The smell of cardamom takes me back to some of my favorite memories of family gatherings in the holy month of Ramadan: everyone sitting around the iftar table, eagerly awaiting athan el maghrib to taste the luscious dates arranged before them, and to pour fresh coffee for themselves and their loved ones to sip and enjoy.
I grew up in a home that was always full of people, and always open for more guests. My father valued hospitality very much, and he explained to me at a young age that by inviting guests to your home, you show a willingness to share, and, more importantly, a desire to appreciate and befriend others – to love and embrace community. Not only did he highly encourage such generosity, but he also reprimanded his children for any action that showed the slightest form of inhospitality towards our guests.
I was nineteen when my father’s cousins dialed to say they wanted to come over for lunch for a change of scenery. Being the responsible and independent young woman I was at the time (I attended university abroad at the time, and was used to making decisions on my own) I made the only choice that seemed reasonable: I told them that I would call them right back after checking with my parents to see if they were prepared to have guests over for lunch. Oh, were my parents furious when I told them what had happened.
“If anyone ever wants to come over, you say ahlan wa sahlan; albeit beitakom! That’s all you say! You think they’re coming over for food?! Or to see a new place and new faces? They want to come see their family!” My mother went on about how I’d utterly embarrassed them, and how she’d taught me better than this. My father made me call our cousins back and apologize. I had to tell them why my first answer was totally out of place and rude, that I’d been abroad for a while and had thus forgotten how to respond in a cordial manner.
Things are different today. Saudi hospitality no longer revolves around simplicity, or around honoring guests and cultivating friendships. Nowadays, it’s about being the best. Hospitality has transformed into an unhealthy competition amongst the Saudi elite – an aggressive sport of one-upmanship in the form of lavish displays of table settings, exquisitely presented food, and pictures of these exclusive dinners and events plastered all over Instagram as a means of flaunting status. We no longer care about the time a host spends cooking for us anymore, but rather about who is catering.
When considering hospitality and friendship, I often think of the hadith, “Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment either speak good or keep silent. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his neighbor. Let the believer in Allah and the Day of Judgment honor his guest.” Arabic coffee and dates used to be all you needed to welcome a guest to your home, and cooking for guests was a heartfelt bonus. Hospitality was once about spending time together and making conversation. It was about meeting your friends’ children and bonding with new neighbors.
Though the state of Saudi hospitality today saddens me, I try to teach my own children part of what my father taught me. Because times are different now, I can’t teach them exactly what he taught me and expect them to actually apply it in their lives. I strive, however, to teach them to find a balance between what hospitality is truly about, and what they witness going on around them. Most importantly, I want them to learn to be generous with their time, their words, and their emotions. I want them to remember that the point of socialization is not to compete, but to enjoy one another, to help and be there for each other.