The Strange Report (Part 2)

Hospitality is a major part of Arab culture. But it's not the same thing as friendship.

And arab friendship isn't the same thing as western friendship.

For us in the decadent west, friendship is an emotion, which we signal with nods, smiles and smalltalk. For them, it's a complicated set of rituals, varying between tribes and areas. Shaking hands on meeting and parting, kissing the head of older male family members, using certain greeting words, air-kissing if you're close - but not if you're opposite sexes.

Friendship is also an emotion of course, but the emotion and the rituals are inextricably interwoven and blended together, so there's no point where one ends and the other begins.

Hospitality is also ritualised, and the point is it looks superficially like friendship. When someone new enters the room, everyone stands up and are greeted - in a clockwise direction as newcommer sees them. The youngest non-child male member of the family (or an immigrant servant) serves coffee, again clockwise, and they can't sit until invited to do so.

One of my students felt it was important to offer me hospitality, which includes introducing me to his family, especially the nominal patriarch.

We drank heil (strong coffee flavoured with cardamom), ate dates and compared countries we'd visited. It included the usual comments about how the Bangladeshis who come to sweep the streets and serve the fast food are lazy and lack ambition.

But then oh there was much apologising. For the hospitality was defective - they were not being sufficiently welcoming to the vistor. Because they didn't have a sheep handy.

A sheep to cut its throat and let it hang upside down to bleed out completely. And maybe then cooked and a joint served on a bed of yellow rice.

I said they'd been quite welcoming enough and I was grateful for everything they'd done.

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