Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Islands of Welcome in a Sea of Sand

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Islands of Welcome in a Sea of Sand

Article excerpt

There are two sides to hospitality. In a general sense, it is part and parcel of the ceremonial and social activities of each people. More specifically, it creates a special relationship between host and guest. Among the Bedouin, who are a byword for hospitality, guests are placed under the protection of their hosts and thereby acquire con-siderable rights in accordance with the desert code of honour. Starting as a simple act of generosity that consists in looking after someone for a short time, hospitality thus becomes an institution that confers almost sacred privileges on the stranger who is welcomed into one's home.

The Bedouin are not of course the only people to accord a special status to guests. The French historian Fustel de Coulanges noted in his La cite antique (1864), a study of the part played by religion in the history of Greece and Rome, that food prepared on an altar and shared among several persons established an indissoluble union between them-the stranger who partook of the meal became a member of the religious community. But the traditional hospitality of the desert Arabs has wider implications, both in theory and in practice. A mere glass of water in which a stranger has simply moistened his lips gives him the same privileges as a sumptuous feast. The reason is that the difficulty of surviving in the parched lands where the Bedouin live has created a sense of solidarity and replaced anarchy with a number of beneficent institutions, one of which is hospitality. Through the gift of food a stranger to the region can travel in the desert as freely as the indigenous population.

The first rule of Arab hospitality is that it is offered free, even if it is provided for several days. The host would feel offended if he were offered anything in return. But this is not the most important feature of Arab hospitality. A set of rules governs the behaviour of both host and guest. The desert poets are unstinting in their praise of those who lavish attention on their visitors and make sure that they lack nothing. But what they admire above all is not so much the abundance or daintiness of the feast offered to the guest, although these are fully appreciated, as the way in which the guest is received. Excellent hospitality must have a tangible and visible form. Its first sign is a good campfire, which the master of the tent keeps going all night so that travellers seeking shelter will know that a welcome awaits them. The fire must blaze so that it can be seen from afar. A generous host makes a second fire on a hilltop which lights up the desert like a lighthouse in an ocean of sand.

Harsh words are reserved for those who, through avarice, let their fire go out, deliberately extinguish it or prevent it from being seen so as to discourage visitors. If the servant responsible for keeping the fire alight falls asleep and lets it go out, the watchdog must take over and bark so that travellers know where to find the tent. Poets commend the qualities of such dogs whose barking attracts visitors. Yet sometimes even the silence of dogs can be favourably interpreted as evidence of the extreme hospitality of masters who receive guests so often that their dogs no longer bark, "indifferent to the approaching shadow" as one desert poet has put it.

But of course it falls primarily to the master of the tent to prove himself a worthy host. As soon as a visitor is announced, he rushes forward to invite him before the other members of the group. A smile on his lips, the host proffers greetings and words of welcome. He must not ask the visitor his name nor try to find out the purpose of his journey or how long he intends to stay. The only questions he can ask concern his guest's comfort. He must also make the visitor feel at home and be attentive and thoughtful, anxious to satisfy his every desire. The guest is invited to partake of a meal. The host waits upon him, without touching the food, encouraging his guest to eat, selecting the tastiest morsels for him, unwilling to leave him until such time as he expresses a desire to sleep. …

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