Athens, Greece / Reflections / Themes

The Arabs Downstairs

I think the best part about having the gift of hospitality is getting to choose when you’re hospitable. That’s what it means, right? Isn’t that what it means? It’s on your terms when to exercise it. You get to throw parties and invite people over and make them feel welcome at your convenience and at the end of the day they have to go home and leave you alone with the stained paper plates and plastic cups. And after all they were only there by your invitation anyways so there was plenty of time to psychologically prepare for an interruption into your day, maybe take a little nap or reorganize the bookshelf, and you could definitely vacuum at least the kitchen and front hallway and maybe run a paper towel over the bathroom mirror before they arrived. Because, heaven forbid, they just dropped in unannounced, or worse yet showed up earlier than they told you they would. Or even later, for that matter. And what if you invited them over for dessert and they hadn’t yet had dinner? The nerve, expecting to be fed like that. No, having the gift of hospitality is a far more structured and rigid thing than that. There are rules, after all.

Apparently, nobody told this to the Egyptians living on the first floor of my apartment building.

On Tuesday Ryan and I forgot to grab our keys when we left home for the day, a mistake that did not occur to us until 4:00 in the afternoon when we arrived home from a day working at the refugee center, arms laden with groceries picked up on the return trip, and couldn’t even make it into the building. And so we sat, not sure when our third roommate would return to let us into our sanctuary, boxes of Honey Nut Cheerios and bags of frozen chicken strewn in a dejected pile on the front steps around us. Two hours in, we opened up the cereal and started eating dry fistfuls.

While we sprawled about giving off quite the air of abandonment, the two Middle Eastern looking young men from the first floor sat chatting in their white plastic chairs outside the window of their apartment, rolling cigarettes and downing cup after cup of tea. We had had a brief encounter with them earlier (I heard them speaking Arabic and tried the only phrase I knew, which was probably butchered, but they seemed to understand the feeble attempt and smiled). But we were by no means acquainted.

I’m not sure what gave it away, the haphazard grocery bags in piles around us or when we started to pick unripe fruit off of the tree by the front walk, but whatever the case one of them finally got up and came over to us, motioning for us to follow him inside. As he ushered us into his apartment and onto the sunken couches crammed in the first tiny living room, we tried to brokenly explain what had happened, and how we were just waiting the arrival of our third party to bring us the sanctuary of home. Without a question, he disappeared into the kitchen and returned with two glasses of water. His name was Mohammad, he said, and his friend was Mahmoud. He didn’t ask us if we were hungry. Rather, he simply looked at us and asked if he could cook us dinner, a proposition which we made feeble attempts of resisting, insisting that we would hate to be a burden. These attempts he quickly and insistently ignored. And fifteen minutes later, out of the kitchen came two plates piled with sliced bread, followed by a steaming hot dish of beans for dipping. Then came the cheese and the oil, the fried eggs, the french-fries, the falafel, and another plate of bread. Mahmoud insisted on making us tall cups of sweet Egyptian tea, refilling them every time they ran below half. Two hours later, we were still sitting where Mohammad had first deposited us, our grocery bags cluttering what little floor space there was to be found, and stacks of empty plates being carted back into the kitchen. They had even put on Charlie’s Angels in English for us to watch.

You know, our friends Mohammad and Mahmoud didn’t seem to understand hospitality. Because to them, hospitality was not about the habit of inviting people into their home when prepared to do so, but about the grace with which they were intruded upon when not prepared for company. It was not about welcoming expected friends into their living room for conversation and pleasantries, but rather taking in the unsolicited ones and insisting on serving them a full meal. It was all about serving the needs of people who had yet to ask for service. What a backwards idea.

Last night we were coming home from a co-worker’s house at around midnight. I stuck my head in the first floor window to call “salaam” to the guys because I saw a light on in their kitchen. Two hours later, we were still on their couch, finishing plates of pita bread and cucumber salad with the Bulgarian couple Mohammad had invited over, while Mahmoud was in the kitchen making us iced coffees. When will these Arabs learn?


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