hospitality and presented it in an easy-to-understand way that even Americans can understand it. Before coming here, I too was guilty of scheduling visits with family and close friends well in advance. Living amongst the Arabs has been both humbling and gratifying as they have completely changed pretty much everything in my consciousness. This truly is the Holy Land and it would behoove the rest of the world to get back to hospitable practice and learn to love not only our neighbor, but our fellow man. Thanks for posting this! With your permission, I’d like to share it on my Facebook wall.

    Regards,
    Jim

    • Hey Jim – thanks as always for your kind words of encouragement! It is amazing how culturally bound-up we are and don’t realize it until we step out of our daily (life-long I should probably say) routines. Feel free to share this post as you like – a true blogger rarely complains about free publicity! =)

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