Hospitality: Lessons from Mauritania (II)





The second in a series of lessons learned from my time in Mauritania in the late 1980s and early 1990s (the first one is here), this post represents the lesson that has had the most long-lasting effect on my life.

Has the story reached you of the honored guests of Abraham? Behold, they entered his presence and said: “Peace!” He said: “Peace!” (and thought: “They seem) unusual people.” Then he turned quickly to his household, brought out a roasted fattened calf, and placed it before them. He said: “Will you not eat?” [Surat adh-Dhariyat: 24-27, the Qur’an]

I did not learn this lesson one time, but hundreds of times in big and small ways while traveling the length and breadth of this desert land. I discussed the “why” of it with colleagues late into the night and experienced it in small acts of kindness and protection that were part of daily life.

  • A cup of tea given as the first gesture to revive the dusty traveler.
  • A bowl of zrig (curdled milk) offered in a large calabash even when we were only passing through.
  • Choice bits of meat subtly pushed my way in a shared platter of food. 
  • A mattress sacrificed.
  • A refuge from the heat under the scant shade of a tree provided.
  • A bucket of water hand lifted from a 40 meter well for a shower.

These were the daily acts repeated over and over. But there were also the narratives that acted as a reminder of the fundamental truth:

If your enemy approaches your tent and merely touches the rope that holds it, you must welcome him.

There was a place to fight your enemy, but an enemy in need of water required a welcome without rancor. You had to meet his needs. 

I experienced hospitality in an isolated village when we arrived at dusk, and the residents spent an hour chasing one of their few remaining chickens, despite our protestations so that we could have dinner.  

I experienced hospitality when I wandered lost in a sandstorm and stumbled across a lone nomadic family’s tent, and they gave us water and made sure we found our way to our destination–more than an hour’s walk.

But I think I came to understand it best during the Islamic holidays–the eids–that brought a moment of respite, and joy, and family homecoming to a tired, hungry, and overworked people.

I never celebrated eid alone, and I never celebrated eid with a wealthy family. Despite that, they are the times when I experienced true religion in the simple act of rest, food, and conversation.

Of course, there was food, and what lacked in variety was made up in quantity and taste. There was always a single simple treat that had cost the host too much, but made everyone know this was special.

All of this is nearly “pro forma” as hospitality goes, but what I really found during these feast days was home. I was not invited to merely take a meal, but to be part of a family. I was not asked to pass the time but to rest. I was not welcomed into a house but into people’s hearts.

It is hard to explain all of this, but imagine a place where you are physically comfortable. Imagine there is food served at a pace that invites savoring every bite. Imagine that you can speak if you like, listen if you prefer, and remain, collectively in silence, if that is what you all decide. Imagine having no obligations but to be in communion with friends. Imagine a peaceful time that you want it to stretch on into tomorrow (and sometimes it does).

And then add in the children, and the jokes, and the remembrances from the road.  

I learned that hospitality is creating a space for a guest, providing them with what they need, at that moment, in that time. Think of the thought and preparation that goes into creating that space. Think of how discerning you must be and how attuned to your visitor’s needs–the focus, not on the spectacle but on the other.  

To create such spaces is an act of worship, a liturgy, a sacred practice that forms us to be people of peace. 

I learned that in Mauritania. May I practice it in my life here. 

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