October 22, 2008

The Aesthetics of Hospitality

Since my friend and comrade Dr. Pitts has yet to write his eagerly anticipated treatise on Arab hospitality, allow me to make the first foray.

A lesson last night with an Omani professor in the language center brought to the forefront this topic in a way I have been pondering for some time: the aesthetics of hospitality and how it is 'performed' in different cultures. She said something interesting which I also heard from another, much older teacher of Swahili in Arusha: "the hospitality is embedded in the language." She was explaining why there is no need to say thank you some times; gratefulness is in the tone you adopt as you communicate with another person.

This speaks to several things. First it confirms my belief that tone is inherently a carrier of meaning, regardless of the content. Thus, the way we say something is as important, if not more, then what we say. Secondly, those languages where tone influences meaning have the greatest potential for 'welcoming expressiveness', ie. hospitality. Secondly, it confirms something I have observed from Mississippi to Mombasa: the aesthetic of hospitality.

I choose the word aesthetic deliberately, from the Latin to perceive. Literally this word means 'the sense of what is beautiful'. It is usually used in an artistic sense to convey that the work in question has a certain style.

What I have noticed about (primarily) non-American cultures (although my original experience of this was through Americans of African descent) is the value placed on hospitality not merely as an obligation but as a 'style' if you will, a work of art. I recall going to a dinner party thrown by some high school friends of mine several years ago. I went with a woman from Columbia. The conversation was rather dry and boring, and at several points it stagnated completely. Afterwards she and I discussed the differences between such a gathering in Columbia and here, which she expressed a a certain 'spice' in conversation that was lacking among the diners gathered that evening. That 'spice' is none other than the aesthetic of hospitality.

There is a formalized quality to Omani hospitality, for example, that surpasses the Biblical and Quranic injunctions to 'welcome the stranger'. In fact, it becomes a field of creative endeavor, even of friendly competition to show your generosity and display your ability to host.
This 'aesthetic' encompasses food, conversation, greetings, indeed every aspect of a guest's visit. There are rules of engagement: for example, there is a particular way to serve coffee, another way to drink it, and a certain way to decline having your cup filled. (shaking it back and forth between thumb and forefinger.)

My Swahili host family gave another good example of this practice. They had some friends over for dinner last Friday. After the meal everyone sat around talking in the sitting room. When the guests got up to leave, we all bid our goodbyes, but then my host parents followed their guests out the door, down the driveway, and to their cars, continuing the conversation. I've encountered this idea of accompanying a guest out of your house in East Africa as well. In fact, I first became consciously aware of this as a cultural practice at Howard University, in Dr. Carr's lectures.

I guess what I am trying to say is that hospitality is not only a moral obligation that brings great blessing, but a field for creative conversation, stylistic flourish, and innovation within the formally established rules, just like any other art form. And one of the things I pursue, in seeking alternatives to the 'spiritual poverty' of the West, is to concretely identify practices that are non-normative to mainstream American culture, and seek to understand and embody them in my own practice. Of course, I will put my own spin on it. I doubt I will suddenly begin serving coffee the Omani way. Rather, because I see hospitality as an aesthetic, I will continue to try to innovate ways to be expansive and welcoming, using what I have observed as a foundation.

Your thoughts?


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