Archive for Hospitality

Are you hungry?

Posted in 1 with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2009 by desertexile

pita-bread-zatarWhen I was a young child, I had three grandmothers.  Two of them lived in America, and were related to my parents. The third was Jordanian.

Umm Wasfi was a short, stout woman, in her late forties or early fifties. She lived next door to me, in a three-story apartment building.  Wasfi, her oldest son, lived on the bottom floor with his family.  Tenants rented the second floor, and on the third floor Umm Wasfi lived with Abu Wasfi and their other children Wajdi, ‘Esa, and Lillian.

I have very few early memories of Umm Wasfi. Simply the fact that I remember anything at all of her at such a young age testifies to how often I visited her.  I believe I traipsed up to the third floor with my mother and father at least several times a week. And every time, she would make me a zayt w zaatar sandwich.

Zayt is oil, and zaater is a mixture of sesame seeds, thyme, and a few other spices.  When combined on pita bread at Umm Wasfi’s, they were the closest a kid could get to culinary heaven.  Whenever I said I was hungry, Umm Wasfi would rush to the kitchen to make me zayt w zaatar. At any rate, my parents soon caught onto what was happening, and told me not to say I was hungry.  But then Wajdi, the second oldest, would come up to me and whisper in my ear. “Philip… aren’t you hungry?” I would nod my head.  And of course, we would rush to the kitchen for zayt w zaatar. I don’t remember if he got one out of the deal, too.

Time stopped in the kitchen.  Every time Umm Wasfi made me a zayt w zaatar, an age passed. My eyes drank in the golden river of olive oil as it flowed onto the pita and slowly seeped into it.  My hands were outstretched as the sesame seeds and the thyme rained from her hands onto the fertile plain of bread.  Then it was a quick roll and the treasure was in my hand.

Whenever you visit an Arab house for a meal, prepare to be stuffed.  Whether it’s Jordanian mensaf (rice with reconstituted yoghurt balls and meat), shish tawooq (marinated chicken kabob) or Omani shu’a (heavily spiced meat cooked in a pit for a day), you won’t go away empty.  But your hosts will always tell you that you haven’t eaten a thing, and will even put food in your mouth with their own hands.


Let’s eat goat meat.

Posted in Democracy, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Middle Eastern History, Middle Eastern Politics, Oman, Palestine with tags , , , , , , , on June 28, 2009 by desertexile

bedouinBedouin tribesmen, cultural ancestors of all Arabs, have led a simple life since the beginning of time. Life in the desert has to be simple.  Put bluntly, one must find water in order to survive.  Water is more precious than gold, more costly than blood. And the wells, the sources of water, must be protected from outsiders. In an environment where resources are finite and scarce, one could hardly expect hospitality and generosity to be prominent cultural values.  And yet Arabs are one of the most hospitable people on the planet. For a close look at the specific reasons behind Arab hospitality and its manifestations, the Defense Language Institute has put out an excellent guide called Culture of the Arab World.

If rule of law is the primary value of Western society, then hospitality is the law of the Arab world.  Arabs will literally bankrupt themselves for the sake of entertaining guests.  A Westerner gains notability in his community for being an upright, law-abiding citizen.  An Arab becomes well-liked for being hospitable to guests.

I remember, as a child, camping with friends in the desert. Camping in Oman is free – all one must do is go somewhere relatively uninhabited and pitch camp. One of the families I was camping with suffered a flat tire, so we were within eyeshot of a small concrete house.  That evening, a bedouin woman drove into camp on a pickup truck. She brought platters of fruit with her – far more than we could ever eat.  (It would be shameful if she were to bring so little that we could eat it all and she would be left with nothing to give.)  Watermelons, grapes, oranges, apples, bananas, mangos, and the ubiquitous bowl of dates.  She greeted the women, unloaded the fruit from the pickup, spread a mat in the center of our camp, and proceeded to cut the fruit in pieces and put them in our hands.  She came back every night with a bigger spread each time.  We were foreigners in the neighborhood, and it would have been shameful if she hadn’t shown us hospitality. On our third night, we told her that we would be leaving. She immediately insisted that we come to her house the next morning, and she would slaughter a goat for lunch.  We were total strangers just passing through, and yet her family was willing to empty its pockets to entertain us.

When viewed in such a light, the tribal desert culture of the Arab world with its emphasis on hospitality and relationships and its de-emphasis on law is perhaps less repulsive than before.  Both nation-states and tribal societies have their drawbacks. Tribal society can at its worst collapse in fratricide, while the rule of law in the West can at times harbor injustice.  But at their best, both tribal society and Western-style democracy have the potential to foster a vibrant society.