A little while ago I mentioned that I was reading the book “Teta, Mother and Me”. It is a wonderful memoir in which the author explores her life growing up in the Middle East while also looking back at the lives of past generations of women in her family. As I was reading the other day, I found one of the stories that she recounted to be particularly powerful. I couldn’t resist sharing it with you.
This week the world looked back 10 years ago to a day which many people believe proves the theory that the major source of conflict in our post-Cold War world is the “clash of civilizations.” This story is highlights how easily and tragically cultures and civilizations can and do indeed clash. As I read this story I could not help but be amazed at the ways in which we as people can be so the same and yet so different. I find it fascinating how different cultures place value on such different things. As a result of these differing views such huge yet simple misunderstandings arise.
Here is the excerpt:
In Marjeyoun, Youssef Badr [the author’s grandfather, who was a pastor] had a helper, a sort of deacon who had a large family. As time passed, this man found it increasingly difficult to live on the meagre salary paid him by the mission, and one day in desperation requested the pastor to intervene urgently with headquarters on his behalf. Seeing the fairness of the man’s request, Rev. Youssef agreed to do what he could. He wrote a letter to the mission [which was composed of Americans] headquarters in Beirut, explaining his helper’s problem. He received a positive response from the mission: on their next trip to Marjeyoun, they would visit the deacon and discuss his financial needs.
Elated, and overcome with anticipation, the deacon insisted that the visitors should lunch at his house on the forthcoming trip. Admonishing his wife to honour the visitors properly, together they made preparations for the traditional hospitality. To make their poor house fit to receive the great men from Beirut, she sold the gold bracelets and earrings that had been her dowry, and with the money bought the necessary furnishings and food. When the time came, they slaughtered the goat from whose milk they made their cheese and yoghurt, and with the meat made kibbeh and other delicacies. When the great day arrived, they slaughtered the chickens whose eggs had been a mainstay of their diet. The meal was a triumph of Arab generosity and hospitality; they had sacrificed their living to honour their guests.
The Americans, having eaten and drunk plentifully, and having given the matter some consideration, wrote from Beirut that the man seemed comfortable enough and in no need of financial improvement. ‘We should have fed them olives, onions and lentils instead of honouring them as we did,’ cried the man, beating his forehead with his fist when he heard the news. ‘We should have fed them what we ourselves eat instead of treating them as honoured guests.’
The author then adds “I have always remembered this little story as it shows the difference between two world visions, and the boundary between the imperatives of that world in which hospitality defined human relations, and the more practical, but crueller, imperatives of modern economic relationships”. So true.