Cross-Cultural Interaction

What my time in Egypt taught me about hospitality

Over the last few years, I’ve tried to cultivate a lifestyle of hospitality. Whenever I’m tempted to get puffed up with pride at how far I come, I find myself in the home of a Middle Easterner. That always brings me back to earth in a hurry.

Middle Easterners are famous for their hospitality.

In the west it’s common for hosts to not even offer their guests a drink when they first arrive. In the east it’s insulting if they don’t offer biscuits and fresh-made tea, no matter how short your stay is or how little notice you gave them.

A more personal example: I was pleased when I made a simple casserole with a side of vegetables for my Turkish friends. When they had me over at their house a few weeks later, they had 8 or 9 different dishes, all made from scratch. It had taken her the better part of the entire day to prepare the meal. It was extremely humbling, to say the least.

There is no question that true Middle Eastern hospitality is extraordinary.

Westerners could learn much from them on this topic.

My time in Egypt and Jordan, however, showed me that not all hospitality is created equal.
On our travels, we were constantly offered things in the name of “hospitality.” Porters would take our bags to the cab. Vendors would offer us tea from the pot they had brewing on the ground next to them. People would stand watch in the bathrooms, just waiting to hand a paper towel to us after we’d finished washing our hands.

At first, I was delighted. “What a friendly country!” I thought. “I feel so welcomed and loved!”
I quickly learned, however, to be wary of such offers.

None of them were truly offered in an attempt to be hospitable or welcoming.

Every single offer was made with the expectation that we would buy something from them, or at least give them a tip for their trouble. This was not real hospitality. It was just glorified panhandling.

It was so frustrating. I so badly wanted to love this culture and this people, which I knew from previous experience to be so welcoming and generous. Yet over and over again I found myself either furtively avoiding any advances, or accepting them begrudgingly, knowing that there was a price to spending time talking to them.

I never quite learned how to accept this particular quirk of traveling in the Middle East. Being so harshly confronted with this uncomfortable reality, however, helped drive an important lesson home for me.

There are always two kinds of giving, two kinds of loving, two kinds of generosity and hospitality. There is the true kind, the kind in which one selflessly gives without expecting anything in return. And there is the disingenuous version, which gives only in the expectation of receiving something in exchange.

I’ve learned first-hand how uncomfortable it is to be on the receiving end of the second kind.

No one wants to feel like someone cares more about their wallet than their humanity.

As we rapidly move toward 2018, I’m committing to learning how to be better at truly loving, giving, and serving. To give in a way that expects nothing in return. It’ll be a challenge, but I know it’ll be worth it.

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