Did hospitailty kill the host?

By Billie Rankin

-Jacques Derrida

"Let us say yes to who or what turns up, before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification, whether or not it has to do with a foreigner, an immigrant, an invited guest, or an unexpected visitor, whether or not the new arrival is the citizen of another country, a human, animal, or divine creature, a living or dead thing, male or female"

-Kobayashi Issa

“In the cherry blossom's shade there's no such thing as a stranger.”

Within a few minutes of standing on the side of the road a friendly man in his seventies had picked us up. Although the name of our destination was the only word that we were sure we shared in understanding, we still engaged in an excited conversation of misunderstood Arabic and body language stifled by the limited space in the hatchback. He pulled into a tiny mud brick house and gestured us inside. For the next hour we were fed olives, goats cheese, and apricot jam washed down with countless cups of tea as our host performed a joyful exercise of welcoming and introductions. Once he was satisfied that he had done everything in his power to make us feel comfortable, he gestured us back into the car and drove us to our destination, more than forty-five minutes in the opposite direction of where he needed to go.  Throughout this ritual we were in his care. He had taken us in; not as hitchhikers, but as guests. This was part of his identity, it was part of his culture, and he was responsible for stewarding us through this experience. It humbled me to such a degree that I was made acutely aware that I had never shown such hospitality to a stranger.

that was in Syria in 2011…

Back in the latte sipping world, hospitality has been reduced to a commercialised space of smiles and prompt service. Within this context, good hospitality merits a tip that corresponds to the degree of formality and the obscurity of food preparation. All this feels a world away from the origins of hospitality- something performed by a host to accommodate a stranger without the expectation of reciprocity. In his text Of Hospitality Derrida argued that hospitality should be regarded within the same context as the gift, wherein its principle is eroded away if subjected to conditions of exchange. Put bluntly, a gift is not a gift if something is expected in return; hospitality cannot be hospitality if you expect a return on investment. The consumer mentality has, through rendering it to something of monetary value, severely blunted the cultural significance of hospitality as a performative ritual. I think it’s time we had a good look back at hospitality as a culture, as an offering, as something that could be seriously useful whilst globalisation expands beyond its own wildest dreams.

The word hospitality originates from the Latin word hospes meaning guest, visitor, or stranger; referring directly to the relationship between host and guest. From this concept we built the notions of the hospital and hospice, which still stand as neutral, caring, and in many cases diplomatically immune spaces. 

The Greeks saw hospitality as something that was expected of the host in the social and religious concept of xenia, whereby generosity and courtesy should be shown to the guest through material and nonmaterial offerings. As it was believed that Gods walked among common folk, and often in disguise as a guest, it was best if the olive branch was extended to all strangers. Zeus himself was known as the “protector of guests” and within many of the Greek fables, virtue was demonstrated through the offering of hospitality. Judaistic ethics are founded on the hospitality of Abraham valuing the welcoming of strangers as an important quality to the moral fabric of society. This system of welcoming entailed the provision of food, shelter, and entertainment by the host. 

Hinduism still holds the custom of Atithi Devo Bhava, which translates to “the guest is god”. This code of conduct is probably the most structured and carefully articulated system of hospitality, where the host is expected to provide a pleasant (and well scented, mind you) space for guests, with food and specific symbolic offerings and gestures to be presented to the guest. 

Many cultures carry similar principles of hospitality, and although there are varying cultural rituals and forms of treatment of the stranger, all revolve heavily around the non-discriminatory giving and accommodating of another person who is unfamiliar. It can then be suggested that hospitality, in its broadest non-commercial definition, still exists in an ethos of unconditional generosity and acceptance.

As globalisation and neoliberal capitalism continue to spread, they bring with them more avenues for the free circulation of goods, finances, ideas, and services. Paradoxically, the free movement of people is being restricted by overwhelming nationalistic calls for sovereignty; the preservation of cultural, and economic stability. Xenophobia is provoked when the structures that support people and culture are threatened to change by outside populations. It is not the individual that is the cause of this fear, but the structures and categories that we assign them to. Islamophobia is the most prevalent current example: we are not threatened by actual Muslim people, but by the idea of Islamic extremism. We are not threatened by halal, we are threatened by the idea of halal. 

Even as we recognise that people, culture, the environment, and politics are constantly changing and shifting; the logic of “I belong here, you belong there” seems to hold its posture, flaring up as global immigration rises in tandem with the explosion of the global population, provoking some nasty sentiments a la Trump, Hanson, and Brexit.

However, by humanising our prejudices we may lead to see through them, or dissolve them completely, and hospitality may be one way to do it. 

Hospitality offers a neat cultural structure that can relate individuals to one another, beyond the structures that keep them apart, allowing cultural diversity to exist through the development of personal relationships. Genuine hospitality offers a first step towards acculturating acceptance in the hope that if we change our first interaction with people, maybe this will have possible flow on effects towards a larger spectrum of thought. If we are to attempt to shift this mentality then hospitality needs to become a bound cultural value and a sense of duty, something that is entwined in individual and cultural identity. This is not to suggest that hospitality can single-handedly fix structural racism, bigotry, fear, and privilege, but it may be able to offer a foundational period for people to understand the complexity of another person. There is no clear-cut solution to these issues, however bringing them to a more personal level offers a little optimism.

Capitalism has changed the traditional notion of hospitality, replacing it with a hospitality industry in which people are employed to offer their services for capital gain, rather than from the goodness of their hearts. It becomes a question of law versus lore, where the latter offers a culturally binding, and morally righteous path for the individual within a society, and the former presents consequences for non-abiding citizens. In our society, a lot of emphasis is placed on law, and very little on lore. Economic centrality, nationalism, a lack of belief in what is sacred and increasing secularity help the law to trump over lore and lead to a society that does not find as much joy or reward in the simple action of giving.

Hospitality should be seen as a pleasure.The age-old mantra of “helping others helps yourself” is valid, but it reinforces the obsession with self-reward, it does not inspire sincerity in its performance. We are all bodily beings who share fundamental life necessities like food and shelter. At the very least hospitality can be seen as the consideration of another person’s fundamental necessities, which is why food and shelter play such a prominent role in all versions of hospitality. 

The provision of shared materiality offers us the ability to transcend ideological boundaries and be nice to each other for a bit.

note: this article was written through the lens of a white cis-male thus may lack the perspective of someone who has suffered from structural prejudice. It is a generalised exploration of a broad notion of hospitality.