In the early 70s I attended a small liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon called Lewis and Clark College. A that time, one of the school’s most compelling features was its overseas study program. During my sophomore year in 1973 I participated in the program and was part of a group of 24 students and one professor and his wife who traveled to Iran for a semester of study. We were there to learn about the religion, politics, history, and the culture of the region.
Iran was a revelation to me. Those were pre-revolutionary days, when relations with the United States were relatively friendly. While there, I lived for one month in Teheran with the family of a young Persian man who was a few years younger than me. His name is Jalal. Though many of my trip mates were housed with middle to upper class families, Jalal’s family was clearly working class. I was invited fully into their existence. I slept on a mat on the floor as all of them did, shared food in Baba’s (his father’s) bicycle shop as we all ate from the same large pot, and just kind of tagged along on family events. I can still see a picture in my head of eating melon on their rooftop patio the first evening I was there. I am sure I displaced a few of the family from their usual spots during the month I lived with them. I had conversations as best as I could with his family—brothers, sisters, mother, father and grandmother. They were as kind and welcoming as they could be to me. I am sure they stretched their budget and experience to let me into their lives. I would like nothing better than to return to Iran to visit Jalal and his family again.
After I left and returned to the Untied States, there was one continuing kindness that has made a big imprint on me. Every year since 1974, my “host brother” Jalal has phoned me on or about Christmas to wish me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. These days with tools like WhatsApp and Skype that may not seem like much, but in the 70s and 80s I am sure it cost Jalal a good bit of savings to phone me. I don’t even remember calling my own parents in the U.S. when I was in Iran! Jalal has called me every year since then until this year. In 2019 we had a video conversation, and sad to say, these two boys who met when they were both in their late teens are now old men. But it was good to see each other, to share a bit of our lives, and laugh.
I didn’t hear from Jalal this year during the holidays. I tried to reach out to him with the contact information I had, but got no response. I wonder how he is doing as Iran suffers so much financially. I ponder whether he or his family have been affected by COVID-19, given how hard his nation was hit. I wonder if his retirement and aging is similar to my own experience. Though we were only in each other’s physical presence for a few months of our lives, I will always think fo Jalal as one of the kindest people I have ever met.
Spiritual Practice: Hospitality
There are few places that practice hospitality with more care and vigor than the Middle East. This comes out especially in the food—it’s beauty, its abundance, and the insistent invitation for the guest to “eat!” I have never experienced hospitality as profoundly as I have in the Middle East—in places like Iran, Jordan, Palestine, and Egypt. (And that is coming from someone whose heritage is (in at least in part) Italian!
There is a real depth to Middle Eastern hospitality:
“the nation with the highest ranking of kindness to strangers is Iraq, a war-torn country fighting to end their occupation by ISIS. Indeed, such is the power and longstanding tradition of hospitality in Iraq that in the last month, despite desperate living conditions, eight out of ten Iraqis have helped someone they don’t know.” (from “Why the Art of Hospitality Means the World to the Middle East,” Food 52 Website)
Hospitality is at the heart of Middle Eastern cultures and there are probably many reasons for this. But whatever the reason, people want to make and share food with you if you are a guest. An individual might pick up the entire bill at a restaurant for a huge crowd just to offer kindness. Dishes are often cooked in large quantities with the intent of sharing it with others.
This hospitality pours into other areas of life as well. It is about making another feel welcome. It is about lingering over coffee or tea together. It is about conversation. It is about slowing down and appreciating life and each other. It is about helping the stranger. It is about lifting someone who is broken. We could learn a good deal about life from the people of the Middle East. We would do well to find a way to emulate their practice in our lives.