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The Light of a Middle Eastern Country to the Nations

“Wait, how many times do I have to refuse an offer of something before I can accept it without causing offense?” This question is one of the first you must learn the answer to while living in the Middle Eastern country in which I have spent my last year and a half (precise location undisclosed for security). In answer, my local friend explains that in a culture like this one, one of the ways in which you show honour is by making offerings of relationship through hospitality not just once, but multiple times. So when you are making an offering, you need to be prepared to make it multiple times. Particularly as, in this culture, you are expected to say “no” at least twice to any offer, also in accordance with principles of hospitality; as a potential recipient, you show honour to the one who offers by first refusing in deference to their generosity, rather than immediately securing your right as a guest. This, and many other principles of Middle Eastern hospitality, are instructive to those of us whose framework for hospitality is formed within a western context. 

In moving into this culture as an agnabaya (the Arabic word for foreigner), I came with a concept of Middle Eastern hospitality that was little more than a stereotype. After a year and a half living here, I have been forced to ask new questions about what exactly we mean when we describe a person or a culture as hospitable. And what do people like me, who are members of the majority culture in a western nation with a complex history related to offering hospitality to the foreigner among us, have to learn from our Middle Eastern neighbours about taking what is sometimes an abstract Christian value and making it concrete in our individual and communal lives? 

When my local friends introduce me to someone new, they begin by telling them how much I fit here, how I speak Arabic better than them (a very generous and unambiguously false statement which invariably results in the disappointment of the listener who tests this assertion).

The first thing that I think must be said about hospitality is that it cannot be understood in the abstract. The experience of hospitality is a visceral one. It’s embodied and concrete. It’s incarnational. If you have ever been offered true hospitality or, indeed, its opposite, you know this to be true. There’s something about it that cannot be articulated satisfactorily as a set of theological propositions or some sort of five-step roadmap to success. So what follows is neither of these things, but simply an offering of some of what I have noticed as being uniquely true and enlightening about Middle Eastern hospitality, from the limited perspective of one agnabaya to whom it has been offered: 

First, Middle Eastern hospitality is a good deal more than open doors and lavish meals. Don't understand me incorrectly, these things are very much a part of the deal here. It's quite remarkable (and occasionally intimidating). I once visited the home of a local family where the mother told me, in response to my gentle “thank you” refusal upon receiving the eighth course of a meal which I had absolutely no room left to consume: “What is this thank you? You have not eaten. You eat and then you say thank you.” These open doors and abundant tables are just where hospitality begins, however. What my Middle Eastern friends understand is that until our hearts and minds are as open to our neighbours’ differences as are our doors and tables, those spaces are not the kind of offering we might wish. This family’s willingness to accept what I have to imagine were my 100+ cultural blunders that night as I sat around their table was as much a part of their welcome, their hospitality of posture and attitude, as was their eight course meal. 

Second, Middle Eastern hospitality does not treat outsiders as merely valued guests, as visitors who have been given a place to stay for a time. As an outsider, I have been offered belonging and "one of us" status. When my local friends introduce me to someone new, they begin by telling them how much I fit here, how I speak Arabic better than them (a very generous and unambiguously false statement which invariably results in the disappointment of the listener who tests this assertion), and how they will never let me leave (nothing like the hospitality of kidnapping!). They don't say this because I have become more like them (as soon as we require this, we have ceased to offer hospitality) but simply because I am myself, and they make it clear that this is the gift which I have to offer. 

A third element of Middle Eastern hospitality which I think western cultures must pay particular attention to is this: When you are not useful, you are still welcome. I came in not knowing this culture or more than a handful of Arabic words. I am not contributing to the economy. I'm not meeting any of the kind of "model minority" expectations we often hold up as an unspoken bar to be reached in a western context. The way we often justify the presence of foreigners (if we aren't arguing about whether we should even welcome them in the first place, God help us) where I come from is by talking about how useful they are to us and our country. It's part of what I've termed a sort of "immigration apologetics" that I am less and less convinced aligns with a Christian framework for hospitality. I am really not necessary to anything happening here. But I am welcome; more than that, I am treasured. 

Finally, in the west, we require that foreigners establish their trustworthiness, and then we offer hospitality as a sort of reward. This is often as true in the church as it is in the political sphere. Here in the Middle East, foreigners are offered hospitality first, with all the risk that introduces into the life of the host, and if you break that trust, the consequences of that are then naturally borne by that same host. And this isn't viewed as noble self-giving, it's just the way things are; it’s what is just and right and honourable. 

This piece is not intended to be an exercise in wagging an accusatory finger at the west. It is simply what is true of our Middle Eastern neighbours, and it is an opportunity for those of us who are from the west to bear witness to the image of God that is manifested here. If cultural diversity is a sort of prism reflecting the light of Christ from each of its faces, radical hospitality is the particular glow in which I bask each day here in the Middle East.

It is this, perhaps more than anything else, which is the prayer that I have for myself as I return to the west: I have encountered the living God in this place, among his people here. Now, I desire to return to my people, like Moses when he encountered the living God on the mountain, with a face that glows with the light which I have received. But it is not a prayer just for myself; it is a prayer for all God’s people. One of the ways in which we may choose to actively participate in the life of the global church, in an increasingly globalized world which offers us unique opportunities to do so, is to find ways to bask in the glow of hospitality we are offered by the foreigner, even when it is offered from within our own contexts and communities. It is my experience that, in standing in the light of the living God as it is uniquely mediated to us by his people in another place, we become compelled to move outwards from this light, our own faces glowing with the joy of what we have received, ready and eager to shine it into the lives of whoever this same God will cause us to encounter next.

This author's name is withheld for security reasons.  Photo by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash

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