When Hospitality Was Not an Industry

How did humans progress past familial ties to the complexity of cities and civilization? Infant mammals require nurture, so the biological root of family cohesion are easy to discern. The circle of family naturally widens to clan and tribe. But the next step is qualitatively different, where diversity accelerates mutual benefits.

How? is a harder question to answer than who, where and when. Civilization was Cradled in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where temperate climate, rich soil, and navigable waterways combined to propel humanity forward.

Shared language, coinage, literacy to track exchanged values — each played its role, as did religious customs and ruthless political leaders. But there’s still an X-factor that allowed or welcomed the limits on freedom that civilization requires.

I traveled to the Middle East to find that missing ingredient. It survives today as it has there for five thousand years. If I tell you its name, you’ll think you know it, but unless you’ve been there, you probably don’t.

Dorothy Day upset many New Yorkers half a century ago when she pointed out that America had changed its shared understanding of charity, but without changing the word. Women don’t name their daughters Charity anymore, because what meant “love” 100 years ago has been reinvented as “pity.”

Most of us consider charity a special-occasion virtue, a candlelight dinner of decency. We reserve it for the rich or saintly, keeping ourselves safely removed from it. Not so with hospitality. Hospitality arrives unannounced. Every time headlights come up our driveway, we instinctually prepare for uninvited guests. We smile and prepare for a moment every time the doorbell rings.

There’s a welcoming muscle in us that is factory-installed. But something has changed.

We practice hospitality in the West most easily with those most similar to us. But the ease and the similarity mean it’s not true hospitality, and it barely resembles its continuing form where it first took root.

Three years ago, under a Red Cross tent in northern Iraq, an extended family spread a five-course meal across their dirt floor to welcome me and a dozen other visitors who would never be able to repay their kindness. From that moment, I’ve been tracking and wondering about our divergent definitions of hospitality.

We practice hospitality using a cost-benefit analysis. My gift to you is considered an investment. Whether I expect my return to be direct or indirect, my self-interest drives the transaction. There’s nothing wrong with cashless capitalism. But it’s not hospitality.

Hospitality extends self for the good of another, without regard for an exchange. Civilization has relied on this instinct for generosity for five millennia. It exists in near its original form across the Middle East.

I went to Egypt to pursue this quandary, introduced to me on that dirt floor in Zharawa, Iraq. If Westerners taste the fruit as it once was and still is, will their instincts tell them what they’ve been missing? So I packed my bags, hoping to bring back some “heritage seeds” — stories of unadulterated hospitality.

I went to cities and villages, with guides and without. I was invited into people’s homes and lives. Some knew my agenda; most did not. Many learned about it because they asked me why I was writing down things they had said. I determined I would experience it first, and describe it second.

Here’s what I found.

The richer the environment, the more diluted the hospitality. Marble staircases lead to polite exchanges of niceties. But when you walk through streetside garbage, duck your head to enter, watch your step up uneven and unlit stairs, then a feast awaits. Original hospitality seems inversely related to wealth.

I asked why they offered such extreme generosity. They smiled but couldn’t answer. They offered their national identity or their religious devotion, but the deeper answer was simply this: they couldn’t imagine themselves differently. It was as if I’d asked why knees can bend but shins cannot.

I watched persons benefiting who never could know they had been protected or provided for. It happened naturally, joyfully. There remains on earth a benevolence that asks for nothing in return. I’ve seen it.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs.